Recently I had the opportunity to collaborate on writing the words for a historical marker honoring the site of an African-American high school my great-grandfather William James helped to start and lead in Statesboro, Georgia in the early 1900s. Some thoughts and reflections on that experience.
As an English major in college, I was required to take a sequence of classes in either British History or American History, the curriculum designer’s thinking being, I suppose, that in order to study historical literature we students needed a bit of context about the times of its creators. It seemed reasonable enough, but Northwestern already had a set of general distribution requirements I had to plow through so I put off the English-majors-must-take-history requirement until late in the game. I opted for the American history sequence, having had my fill of the worlds of Shakespeare, Jane Austen and George Elliot by that point and probably also thinking my high school background in U.S. history would steer me to a decent grade. The classes divided U.S. history in half, the mid-point being the Civil War era. The professor for part one followed the typical chronological approach to teaching history: big thick textbook, chapters with long narratives, ordered as a timeline highlighting notable leaders, politicians and others; the things they did and the causes and supposed effects of social movements and events they were a part of. It was a litany of conflict, war, legislation, natural disasters, technical and agricultural innovations; history as the chronicling of (the white) man’s pursuit of his needs and wants, mixed with his insecurities and disappointments. There were lots of facts to absorb: names of people, places, events, and victorious “social” movements. Too much to memorize to get to the good stuff, the adventure of the storytelling where history comes alive in the way it did when I was a child and would listen to older relatives tell stories of the olden days. (An aside; My Uncle Edd– who was actually my mother’s cousin– was the master of telling old stories: Slowly paced, descriptive parentheticals punctuated with explanatory commentary and subtle punchlines. When writing stories set in the 30s, 40s, or 50s, I sometimes hear his voice as the narrator in my head.)
The professor who taught part two took a different approach. We had a textbook, a slim one, but there was no required reading of it. Instead, his reading list was 7 or 8 novels– fiction, yes, in a history class. His lecture topics and syllabus were organized thematically– migration, crime, social change, the labor movement, war and wartimes–and each novel aligned with one of the themes. He convinced a skeptical class that this was a sound approach for studying history as the storytelling of the novelists provided an emotional human veneer to the dates and events chronicled in the textbook. Real people live through history, and the many, many lives that exist during a time period have layers and layers of life stories, influences, setbacks, joys, and hardships shaped and influenced by those notable dates, events, political and social movements. The stories we read were gritty and sometimes bloody tales, revealing the underbelly of heroic history lived by “regular” people. As I have attempted to tell stories in writing fiction, I’ve carried that history class with me, if not necessarily any affinity for the particular authors we read (Cather, Driser, Chester Himes, Joseph Wambaugh, etc.)
Fast forward to the subject at hand– I was tasked to contribute and collaborate on a historical marker noting the site of the Statesboro (Ga.) High and Industrial School, which my maternal grandfather William James had a role in getting off the ground in the early 1900s. With community support and philanthropic help, he built the school into a full-fledged high school for African-American students in South Georgia and was head of the school for nearly 30 years.
The task started by supplementing the existing documentation we had on my great-grandfather and his school– newspaper write-ups, reunion booklets, and a handful of historical documents. Thanks to Google and a robust Digital Commons site at Georgia Southern University which houses freely accessible local Statesboro newspaper archives, we were able to find and log a healthy number of news articles and mentions in books about my great-grandfather or the school. The timelines and narrative that arose was one of honor, accomplishment, and respectability; a dutiful “credit” to his race; the city’s own version of Booker T. Washington, who, likely in the minds of the white city fathers, knew his place, provided steady leadership to contain the rowdiness of his people and was okay with the status quo of the times. My collaborators, including members of the local historical society which funded the erection of the marker, and an aunt and matriarch of the family who spearheaded our family’s involvement, glommed onto the celebratory aspects of the narrative: The purchase of land. The financing and building of buildings. The school’s aspirational academic curriculum (Greek, Latin, Algebra). Northern white philanthropic largess. Interracial Southern cooperation. The prominence of its funders. Celebrated visitors brought to the school. My great-grandfather’s civic leadership and the school’s contributions to the cultural life of the town. All occurring against some generic obstacles of orphan origin.
After 8 or 9 drafts, most of the notable narrative markers logged made it into the final version of the text, with some attempted context of the times. I kept wondering though, were we, officially sanctioned documenters of an under-told snippet of history, not digging into those neglected “regular people” stories, that merited further investigation. Building a school in that era with limited state funding and no local sponsorship, was surely an act of resistance that required faith and hope no doubt. But also, I imagined, it was an act that faced forceful, consistent, and potentially life-threatening opposition. White supremacy and its institutional tentacles have fought the education of Africans in America since their (our) landing on these shores. As with Booker T. and every other American who fought for access to education, I am sure my great-grandfather had sleepless nights, uncertainties about his strategies, struggles within the Black community and perhaps with himself, when ideals and visions had to be compromised for appeasement, and perhaps mere survival. Little of William James’ personal effects seemed to have survived, as his home burned down after his death. So we don’t have any journals of his that may have existed. Included though among the documents we have are letters he had written to one of his benefactors, Emily Howland, a Quaker philanthropist. (My short story collection “Strivers” includes a story called “The Benefactress” inspired somewhat by this correspondence). My aunt discovered the letters in papers at Harvard and Cornell several decades ago. Copies had been shared and circulated within our family. The letters are doting, politic, friendly, and somewhat business-like. You get the sense that my great-grandfather had a genuine affinity for this woman’s work and interest in Black schools, yet knew he had to write with some humility and restraint. I have parsed the words in those letters many times, searching for subtext, and ultimately some glimpse of the humanity and soul of my great-grandfather. Ultimately, this is what I think we’re trying to understand when we attempt to write historical fiction, as I am doing now with my current novel-in-progress. Those antagonistic odds and obstacles faced need to be named, called out, and explored too.
The final version of the marker text was satisfactory to me. As with all writing projects that have a deadline, wanting the writing to be great yields to being good enough. At some point in the process too, I put on my old marketing copywriter’s hat. I envisioned what words and proper nouns might stop the casual passerby, which ones might introduce something new to a local kid forced to visit the marker site on a school trip, what might prompt a future skilled historian to dig deeper into the context that limited space and the limited time to gather information did not allow for, my write definitive narrative bringing in context, new sources, and the benefits of some objective reflection.
At one of the events honoring the unveiling of the marker, one of the collaborators who pushed for more inclusion of the contextual historical story, commented that in the end, every generation should be able to tell their history the way they want to and to celebrate the things they think warrant celebrating. What the storytellers want to tell is actually part of the story being told. That underbelly of some solemn truth, that I will attempt to continue to explore in fiction.