Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Things they didn't teach you in American History

The Marrow of Tradition (Penguin Classics)The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I consider myself fortunate to have gone to segregated schools in the Jim Crow South of the 1950's, thanks to teachers who taught us many of the things that were missing from the approved text books. The text books in the Virginia schools would have us believe that "slaves were happy and they sang a lot." And for 200 years of American History, we were missing.

When my late husband and I returned to the South in 1975 and settled in Raleigh, NC, many cities were just catching up to enforcing the Supreme Court decision that outlawed "Separate but Equal" in the public schools. Wilmington, NC had experienced what was being called a riot by 10 activists known as the Wilmington Ten. They were convicted of arson and conspiracy in 1971, and remained in jail until the case was overturned in 1980.

My husband grew up in North Carolina and had learned about Wilmington Riot of 1898 when he attended segregated schools in his home town of Fayetteville, NC. We didn't know whether it was irony or intention that placed Wilmington in the center of racial tension again.

While living in Raleigh, I gradually learned how the Raleigh News & Observer through its publisher Josephus Daniels played a role in the Riot of 1898. His white supremacist editorials fanned the flames of racist sentiment in Wilmington, leading to the overthrow of the elected city government in a city that was in 1898, two-thirds black.

On May 17, 1995, The News & Observer Publishing Company was sold , ending 101 years of Daniels family ownership. Orage Quarles, III a black man is now the President and Publisher of the Raleigh News & Observer. Finally, in 2010, under Quarles leadership, the full story of the riot led by white supremacists to end "Negro domination" in Wilmington was published here.

That's a rather long lead in to a book review. The Marrow of Tradition is Charles W. Chesnutt's account of the events that led to the massacre of the black population, the burning of the only black newspaper, and black hospital in the fictional town of Wellington, NC.

Chesnutt was born in 1858 in Cleveland Ohio to mixed-race parents who returned to their hometown of Fayetteville, NC after the Civil War. Chesnutt returned to the North in 1878 to escape the poverty and prejudice of the south.

The Marrow of Tradition captures the spirit of those times, the dialect of the uneducated, the day-to-day struggles of black people trying to make a life of their own, the hatred of the white "aristocracy," and the plotting and planning of would-be politicians to gain a toehold in the political arena.

A sad tale that is well told.

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