I don’t know whether or not Eddie McCoy would agree with me, but I suspect that the African American oral history project that has become his life’s passion began on a beautiful spring day, the 11th of May, 1971, to be exact, when a black army veteran named Henry Marrow was shot dead for talking sweet to a white woman.
This essay was originally a lecture at a community symposium sponsored jointly by the School of Education and the School of Library and Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University. The symposium took place in Oxford, N.C. on April 3, 1997. The essay was later published in Carolina Comments, the N.C. Division of Archives & History’s quarterly newsletter, in July 1998.
We don’t talk about these racial matters much back home, and I don’t imagine you discuss them much here in Granville County. But as history enthusiasts, amateur or professional, we here tonight all recognize that one often has to look boldly into the darkest closets in order to understand the past or its hold on the present, no matter what skeletons lay waiting for us.
Being an honest historian of one’s own home requires a great deal of courage and honesty if you’re not going to be intimidated by those dark places.
At any rate, that lovely spring day in Oxford when Henry Marrow was shot—and nobody was convicted of the shooting—bears remembering because that was the day that African Americans in Granville County decided that enough was enough.
[An update: all this I learned from my friend Tim Tyson, who lived through that period in Oxford’s history. Tim’s heartbreakingly beautiful memoir Blood Done Sign My Name, based on these events, became a bestseller in 2004 and of course is now considered one of the classics of Southern literature.)
Eddie McCoy had been part of the civil rights movement in Oxford as far back as a drugstore sit-in in 1960, but Marrow’s death sparked civil rights protests more far reaching than anything ever seen in Granville County. His murder made all the indignities and oppressions that had outlasted the civil rights gains of the 1960s simply too much to bear.
In those days after Marrow’s death, Oxford seemed like a battleground. Boycotts, marches, pickets and other nonviolent civil rights protests swept across Granville County. Blacks and whites wrestled nightly in hand-to-hand combat in Oxford’s streets, and a wave of fire bombings sent many local businesses, including a lumber company and several tobacco warehouses, up in flames.
No one played a more central role in that explosive struggle for black freedom in Granville County than did Eddie McCoy.
A decade later, after launching a successful career as a small businessman and becoming a pioneering political leader, Eddie began to record the memories of the county’s oldest African American citizens.
A 110-year-old gentleman in Kinton Fork
Why he awakened that morning in 1981 and called up Mathew Harris, a 110-year-old gentleman in Kinton Fork, a little community just outside of Oxford, and asked to interview him I cannot say. Certainly Eddie is not the first person I would have guessed would do so. At that time, he had no formal training as a historian. He had attended college for only a brief time, but, as he will be the first to tell you, he had “street smarts.”
He learned the ways of the world in his father’s pool hall, in the Jim Crow streets of Oxford, in the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg and at the Soul Kitchen, the Oxford cafe owned by the family of the Rev. Benjamin Chavis that was a popular meeting place for civil rights activists.
Eddie did not learn his history from books. He learned it by living it.
Between then and now, Eddie has singlehandedly created one of the most important oral history collections on African American life in the American South. He has conducted more than 100 interviews with older black citizens of Granville County from all walks of life.
The tobacco fields of Antioch, the cotton plantations of Oak Hill, the church services at Black Cat, and the hustle and bustle of black neighborhoods like Grab-All here in Oxford all come to life in his interviews.
There we find what daily life was really like in the black orphanage at Oxford, at a Mary Potter School that was alive with black children’s gaiety and pride, and at lumber camps and cotton fields so low-down mean that they could barely be distinguished from slavery.
What sets apart Eddie’s interviews is not always whom he talked to, but who Eddie is, what side of town he comes from, and what he did in the civil rights movement.
I first met Eddie only a year ago. We have a mutual friend, Tim Tyson, a historian in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. [Another update: Tim is of course back at Duke now.] Tim lived in Oxford during the heyday of the civil rights movement, when his daddy, the Rev. Vernon Tyson, was minister at the Oxford United Methodist Church.
(By the way, I owe everything I know about Oxford’s civil rights history to Tim’s master’s thesis, “Burning for Freedom: Oxford, N.C., and the Black Struggle for Freedom,” which he wrote at Duke in 1990.)
Tim and Eddie had both believed that Eddie’s research might benefit from a closer relationship with professional historians and curators. They also believed that Eddie’s oral history tapes should be housed in an archival collection in which they could be properly preserved and made available to the public.
As a favor to Tim, I visited Oxford last summer and reviewed Eddie’s oral history collection. Eddie was later kind enough to come and speak to a seminar that I taught at Duke.
I sometimes feel as if I have listened to more oral history tapes than anybody in creation. I regularly make use of the state’s largest collection, that of the Southern Oral History Program at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill (where many of my interviews are housed).
But I also rely on oral history collections throughout North Carolina. Just in the last year for example, I have used collections at the New Bern Public Library, the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham and the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo. I also used the oral history tapes from Duke University’s “Behind the Veil” project, which comprises approximately 1,400 interviews on African American life throughout the Jim Crow South (and which will be opened to the general public in 1998 or 1999).
The Damned, Despised and Dejected
But I have never listened to interviews like Eddie McCoy’s. I do not intend at all to diminish the tremendous accomplishments of those other oral history projects—they are all invaluable in different ways—but I recognized at once that Eddie had achieved something unique and tremendously important. Listening to Eddie’s interviews brought to light a view of the African American past that the other projects rarely provided. At times I felt as if I was hearing about a world entirely different from the one described in other oral history projects on African American life.
I cannot possibly begin to describe substantively all the ways in which his oral history collection challenges the prevailing ideas of the Jim Crow era. Suffice it to say that they expose racial oppression beyond anything I have ever heard put in words, and they likewise reveal both quiet triumphs and militant resistance that defy everything customarily taught about the period.
They express the ordinary person’s history: the silent masses of housekeepers and janitors, the nannies and the teachers, the sharecroppers and the field hands, the barbers and mechanics and railroad men.
They are the people whom Eddie’s friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, once called “the damned, despised, and dejected” of the earth.
They are people with mamas and papas or even older siblings who had been slaves. They had grown up in a world that still called a big farm “the plantation,” the company store “the commissary” and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s “pattyrollers.”
They sacrificed all to build schools and churches that nurtured black achievement and community. They survived a world raw with violence in which a black man or woman’s life meant almost nothing to the law. It was a world in which family, culture and the common struggle to make a living off the land had rendered blacks and whites self-evidently—in Eddie’s interviews, at least—one people at the same time that Jim Crow laws compelled them to deny that unity.
Grassroots Oral History
Oral history can be profoundly democratic. It can be done well—and, in fact, often better—by the local man or woman dedicated to the craft and ready to think seriously about the past and to engage it honestly. Certainly Eddie’s research bears that out. Especially early on, he broke every rule in the oral historian’s handbook—but his individuality was also a strength.
He shaped his questions from what he heard from the grassroots, instead of what he had read in history books. He was not going to succumb to the latest scholarly fad or intellectual trend. He developed his own style of asking questions, of punctuating his interviews with his own local knowledge, and of encouraging those whom he interviewed to deepen a story in an almost call-and-response style that reminds me of a Baptist congregation encouraging its minister to elevate a sermon to more profound heights.
That’s not exactly what I teach in my oral history courses—but I cannot fuss with good results.
What distinguishes Eddie’s interviews from mine and most of my colleagues’ are exactly the qualities that a local individual can bring to the craft of oral history and most professional historians cannot. When you listen to Eddie’s interviews, you can tell he has spent a lifetime in Granville County. He is interviewing his neighbors. He is speaking to them as a neighbor, a brother, an African American, a man who came from the streets, a freedom fighter.
Those whom he interviews speak to him as if he were one of their own children. He has earned their respect by what he did in the civil rights movement. They probably know a thing or two about this sins, too.
Eddie knows every family’s roots, something about where they come from, and who their people are.
He is patient. He knows that he has time to visit and get to know somebody before he turns on the tape recorder. He does not have to worry about the grant funds running out or book deadlines.
He knows too that he has time to do more than one interview, to wait till the right moment to catch someone in a reflective state of mind. He waits years when necessary.
He knows that there are stories as painful to touch as an open wound, and he respects that. But he also knows that, handled tenderly, the evocation of even the hardest moments of our past can be cathartic and liberating. Listening to his interviews, I can tell that Eddie realizes that one cannot truly be free until one has stared one’s history in the face without flinching and come to grips with it—something few of us have done with our racial past.
And we all know that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about the past is trapped in it. That is why I cannot separate Eddie’s activism in the wake of Henry Marrow’s murder in 1971 from his mission to collect the oral history of African Americans in Granville County (even though I have never heard him connect the two): they are both ultimately part of life and death struggles for freedom.
For those of you who want to develop your own oral history projects, my advice is do not get obsessed at first with the how-tos or a lot of rules. Following somebody else’s idea of historian research is not the way to liberate the past or to seek one’s own freedom. In my experience, the best thing to do is simply to plunge in: to reach out to your family and neighbors, old and new, and begin to talk with them.
Work out your own way of doing things. Break the rules. (But always be respectful.) Dare to be unconventional. Take risks in whom you talk to and what you talk about.
We are desperately in need of building bridges between the young and old, among black and white and Latino, between rich and poor, our oldest families and our newest. It can only be a good thing to start talking.
In this society that seems obsessed with tearing us apart as a people, this alone is a courageous and worthwhile act. And in doing it you will discover, as Eddie clearly has, a vast stream of previously unheard voices. I could practically hear their soft cadences drifting in the air as I drove by your old farmsteads and neighborhoods on my way here tonight. They are our shared legacy, our inheritance, our teachers if we will let them be. I think they yearn to be to be heard, and we all need to hear them.
Thanks to Tim Tyson and to scholars and archivists at North Carolina Central University and UNC-Chapel Hill, Eddie McCoy’s oral history interviews can now be found at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.