William F. Winter former governor of Mississippi recently reminded the Seminar for Southern Legislators that 1970 was a watershed year. “[A] remarkable group of so-called New South governors had been elected across the South. Running on platforms promoting racial equity, educational quality and economic development, they brought a new tone to the political arena which had been dominated for so long by the one issue of race. Their names would soon be known across the nation — names like Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Reubin Askew of Florida, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, John West of South Carolina, and Linwood Holton of Virginia.”
But Tim Tyson, who was only 10 years old at the time and living not far from Chapel Hill in Oxford NC, saw a different world. The murder of black veteran Henry Marrow sparked riots and burnings and marches, showing that racial equality was far from a done deal.
Haunted by the murder story and having become in the meantime a historian (after a stint at Crook’s Corner), Tyson visited and revisited his former home town of Oxford, putting together a history of the events in the still divided town. A history that some had actively tried to erase and rewrite.
The murder is not mystery, but many mysteries surround the murder. Blood Done Sign My Name is compelling, personal, local, particular, broad and always interesting. The book also calls on us to continue to confront our shared racial problems.
The contenders for the UNC Summer Reading Program are good books as well. Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, will be the Carrboro community read. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has won several important literary awards since it was first published. But neither of those books can compare with the power and the insistence of the history of Oxford and of Henry Marrow as told by Tyson.
I’m hoping that the Summer Reading Program will inspire future historians, some UNC students who are incoming this fall, to visit the rich resources of the Southern Oral History Collection. There they will find oral histories recorded by Eddie McCoy of Oxford who gives us more background of Oxford, the murder and the lives there before and after.
Sally Greene and I have blogged about Blood Done Sign My Name over the past year and have had the privilege of chatting with Tim Tyson, who is a Fellow at the National Humanities Center this year.