The project I’m working on while I’m on a writing residency at Hambidge in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a new novel (still a gleam in my eye) based on a lynching incident in my hometown of Greenville, S.C. in 1947. A twenty-four year old black man, Willie Earle, was arrested for the robbery and stabbing death of a white taxi cab driver, Thomas Watson Brown, taken from the Pickens County jail near Greenville by a mob of thirty or more white taxi cab drivers, driven to the woods nearby, and beaten, stabbed and shot twice with a shot gun. Forty-four year old Strom Thurman had only been in office as Governor of South Carolina for a month, and out of character in terms of his later reputation, immediately issued a statement saying “I do not favor lynching and I shall exert every resource at my command to apprehend all persons who may be involved in such a flagrant violation of the law.” He called in the FBI, who in conjunction with local and state law officials arrested thirty-one men and got statements from twenty-six of them confessing participation in the lynching. In May of that year, the largest lynching trial the South had ever known got underway in the Greenville Courthouse. National and international press such as Time and Life covered the trial, and The New Yorker sent the British writer Dame Rebecca West (just back from covering the Nuremberg trials) who wrote an amazing novella length piece about the trial that appeared in the June 14th 1947 issue (available free on-line). The defendants were acquitted by an all white jury in about five hours.
Growing up in Greenville, I had never heard of this lynching. I learned about it when, doing research in the 90s in the Greenville library, I accidently came upon West’s brilliant piece, “Opera in Greenville.” We tend to think of Tom Wolff and Truman Capote as originating “new journalism” a couple of decades later, but West’s piece is certainly that: a nuanced, complex, bristling, brimming, subjective piece of reporting that not only captures the facts and trial in unforgettable detail, but also directs our understanding, perspective, morals and values . West refers to Greenville as being rhetorical, but proves she can kick a rhetorical ball a good ways down the field herself; here is her description of Roosevelt Carlos Hurd, the taxi dispatcher whom nine taxi drivers identified as firing the fatal shots:
“…a man of forty-five with hair that stood up like a badger’s coat, eyes set close together and staring out under glum brows through strong glasses, and a mouth that was unremitting in its compression. He looked like an itinerant preacher devoted to the worship of a tetchy and uncooperative God.”
And here’s her description of the judge, J. Robert Martin, Jr.:
“He is so good that though he is local he expands the local meaning, and recalls that the great Southerners are great men to the world. He has humor but hates a clown…His love of handsomeness and fine manners extends to the intellectual world. His charge to the jury was both powerful and beautifully shaped. Throughout the trial he stood on the skyline, proclaiming his hostility to lawlessness and his determination to keep his court uncontaminated, with a solid and unremitting positiveness that must have made him a personal enemy of every reactionary in the state.”
“Opera in Greenville” is a magnificent piece of writing, portraying characters who plumb the depths of human depravity and those who scale the heights of human honor and justice, with just about everything in between.
I understand West was shown around town by my old writing teacher at UNC, Max Steele, who, when I first arrived at Chapel Hill wanting to be a writer, encouraged me not only by his gentle attention and instruction, but by the fact that he was from Greenville, a real, living writer from Greenville! He said he knew the exact number of pieces of paper a story would take when he began typing it (we all typed back then), and I was too young and stupid to ask how he knew. Was it because he had already written the story in his head? Or maybe he was just pulling my leg. We’ll never know.
I’d never forgotten about the lynching or West’s piece, and now, having finished another novel, what I want to do next is write a novel around these events. I am trying to create four completely fictional characters, black and white, who are impacted emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually by the lynching and trial. I’m trying to get to know them while I’m at Hambidge, writing their stories, histories, lives, events, emotions, trajectories…tanking up, as it were, so I will have enough gas (I hope) to get wherever it is I want to go. I don’t know if I can actually write this novel, but I’ll give it a try.
I have been helped thus far in my project immeasurably by Professor Will Gravely, who was a boy of seven living near the Pickens jail when Willie Earle was taken, and who has spent the past thirty or more years researching, writing, educating, and helping the community reconcile the events of the lynching. He’s a professor emeritus in religion at the University of Denver and has been nothing but helpful and generous to me with his contacts and extensive research. He is well along with a non-fiction book on the Willie Earle case, and he has not only the writing ability but the sensibility to do an especially fine and sensitive job of it. Recently, in February of this year, sixty-three years after the fact, the Willie Earle Legacy Committee in Greenville unveiled two historical markers at the sites of the killing and the trial. Here is an excerpt from Professor Gravely’s remarks at that ceremony:
“We can re-learn many things by exploring stories like these. We know the Hebrew biblical law of an eye for an eye—and it was Gandhi I believe who said that if we followed that strictly the whole world would be blind. But the ancient Israelites meant something more realistic. One eye for one eye was a hedge against revenge—to curb the tendency to over-react and go perhaps for two eyes. By the time of Jesus the rabbis had softened the penalty by ruling that one could pay an indemnity to make good the value of what had been injured. Then Jesus radicalized the teaching and required us to love our enemies as a supreme spiritual achievement.”
I think this shows the kind of mind and heart Will Gravely brings to the Willie Earle story.
Coincidentally, when I told Will I was coming to Hambidge on a residency, he told me he had been to Hambidge several times in the 1990s to write. Just another nice bit of synchronicity in our intertwined lives of growing up in Upstate South Carolina, and being drawn into the story of Willie Earle, which a lot of Greenville would just as soon forget. But Will Gravely can’t and won’t forget, and now neither can I.