Editor’s note: Scholar and author Tim Tyson — whose latest book, “The Blood of Emmett Till, won the 2018 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was named Best Book of 2017 by both the Los Angeles …
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Editor’s note: Scholar and author Tim Tyson — whose latest book, “The Blood of Emmett Till, won the 2018 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and was named Best Book of 2017 by both the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio — has written and taught about black history for years.
Charlie Holcombe was born about 1890 in a pine-board shack on a red clay hill in Sampson County, North Carolina. His broad-shouldered father awakened at 4 each morning, kindled a fire and roused eight children from bed. His mother stirred a pot of grits and fried fatback pork. The close-knit black sharecropping family labored in the tobacco fields at sunup and worked until dark — “from can see to can’t see,” the saying went. This story, including the quoted portions, come from Holcombe’s own 1939 interview with an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project.
Charlie’s elderly grandfather had “de miseries in his back and walked wid a stick,” his grandson recalled, and could not join them in the fields. But the old man slopped the hogs, fed the chickens, sometimes took young Charlie fishing and always told him stories.
When Charlie was a little boy, in the elections of 1894 and 1896, an interracial “Fusion” coalition won every statewide office in North Carolina, swept the legislature, won the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats. They championed local self-government, rather than the white conservatives’ program of having the state government select local officials. The Fusionists pushed free public education, the principle of “one man, one vote,” regardless of race, and modest regulation of the monopoly capitalism preferred by railroads, banks and corporations.
These commercial interests, outraged by this democratic excess and wooed by secret promises to slash corporate taxes, bankrolled the White Supremacy Campaigns of 1898 and 1900 and furnished the “Red Shirts,” conservative paramilitary forces, with state of the art weapons. The conservatives overthrew the state government by blocking roads to polling places with armed guards; slanderous and lavish propaganda featuring “black brutes” unfit for freedom, let alone citizenship; intimidation, racial terrorism, and mass murder in the streets of Wilmington. By the time Charlie was twelve, the state no longer allowed black citizens to vote, and the rest of the South had followed its lead. Lynching had become commonplace and lynch mobs unpunished. North Carolina passed Jim Crow segregation laws, barred black North Carolinians from most well-paid jobs, and created a one-party racial state. Charlie’s grandfather told stories to instruct him on how a black boy could survive in an eastern North Carolina where the color line was increasingly drawn in blood.
Charlie remembered one lesson particularly clearly. One day after pulling a big catfish out of the creek, Charlie’s grandfather told him to watch closely. The catfish writhed in agony on the bank. Then his grandfather lowered the line again, and let the catfish swim for a moment, but not for long. Dragging the catfish back onto the bank, he let the fish thrash until it died. His grandfather told Charlie: “Son, a catfish is a lot like a [n****r.] As long as he is in his mud hole, he is alright, but when he gets out he is in for a whole passel of trouble. You remember that, and you won’t have no trouble with white folks when you grows up.”
The Holcombes had never owned land, but Charlie grew up and aspired to something more than sharecropping. He worked hard, saved his money, married, and he and his wife started a family. Holcombe found that he had a gift for farming. He tried hard to buy a farm but each time it eluded him. Year after year, he said, “dey was always sumpthin’ come along and knocked de props from under my plans.”
Sharecropping was a rickety substitute for slavery, but it gave the white landlords almost complete control of a black farmer’s income. The boss provided the land and furnished tools, seed, and supplies on credit, and sold marketed the crop. The boss usually tallied up what he owed each sharecropping family after deducting for supplies and interest as high as two hundred percent. For the black sharecropper to add up his own bill was a breach of racial etiquette; the presence of the pistol in the landlord’s desk drawer was a mutually understood aspect of the annual negotiation. Fraud was rampant, even expected.
Holcombe farmed well but only rarely made any money. One year he made a great crop, which he sold for a handsome profit and found himself within striking distance of buying the farm he had always wanted. But his landlord called him back, claimed that there had been a mistake in his calculations, and took away virtually all the profits. Charlie knew that he had been cheated and knew equally well that he had no recourse to the legal system. “I knowed it wan’t right,” he recalled, “and it made me so mad I jist hit him in the face as hard as I could.”
For a black sharecropper to punch his white landlord was virtual suicide, generally speaking. Charlie was lucky to have made it to court at all. The judge sentenced Charlie to one year at hard labor and required him to pay his landlord a fine. In the context of Jim Crow justice, a sentence this lenient for a black man that struck a white authority figure was tantamount to a public announcement that the judge believed Charlie was within his rights. While he was incarcerated that winter, his wife and children nearly starved. But the corrupt and abusive landlord agreed to take them back the next year. Three years after he got out of prison, Charlie had paid the landlord. It broke his spirit: “By that time I knowed it wasn’t no use for me to ever try to make anything but jist a livin’.”
Charlie Holcombe had made his grudging peace with white supremacy, but he hoped for better things for his children, especially his brightest child, Willie. “I was determined my oldest chile was gonna hab a chance in this world, and I sent him all the way through high school.” That was more education than any Holcombe had ever had. Willie wanted to go on to college, convinced it would help his economic prospects. The family scraped and sacrificed and saved, and finally sent Willie off to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College up in Greensboro.
Willie worked hard, made good grades, and farmed with his daddy in the summers. He would haul the crops and sell them, add up accounts, and bring the money home. But late one summer he came home angry, saying that the man at the tobacco warehouse had tried to cheat them. Willie pulled out pencil and paper and stopped the sale.
The next day, Willie went back to the warehouse again, but at supper time he still was not home. Charlie Holcombe hitched up the mule to the wagon and went into town. He found a crowd of white men standing around, and near them his son lay on the ground, his head resting in a big puddle of blood. He said: “I knew he was dead the minute I seed him.” Broken-hearted, he gathered the boy’s body up and took him home. Charlie and his wife washed their son’s body, dressed him in his best suit, and buried him at the foot of a tall pine tree out back.
The spirit of aspiration that once animated Charlie Holcombe never breathed in him again. He would sit under the lonesome pine and hear the wind whistling through the needles, and ponder the fate of his son and his people. Charlie blamed himself: “I got to thinkin’ bout what gran pappy said about the catfish, and I knowed the trouble wid Willie. He had stepped outta his place when he got dat education. If I had kept him on the farm he woulda been alright.”
No other Holcombe child got much education. Willie’s brothers and sisters settled down with their families and accommodated themselves to their place in the social order of the Jim Crow South. Charlie would claim that that they didn’t have much, wouldn’t ever get much, and didn’t want much, either. It was easier to look away.
Charlie Holcombe kept his grandfather’s lessons and his own tragedies close to heart. In later years, he told an interviewer: “Niggers is built for service, like a mule, and dey needn’t expect nothing else…. A nigger’s place is de field and de road and de tunnel and de woods, wid a pick or shovel or axe or plow. God made the nigger like a mule to be close to nature and git his livin’ by the sweat of his brow, like the Good Book says.”
As he grew old, utterly resigned to his place in the world, Charlie Holcombe sat by the fire and let his mind wander back to the days of childhood, which seemed to grow sweeter with the passage of time. He recalled: “Seems like when a feller looks back he only remembers the good things. Like I remember how my gran’ pappy used to take me fishing with him.”
Do we consider the white men who murdered Willie Holcombe and stood around his broken body as a lynch mob? Many people today assume that “lynching” strictly involves a rope and premeditation. And Willie’s murder may or may not fit the definition of lynching that activists and scholars agreed upon several decades ago: a lynching is a murder committed by a group claiming to act in defense of the race, traditions and values of their communities. But if we set the question aside for a moment, we must acknowledge that Willie’s murder was not freakish or bizarre in our recent past. Instead, lynching existed, like our work, church, politics, law and government also did, in a world where white domination defended a world defined by racial violence. White Southerners like my own family preferred to think of race in fond stories of kind employers and happy employees, a world where black gratitude met white generosity. But at bottom, white violence drew that world’s boundaries as a bright line in blood.