SILER CITY — Calvin Dark can trace his family’s lineage in the Chatham County area back three centuries, but what he’ll share next week — and in a book he’s finishing — focuses on his maternal great-great-grandfather, Aaron McMasters, an enslaved man who fought to gain his freedom.
McMasters was thwarted by N.C. law, but there’s much more to his story.
That’s the subject of Dark’s lecture, “McMasters’ Will: The Scheme that Almost Freed Us,” part of Chatham Community Library’s observance of Black History Month and scheduled virtually on Feb. 9.
For Dark, an author, researcher and principal of RC Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations and media training firm, the story is more than 100 years in the making. Its roots are even deeper, and it’s Dark’s exploration of his past — starting with his childhood here — that’s helped shape his life, personal development and work. His path has taken him from Siler City to Duke University, to a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Morocco, to regular appearances through U.S. and international media outlets, where he provides insights and perspectives on foreign affairs, politics and current events.
In addition to his other work, he’s has written numerous articles and essays appearing in the North Carolina Folklore Journal, the Journal of American Historians, Duke Magazine, among others.
Dark, who’s just accepted the invitation to join the Duke University Library Advisory Board, spoke to the News + Record from Rabat, Morocco, where he lives part of the year. (He splits his time between Morocco, Washington, D.C., and Siler City.)
Your family lineage in the Chatham County area extends back three centuries. What role did that genealogy and history play in the development of your own interest in history?
My parents, Ralph and Margie Dark, who have passed away, played a major role. They encouraged me to know our history — our kinfolks, especially our elders — because they wanted me to know that I had so much to be proud of. They expected a lot from me because I had amazing opportunities thanks to the foundation laid by those who came before me. My ancestors couldn’t go, study, live and enjoy what I’ve experienced. I’m proud to honor them by learning about and telling their stories.
Each of us has a limited perspective about our personal history. As you researched your family for this project, what insights did you gain about the notion of personal perspective, and about the importance of knowing your roots?
I learned that it is so important for us — me, people who live in the area or have roots in Chatham — to know our history. But that knowledge can’t come from just one perspective — whether it’s school, movies, television or bits and pieces we grew up hearing. It must include all the experiences of the people who made the history, including Black voices who too often didn’t get a say.
Growing up, I had so many questions about the people, places and events that I saw and heard about. Those questions had complicated answers, especially about the role of my family and other African American families in our history. How did Siler City get its name, and did it have anything to do with my paternal great-grandmother Maggie Siler Dark’s family? Why is there a Black Rocky River Baptist Church (my mother’s home church) and a White Rocky River Baptist Church just down the road — and is there a historical connection between them? Why does no one ever talk about the Black and White neighbors in our community who share last names (McMasters and Dark, for example), or how we have a shared history and genealogy? Researching my family’s history helped answer many of those questions.
Your own career has taken you from Siler City to Duke University to a Fulbright Scholarship to Morocco; now, you’re partly based in Washington, D.C., for your work with your company RC Communications. I’m curious about how lessons you learned in Siler City and in Chatham County have helped pave the road to where you are now, and serves you to this day?
I’ve lived, studied, and worked in France, Argentina and Morocco (and I currently spend a good part of every year in Morocco). Living abroad has made me so proud to be an American from Siler City.
The best tool that helped me understand other cultures was to firmly know who I am and where I come from — and I share those stories with the people I meet and friends I make. In Siler City, most people know each other or at least “know your people.” You’ll find that this is also true in small towns in Morocco. When you get down to it, people, cultures and places that seem so different have a lot in common.
The presentation you’ll give on Feb. 9 is a part of the Chatham County Library’s observance of Black History Month. What’s your sense about what people in Chatham understand and don’t understand about the rich history of the county’s Black population?
So much of our history from slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement to the systemic racism in law enforcement, education and the workplace that we see today can make us — Black people — feel like we don’t belong here, deserve to be here, or contributed nothing positive to our country, state and town. Too many of us don’t really believe that we should be proud of who we are, where we came from and how we built this country and our communities. I’m proud of the teachers, lawyers, medical professionals, homemakers, entrepreneurs, church leaders and hard workers in my family. There’s reason for pride in all our families. We should teach our children this rich history. We must own it. But before that can happen, we must know it.
Black History Month is a perfect opportunity to address the past through righting old wrongs in as much as we can, honoring African American heroes who were denied public recognition and changing our conversations and the ways that we speak about our past. Those conversations about the most horrible times of our country’s past are not easy and too often we’re taught or feel pressure to “let sleeping dogs lie.” (I’ve been told that many times in my life!) We can’t be afraid to honestly look at our past and acknowledge that some of the challenges of 2023 are rooted in those things we’d prefer not to face. I hope the observance of Black History Month in Chatham County this year will be focused on addressing our past in the very real ways that can improve our present and future.
Your presentation will focus on the story of your great-great-grandfather, Aaron McMasters. How did your family come to be known by the surname of “Dark”?
The presentation will be unbelievable because my family’s story is unbelievable! Not only will I tell you the story, but I’ll show the evidence of how my family defied the odds in ways you probably didn’t think were possible.
Grandpa Aaron McMasters (my maternal great-great-grandfather) was promised freedom by his enslaver, but North Carolina law wouldn’t allow it. So, a controversial (and illegal) scheme was concocted by members of an anti-slavery group, The North Carolina Manumission Society, from Chatham, Randolph and surrounding counties to free Grandpa Aaron. My presentation will answer the question: did the scheme to free Aaron (and the rest of my family) work?
The story of the Darks from Siler City — my father’s side of the family — is my next book project that is already underway. That story is unbelievable as well, especially how we got the last name Dark.
You’ve said that anyone in Chatham County who attends the presentation will hear the name of someone they’re related to or they’ll know someone related to someone you’ll talk about. What else is in store for those who attend?
I guarantee that the names, places and events that I’ll talk about will ring a lot of bells for a lot of folks! I’ll share details about the people and groups who took a stand against slavery in our area, like the Quakers who played a key role in the scheme to free Grandpa Aaron. The presentation will be interactive because I’m excited about learning from those who attend who likely know more about events and people than I do and can answer some of my questions.
You’re in the process of writing a book about Aaron McMasters and his story. How’s that coming along?
Yes, the forthcoming book is titled “McMasters’ Will: The Scheme That Almost Freed Us.” I’m in the final editing stages now and hope to publish by next year. A challenge for me has been that every time I think I’ve written the whole story, I uncover another facet of the history from people I interview — it just keeps growing! But this is a good challenge which makes the writing process even more interesting.
What else should people know about you and the presentation, and why should people attend? What’s going to be the main takeaway for those who attend?
I imagine that a good number of attendees will probably have roots in the Chatham County and surrounding areas, so I know there will be many questions — I look forward to answering them! So many people want to answer those complicated questions just like I did, but don’t know where to begin. I’ll share my advice on how anyone can start their genealogy journey and discover their family’s history. While my family’s story is unique, every family’s journey is special. All of those family stories deserve to be told.