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Going back to Oxford

Timothy B. Tyson revisits local civil rights history


Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story
By Timothy B. Tyson
Crown, 368 pp., $24.00

Forty-nine years after the brutal murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, federal and county prosecutors are reopening the case. The painful truth of that event still needs to be uncovered; the wounds of a racist history are not yet healed.

Historian Timothy B. Tyson's masterful Blood Done Sign My Name: A True Story could not be more timely. Part memoir, part history, part true crime, Tyson takes the reader back to a not-so-distant past--Oxford, N.C. on May 11, 1970--to find "the truth" about the brutal murder of a black man. Ten years old at the time, Tyson remembers a night "that would burn in memory for the rest of my life." Tyson is a brilliant storyteller and the story that provides the framework for this healing history is the shooting and bludgeoning to death of Henry D. Marrow, a 23-year-old black man known as "Dickie," outside Teel's General Store in Oxford, N.C. In broad daylight, and with a number of witnesses, Marrow was killed by three white men: Robert Teel and two of his sons. No arrests were made at the time. Later that night, Oxford went up in flames as blacks looted and bombed white property. Thirty-six hours after the murder of Henry Marrow, Robert and Larry Teel were taken into custody.

In the days and months after the murder and leading up to the trial, despite a mayor's curfew, the presence of heavily armed state troopers and nightly meetings of the Ku Klux Klan, "Granville County had become an armed camp." A galvanized black freedom movement organized marches to the courthouse following Marrow's funeral and boycotts of the white-owned businesses. The FBI infiltrated Oxford's "black power" movement in an effort to undermine it.

And in late summer of 1970, a verdict was reached in the trial of Robert and Larry Teel: not guilty.

Tyson's narrative is at once gripping and suspenseful, his descriptions thick enough to make you feel that you are there witnessing Marrow's death or marching down an Oxford street. But Marrow's story is only one part of this nuanced book. At every turn Tyson situates Marrow's story against the backdrop of a nation torn apart by racial clashes. And, historical understanding allows Tyson to come to terms with his family's intertwined place in this history of Henry Marrow's death--"a history that reveals the blood that has signed every one of our names."

It is with the deftness of the historian's hand (Tyson is a professor of African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) that he returns to his boyhood home to confront the past. He scours newspaper accounts, interviews participants involved in all aspects of this episode, and reads diaries his parents kept during the time. It is shocking to learn that he is forced to sneak down in the basement of the county courthouse to unearth trial records, after being told they don't exist. He then copies them, later to learn that the originals have been destroyed. After being told by some white powers-that-be "you can't write about this," he is chased out of town by police trying to run him off the road.

The portrait Tyson paints of the history of racism and segregation in North Carolina is a complex one. His anatomy of the black freedom movement in Oxford and Wilmington (where he moves with his family when a "white power" backlash forces them out of Oxford) is anything but monolithic. We hear myriad voices of movement leaders and actors of the time--from civil rights to black power--revealing deep splits around political tactics that range from nonviolence to violence to economic coercion. Tyson does not shy away from suggesting that violence may have played a necessary role in moving the struggle for civil rights forward in North Carolina.

This is simultaneously a story of "dissenting white southerners" whose "mistakes and achievement" Tyson examines in all their dimensions. The centerpiece of this is a tribute to Tyson's father, a Methodist minister who describes himself as an "Eleanor Roosevelt liberal." Born and raised in eastern North Carolina, Tyson hails from a progressive white dynasty--not only are there four generations of Tyson preachers, his daddy's many brothers are all ministers as well.

His father's bravery in living a life at the frontlines of racial justice make him a larger- than-life figure--he teaches his children early the real meaning of hate by bringing them to a Klan meeting; he invites the first black minister to preach at his church in Sanford, which results in his leaving; and he raises his kids to know that using the word "nigger" was taking the Lord's name in vain.

But Tyson's account is not complacent. "There is no moral place in this story where anyone can sit down and congratulate themselves," he says. He is honest about the "stain of white supremacy" and its permeation of daily life, and his tribute to his father exists along with an exploration of the treachery of white supremacy.

"As I have continued to sift the evidence and search for the meaning of a murder in my hometown, I found something much larger. It may not be easy, add-water-and-stir redemption, but it opens a history in which we can all recognize the faces of flawed, well-meaning people like ourselves."

"The question remains whether or not we can transfigure our broken pasts into a future filled with common possibility." Timothy B. Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name most certainly brings us one step closer to that future.

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