A 1970 Race Murder in North Carolina is Recalled

Isthmus | September 7, 2004
‘Let the truth that I’ve told speak for me’

When he was 10, a black man was murdered in Tim Tyson’s hometown. He has refused to get over it

“The Entertainment Weekly review is my favorite,” Tim Tyson says, as he rifles through a cardboard box labeled “Blood,” which contains dozens of clippings about his book. The reviewer gets it, he says: “It’s short and so smart.”

“And look at this,” he continues with a chuckle, pushing the magazine’s June 18 issue into my hand. “It’s number three on ‘The Must List,’ right up there with the Harry Potter movie!”

The book is Blood Done Sign My Name, a memoir of a 1970 race murder and the subsequent violence that rocked the small tobacco town of Oxford, N.C., where Tyson and his family lived. Tyson was just 10 at the time, and a hearsay witness to the crime, when his playmate, Gerald Teel, told him what Teel’s father and brothers had done the night before. It’s the book’s haunting first line: “Daddy

and Roger and ’em shot ’em a nigger.”

Those words have reverberated through Tyson’s life, launching him on a journey, forming his future as a civil rights historian. Since 1994, Tyson has been a professor in the Afro-American Studies Department at the UW-Madison, and indeed, the book blends history with autobiography. I found it in the sociology section at Barnes & Noble.

“It’s a genre-breaker,” says Tyson, 45, a cherubic figure with dark, curly hair. “I don’t matter for this memoir. I happen to be there, the accident of being a kind of witness.”

Robert Teel and his 18-year-old son, Larry, were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury, despite testimony by two black eyewitnesses. Roger Oakley, Teel’s 21-year-old stepson, actually confessed to shooting the gun but was never indicted.

Henry “Dickie” Marrow, a 23-year-old U.S. Army veteran whose wife was pregnant with their third daughter, had been beaten down and shot to death in the street by these three men, for allegedly making a remark to Larry Teel’s wife. In an Army photograph of young Marrow in fatigues, he looks small, like a child.

“He weighed 140 pounds when they killed him,” Tyson sputters with disgust. “Hell, my leg weighs 140.”

Tyson watched as this murder in Oxford brought the Black Power movement to town. There were marches, boycotts and riots. Two huge tobacco warehouses were burned to the ground, setting the night skies aglow for miles around, and causing millions of dollars in damage.

Just a kid, Tyson struggled to comprehend what was happening. Eventually, he “acquired the tools to investigate and understand.” Twelve years after the crime, with an ice pick in his pocket for protection, Tyson walked into Robert Teel’s barbershop to ask him why he and his sons had killed Henry Marrow.

But Blood Done Sign My Name isn’t just about the murder; it’s about Tyson’s upbringing amid racial turmoil. Central to the story is Tyson’s father, Vernon, a liberal Methodist minister, whose attempts to reach across the color divide in Oxford before and after the murder eventually got him run out of town.

Toward the end of 1970, the Tysons packed up and headed for a new home in Wilmington, N.C., “where statues of Confederate generals loomed on the street corners” along the banks of Cape Fear. There, Vernon Tyson learned about an 1898 race massacre, yet another chasm in American race history, one so deep that his son says, “its omission from North Carolina history may have been the biggest of the lies that marked my boyhood.”

Historical omission is the heart of the matter. Race massacres and murders still stain the fabric of America. Blood is a bright light on our dark past. Like the verse in the old gospel song, it declares, “Let the truth that I’ve told speak for me.”

The book’s title is from another old song in the African American tradition. (“Ain’t you glad, ain’t you glad, that the blood done sign my name?”) As Tyson told the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, the title is meant to acknowledge America’s painful racial history, “that our freedom and dignity, if we still have any, has been paid for in blood, that we have a contract with our ancestors not to let their sacrifices be in vain.”

“We must look our brutal history in the eye,” writes Tyson, who thinks the United States could use a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, like the one in South Africa. “Genuine healing requires a candid confrontation with our past.”

Blood was published in May, and Tyson has been riding a book-tour roller coaster ever since. He’s appeared at dozens of readings across the country, one of which, from Washington, D.C., was broadcast on C-Span’s Book TV. And recently, Tyson walked the streets of Oxford with Juan Williams for NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

The critical acclaim is well-deserved. Tyson is a masterful storyteller, who turns a phrase with a colorful Southern style. He intertwines unfolding events with what was happening in his own mind with deep, personal honesty, searching for the truth about racial hatred.

Out of this has come a complex indictment of America’s racial divisions, one that spares no one. I ask Tyson about one of Marrow’s killers, Roger, who was never tried.

“He is not home free,” Tyson explains. “But if they did try him it would be as much self-exoneration as justice.” In other words, it might make some white people feel better, but it should not let anyone off the hook.

“It was the whole social system that was to blame,” says Tyson. “The poisonous ideas are rooted there. Just to try one person would give people the illusion that the system works. I’m much more interested in the public discussion. It wouldn’t bother me a bit if he was tried and went to jail, but I want to make it clear that I don’t think that’s sufficient.”

Tyson’s analysis is particularly pointed at the race attitudes of white liberals, including his father. The Rev. Vernon Tyson, he writes, “hoped to become a peacemaker,” but “Daddy wanted the black freedom struggle to behave itself in a way that would help him reassure white people.” Blacks who turned radical in reaction to the radicalism of white supremacy “didn’t cater to my daddy’s desires.” Black people had to confront that hate in the streets, but also in their own souls, “to create a new black sense of self.”

While the civil rights movement was in full flower in the 1950s, “white backlash” marked much of the 1960s, and by 1970 the nation was still in deep conflict with the ideals of racial equality. As Tyson writes, “The sugar-coated confections that pass for the popular history of the civil rights movement offer outright lies” about the racism and prejudice embraced by most white Americans. Back then, a lot of white people hated black people and made no bones about it.

Those feelings inspired Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and fueled the Republican Party of Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich. In the 1968 presidential election, most of Wisconsin favored Nixon over Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey, while Alabama segregationist George Wallace garnered nearly 128,000 votes here. (This was actually fewer votes for Wallace than in 1964, which Tyson speculates is because “Nixon had learned to sound like Wallace and was actually electable.”)

“Our memories of what actually happened in the civil rights era are so faulty,” says Tyson, that the enemies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. can now use his words to thwart his goals. “We have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus...a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates,” writes Tyson, angrily seeking to set the record straight. In fact, he notes, King went to Memphis in April 1968 and called for “the dispossessed of our nation” to “organize a revolution.” Then he was gunned down.

At the time, California Gov. Ronald Reagan blamed the assassination on King himself. Years later, recounts Tyson, “Reagan rode into the White House on a campaign that made blacks and the poor his scapegoats,” and America seemed less and less interested in racial equality. Reagan, twice our landslide victor, even opposed the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, saying it had been “humiliating to the South.”

In 1970, these conflicts were as ingrained in Oxford as they were in hundreds of small towns across the country. Black Vietnam veterans were returning home to find the rancid stench of Jim Crow still lingering in the air. Tyson has listened carefully to the stories of the “bloods,” as the black vets called each other, who “returned to Oxford ready to burn it down” if that was what it took to get full citizenship.

Oxford, like much of the country, resisted integration with all its might. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed race bias in public accommodations, Oxford town leaders sold the city’s public swimming pool — built in the 1930s with taxpayer dollars — to a whites-only private club, rather than let blacks enter it. When Tyson was a boy, the movie theater was still segregated. And, just a few weeks before Henry Marrow’s murder, the city closed one of the few remaining public parks, because children were playing “salt and pepper” basketball games.

“The grownups were all scared,” one of the neighbors later admitted to Tyson. “We should have listened to the children.”

But it was the Teels’ acquittal for their hot-headed hate crime that launched Oxford into the season of violent reprisals. These, says Tyson, were engineered with military precision by well-trained veterans of America’s armed forces, who knew justice could only come when fear overtook complacency.

“You’ve got our attention,” the Oxford city manager told a group of local African Americans in the days after an early round of violence, Tyson writes, “unwittingly affirming that rioting and firebombs had succeeded where patience and petitions had always failed.”

Or, as Granville County historian James Edward “Eddie” McCoy tells Tyson, “They didn’t just open the door up and say, ‘Y’all come in, integration done come.’ Somebody was bruised and kicked and knocked around — you better believe it.”

But even now, if you look at Oxford’s history on the city’s Web site, this all never happened. Segregation was never a civic imperative. A jury never acquitted the men who beat and shot Henry Marrow to death. The city never burned.

“Truth and falsehood keep house on both sides of the color line,” Tyson writes, “and we all have our own stories to tell.”

But telling these stories — confronting the legacy of denial regarding race in America — is difficult and painful. “People are so intent on not saying the wrong thing that they are afraid to have a discussion of any substance,” Tyson tells me. “They have an illusion that it’s all a matter of decorum, that if they could just not offend, everything will be okay.

“Yet there is this 450-year history,” he continues, “and sensitivity can interfere with understanding. The determination that no one be uncomfortable means that we can’t have a real conversation. This is what I tell my students. Racial discomfort is an education. Lean into it, talk about it, and listen to yourself.”

Tyson regards the UW-Madison’s Afro-American Studies Department as one of the best in the country. “We have a great faculty,” he tells me. “Nellie McKay is an editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. William Van Deburg wrote New Day in Babylon on the Black Power movement. Craig Werner is a genius. This is a good as it gets.”

Tyson clearly adds to that luster. In the epilogue to Blood, he tells of what began as an impromptu field trip and has since turned into an annual summer pilgrimage. He leads his students on a tour of the South, stopping at many of the places they’ve studied in his history course, sites that still hold tightly to their secrets.

His father came along for part of Freedom Ride 2001, joining the busload of students at Destrehan Plantation near New Orleans, where in 1811 a slave uprising was quelled with medieval brutality. Hundreds of rebellious slaves were hung and beheaded, and their heads were mounted on stakes along the River Road between Destrehan and New Orleans. Now, the meticulously restored plantation offers guided tours with a whitewashed narrative on “the good old days,” replete with antebellum costumes. Many of the UW students were devastated by the experience, and Rev. Tyson led them in prayer afterward.

“The history taught at Destrehan is not history,” rider Tyina Steptoe said at a symposium on the Freedom Ride scholars program this May. “It’s a disgrace.”

Wisconsin, too, wears the secret scars of racial hatred. One of the saddest episodes in Tyson’s book takes place in Milwaukee. He relates the story of a college friend, whose parents, a black U.S. Army sergeant and a white woman he’d married while stationed in Germany, moved their young family to Wisconsin in the early ’60s, thinking they’d be safe. Shortly after settling there, their home was firebombed, and their infant daughter perished in the flames. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime. They moved back to Europe.

Even now, Tyson tells me, “You can walk around all day in some Milwaukee neighborhoods and never run into a black person. Chicago is like that. Boston. It’s America. We never really integrated some places and we’ve re-segregated others. The South has nothing like the racial politics in the urban North.”

Indeed, Tyson believes, “The South has an advantage in race relations, in that nobody there thinks the history doesn’t matter. In general, there is a lot of self-congratulation in the North, and it is ironic. They like to hang the American race problem on the South, yet Milwaukee is more segregated than any place in the American South.”

So, I ask Tyson, how far do we have to go to achieve racial equality?

“Well, 45% of African American children are born in poverty,” he says quietly. “When a young African American man and a young white man are brought up on the same charges, with no criminal records to speak of, the African American is six times more likely to draw a prison sentence. If it’s a drug charge, the African American is 49 times more likely to go to prison. There are still more African American men in prison than in college, and African Americans score lower on all types of social well-being indices.”

Tyson is speaking more loudly now. “Either white supremacy was right,” he says, “or we are caught up in a tragic and complicated history, and we can and have to change it. I believe with all my heart that it is the latter, but we haven’t come very far at all. We have problems that go way beyond segregation and the political will to do something about it.”

Ellen J. Meany is Isthmus’ creative director.

Family guy

Timothy B. Tyson lives on Madison’s near-east side with his wife, Perri Anne Morgan, and their two children, Hope, who is 14, and Sam, age 11. Perri teaches in the physician assistant program in the UW’s Department of Family Medicine.

Tyson’s parents are alive and well in Raleigh, N.C. They live just around the corner from Jesse Helms.

Recently, Tyson moved his family back to North Carolina for 10 months. He has received a writing fellowship from the National Center for the Humanities that will cover half his university salary.

“It’s just 10 miles from my mama’s dinner table,” he says. “That’s really why we are able to do it.”

Tyson has a couple of books in mind, one of which is another memoir that delves more deeply into his family’s history. What he will actually write is still up in the air: “My writing process is a kind of figuring out what my psyche is going to do. I am as much of an observer to this project as a writer.”

Tyson is also working on a version of Blood for middle-schoolers. He plans to be back teaching at UW-Madison in time for the fall 2005 semester. “My wife loves Madison,” he says. “She doesn’t ever want to leave.”

— E.J.M.

‘Blood’ done make a splash

The initial print run of Blood Done Sign My Name was 30,000, and sales are steady, especially in North Carolina, where local interest is keen.

“We are averaging a sale a day,” says Pete Mock of McIntyre’s Fine Books in Pittsboro, N.C. “We are a tiny store in the middle of nowhere. It’s one of our best sellers.” Tyson’s reading there drew a large crowd.

Mock is trying to arrange another reading in Chapel Hill (“I already know I can fill the place”), and Tyson says a “public discussion” in his dad’s old Methodist church in Oxford is planned for sometime in September.

Tyson has published two other books: Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, and Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy, both more academic in nature than Blood.

Ironically, this book burst forth while Tyson was researching another academic work on African American freedom movements.

“I was making note cards and sorting documents for several months, and to keep myself awake I would tell this story for an hour each day, writing up a page or two, as a lunch break, you know, just to keep me from nodding off,” says Tyson in his soft Southern drawl.

“I started taking that break earlier and earlier, nine in the morning, then it stretched into two or three hours. I had a beer with Craig Werner [another UW professor], as I often do, and he said, ‘Hey, you’ve got tenure, give yourself a month to do this.’”

Around the same time, a former student, Thaddeus Bower, sent Tyson an e-mail.

“Thaddeus was an intern at Random House. They were looking for a book about the Birmingham church bombing — it was about the time of the new trial — and he told his boss about me.” Tyson had a good grasp of the topic and knew some things about the event that hadn’t been published elsewhere. Random House was prepared to offer him a contract. Tyson said he could start “in a couple of months.” Why so long?, they asked.

“Well, I am working on this other thing.”

Tyson described his project first in a sentence or two, then in two pages. “They said, ‘We want that book, too.’”

— E.J.M.

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