The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration

  • By David Nicholson
  • University of South Carolina Press
  • 328 pp.

Piecing together a story that started in the antebellum era.

The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration

Tracing Black history sometimes feels like chasing smoke, David Nicholson reminds us in The Garretts of Columbia, a book centered on his own family. But the author gained a knack for such smoke-chasing from his mother, Ruth Nicholson, who worked as an archivist for the Library of Congress. We learn early on that she had to invoke her employer at least once in order to keep parts of her family’s story from disappearing.

On a research trip to South Carolina, Ruth rescued a trove of her father’s papers from the sidewalk in front of her parents’ Columbia home. She was salvaging the cache when the police showed up, summoned by the house’s new owner. As they approached, Nicholson writes, she stood up as imposingly as she could and announced, like a federal agent taking charge of a crime scene, “I am Ruth Nicholson, senior manuscript librarian at the Library of Congress...These are papers of great historical importance, and we intend to make sure they are preserved for future generations.”

The scene signals what’s at stake in The Garretts of Columbia. There are few African-American records from the antebellum period in national archives because slavery wasn’t under direct federal jurisdiction. Where records do exist, they are mostly in state-level archives and require a lot of digging to find. Nicholson’s research involved at least a half-dozen trips to South Carolina.

One ancestor who for generations was known only as “the African” looms large in Nicholson family lore. His fortitude in buying his own freedom inspired Nicholson’s great-grandfather, the church leader and newspaperman C.G. Garrett (dubbed “Papa” here), and his capacity for reinvention inspired Nicholson himself. It was Ruth who found the manumission papers that gave “the African” a name — Dublin Hunter — and, in turn, gave the family one, too. The author finds in Hunter’s reinvention a guide for his own sense of being an American, quoting Ralph Ellison:

“Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values.”

Thanks to the family’s rise in education and newspaper publishing, there existed enough documents for Nicholson to unearth to piece together a dazzling puzzle. While telling his ancestors’ story, he weaves in alternate explanations at times, highlighting the uncertain process of discovery. In doing so, he brings to the task the narrative skills of a fiction writer (he has published short stories) and the skepticism of a journalist.

We glimpse from Nicholson’s ancestor Martha the terrors of slavery and its aftermath. In a desperate search for her scattered family, she posted this notice in a Black newspaper in 1886:

“I was born in Virginia. My mother’s name was Rebecca (called Becky), father’s name Billy, brother’s name Washington and sister’s name Sady. I was sold to a slave trader named Billy Hunter when I was about four or five years old...and brought to South Carolina...I know nothing of my relatives.”

Nicholson imagines young Martha “on that hellish journey south, willing herself not to forget as she cried herself to sleep.” She kept running the notice for a year.

The book also includes granular detail of how Jim Crow racism worked at the day-to-day level. Nicholson unpacks the old Columbia city directory’s designating of race — from asterisks to whole color-coded pages — as well as how some of its listings were left out entirely during the archiving process. “Did the microfilm operator decide on his own to omit half the city’s population?” he asks. “These are the kind of uncomfortable thoughts that come dealing with such a complicated history.”

Yet the core of the book is a family epic full of larger-than-life figures. Papa is a throughline, but the hero really seems to be his wife, Anna Maria (“Mama”). She comes into her own when her husband is forced out of his university job. She takes a position supervising Black schools that involves crisscrossing the state and teaches herself to drive in the nascent days of automobiles, when roads were dirt and often jolted tires to shreds. “You should have seen us patching an inner tube yesterday,” she wrote to a friend. “We did it nicely.” From hundreds of letters and notes, her great-grandson brings Mama alive, revealing her “wicked sense of humor” that reminds the author of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.

An early feminist, Mama argued for women to be addressed by their own names, not their husbands’, and preferred to be called Anna M. Garrett rather than Mrs. C.G. Garrett. Her work in the Black school system provides a view of the obstacles Black communities faced from government neglect and gives human depth to the lie of “separate but equal.”

The book’s arc is the rise of a Black family against the odds, with nearly every one of their pre-integration advances betrayed by American institutions in one way or another. Anna Maria’s letter to the white newspaper editor who denied the basic humanity of Black World War I veterans is especially poignant.

Ever the journalist, Nicholson pays attention to the uncomfortable truths in his family’s past involving addiction and neglect, too, reflecting on matters that many descendants might push aside. While not every chapter has the power and focus to make the personal universal, The Garretts of Columbia nonetheless captures a family with both the rich detail of a biographer and the artistry of a novelist. It is a remarkable achievement.

David A. Taylor’s books include Soul of a People, about the WPA writers, and Cork Wars: Intrigue and Industry in World War II, which received an Independent Publishers Book Award for world history. He teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University and produces a history/culture podcast, “The People’s Recorder.”

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