"Daddy and Roger and 'em shot 'em a nigger." That's what Gerald Teel said to me in my family's driveway in Oxford, North Carolina, on May 12, 1970. We were both ten years old. I was bouncing a basketball. The night before, a black man had "said something" at the store to Judy, his nineteen-year-old sister-in-law, Gerald told me, and his father and two of his brothers had run him out of the store and shot him dead. The man's name was Henry Marrow, I found out later, but his family called him Dickie. He was killed in public as he lay on his back, helpless, begging for his life.
I was stunned and bewildered, as if Gerald had informed me that his family had fried up their house cat and eaten it for breakfast. We did not use that word at our house. It was not that I had never heard it or had never used it myself. But somehow the children in my family knew that to utter that word in the presence of my father would be to say good-bye to this earthly life. My daddy was a Methodist minister, an "Eleanor Roosevelt liberal," he called himself in later years, and at our house "nigger" was not just naughty, like "hell" or "damn." It was evil, like taking the Lord's name in vain, maybe even worse. And now my friend Gerald was using it while talking about his daddy and his brothers killing a man.
Before Gerald could say anything more, my mother opened the front door of our house and called me in for supper. "What are we having?" I yelled back at her.
"I am not announcing my menu to the neighborhood," Mama said in a clear but quiet voice. I hurried inside, dumbstruck, wondering what the grown-ups in my world were going to say about Gerald's news. Could this be true? Or was it just a little boy's boasting? Mama and Daddy would know.
Mama wielded an abundantly sharp sense of how things were and were not done. That was why she was "not about to advertise my dinner menu up and down Hancock Street," as she reminded me when I came into the kitchen. Pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, peppery cabbage simmered with fatback, and crisp fried cornbread served with sweet iced tea seemed no cause for shame. Mrs. Roseanna Allen, the black woman who worked for us, had also made us a chocolate pie that afternoon, as she often did when I begged her. But the details of our supper were beside Mama's point. Yelling like that was "tacky," a label that applied to a disquieting number of my habits.
I figured that Mama and Daddy would talk to us about what had happened, but instead an eerie hush hung over the supper table. Somewhat oddly, Daddy refrained from his custom of interviewing us one by one about our day. He and Mama exchanged knowing words and weighted glances whose meanings were indecipherable to me. My twelve-year-old brother, Vern, and I talked halfheartedly about something—how fast Dudley Barnes, who pitched for A&W Root Beer's Little League nine, could throw a baseball, something like that. But a deep silence had fallen among us.
After supper, my little sister Boo and I crept out of the house and down to the corner, where we huddled on the sidewalk behind Mrs. Garland's cement wall, across the street from the Teel house. Boo was seven years old, blond and freckly, by turns deferential and officious in the way of little sisters, and she went wherever I did, provided I let her. In the Bible, Ruth tells Naomi, "Entreat me not to leave thee; or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge," and while this was frequently quoted as a tribute to filial devotion, I always noted that we never heard from Naomi on the point. When I came home from church one Sunday and announced that I was going to become a missionary to Africa, Boo immediately declared her intention to become a nurse and accompany me. I shot back, "What do you think I am going to Africa for?" But truth be told, I was glad to have her with me this particular evening.
We could see the house clearly through the budding crape myrtles that laced the long traffic island in the middle of Main Street. Gerald's family lived in a gracious, older two-story structure with white columns, wide porches, and a carport on one side that must have been built originally for carriages. At least a dozen men with shotguns and rifles stood guard on its porches as Boo and I peered across the corners of Hancock, Front, and Main Streets. A couple of the men were draped in white hoods and robes, but most of them looked for all the world like our own father when he went bird hunting. We did not know exactly how these men pertained to Gerald's announcement, but we knew something perilous was unfolding.
For one thing, neither of us had ever seen anyone who didn't live there go into the Teel house. I played with Gerald Teel practically every day, but the boys in our neighborhood came to my house or we ran the woods and fields that stretched out beyond my backyard. Sometimes we smoked Jeff Daniels's mother's Tareyton cigarettes down by the creek. We played football in the front yard of the old Hancock place, a once palatial but now rotting three-story white structure with huge wooden pillars that stood empty across the street from my house. Gerald, Jeff, and I wore the same brand of brogans as a kind of uniform—our look was straight-leg blue jeans, army surplus jackets, and those brownish-orange work boots—and we fought together in the forbidden BB-gun wars that raged in our neighborhood on Saturday mornings. Gerald was a slight, olive-skinned boy with dark hair and eyes. He rarely talked much. We considered him a respectably tough kid, a member of the gang in good standing, but he also had a kind of whipped-dog manner, a shyness that said something was wrong. You'd say we were friends. But I did not visit in Gerald's house and, as far as I knew, neither did anybody else. All Mama would say, in her offhand, gracious way, was that they weren't really our kind of folks, but it was worse than that. Everybody was afraid of Gerald's daddy, who never spoke in my presence until many years had passed.
That night, after kneeling beside the bed with my father to say my prayers as we usually did, I lay me down to sleep on the cool, clean sheets, wondering about what had happened and fearing, without really knowing what to fear, the things that might happen now. The attic fan in the top of the house pulled the gauzy white curtains inward on a cooling breeze; two weeks into May it was already hot, and not everyone had air-conditioning in those days. From my upstairs window, I could see the blinking red light of Oxford's radio tower. The raspy, playful voice of "Julius's Jukebox." WOXF's "Little Round Brown Mound of Sound," beamed from the transistor radio propped in my windowsill, announcing song dedications—"This one goes out from Shirley to S.O.S."—and spinning Otis Redding, James Brown, or Aretha Franklin. Every night that summer, the ominous pulse of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" pounded on the airwaves, and what may have seemed a haunting anthem of lost love for some listeners sounded a dire warning to me. Sleep was slow to come.
While I slumbered, six blocks away in downtown Oxford hundreds of young blacks exploded into rage. At least half a dozen people had witnessed the murder in Grab-all, the black ghetto where Mr. Teel's store was located. Word traveled fast. "This won't no goddamn murder mystery," one of the young blacks spat, "and the son of a bitch lived three blocks from the police station." Rumors flew through Oxford that the magistrate, J. C. Wheeler, refused to swear out a warrant against the Teels, and that the police were not planning to arrest anyone. This poured the gasoline of indignation onto the flames of vengefulness. "When Dickie was first killed," one black witness to the murder told me years later, "people in Grab-all was talking about 'everything white dies.' "
Though neither blood vengeance nor race war ensued, I learned years later that two or three hundred young African Americans ran through the well-ordered streets of downtown Oxford that night, smashing windows and setting fires. The angry throng would assemble in one place, demolish the agreed-upon storefront, and then sprint at breakneck speed through the alleyways to another target. At the American Oil station, some of the insurgents paused to loot beer and cigarettes, also making off with a portable television. The screaming alarm at Edwards Jewelry Store did not deter the mob from emptying the window of wristwatches. Behind the Western Auto hardware store, they stacked up old tires against a heavy door and set them ablaze, trying unsuccessfully to get inside and find guns and ammunition. The rioters retained the presence of mind to distinguish between white-owned property and the handful of establishments owned by blacks; they also pelted passing cars with bricks and bottles, but only those vehicles whose drivers appeared to be white. At one point, a group of the rioters ran to the Confederate monument, threw a length of rope around the old Rebel's neck, and tried to pull him off his granite pedestal, but the bronze infantryman would not budge.
When the first police car arrived, half a dozen bricks smashed the windshield and the mob heaved the car over onto its side. The terrified officer inside clambered out and ran for dear life. Two or three more squad cars screeched up, but there was little they could do against the small, angry army in the streets. Some whites criticized Mayor Currin the next day for not ordering his handful of men to shoot down the rioters. Currin understood his town, knew the limitations of his small and unsophisticated police department, and kept his cool. "With the police department we had," the mayor told me later, "it was no reason to send the officers in there to try and stop it. I didn't do it, and I am glad I didn't do it."
Even those who criticized the mayor's judgment could not fault his courage. During the height of the melee, Currin joined Assistant Chief of Police Doug White in a patrol car downtown. The two men drove to the edge of the riot and watched as dozens of looters sacked the A&P. And then they heard gunfire. "We were sitting in the car at the Esso station about midnight," Currin recalled. "There was a lot of noise, of course, and then we heard this loud report." Someone had fired a large-caliber bullet into one of the rear doors of the car in which Currin and White were sitting. The shot seemed to come from behind a low retaining wall twenty feet away, but the two city officials did not drive away. Mayor Currin later discounted the possibility that anyone had aimed the bullet at either one of them. "I think anyone shooting at that distance that wanted to shoot me, they could have shot me, that close." Currin and White stayed in the car, keeping an eye on things, moving the car only when the epicenter of the violence moved, but not trying to interfere with the riot.
At about two forty-five Wednesday morning, the rioters grew tired and went home. The police had not made a single arrest, and no one had been injured. The mob had destroyed seventeen storefronts, firebombed four buildings, ransacked the grocery store, smashed a police car, and scared the hell out of most of the white people in Oxford, and some of the black ones, too. The next day, every hardware store in town sold out of ammunition. White businessmen who owned stores downtown assessed the damages and started repairs; many of them also moved cots to their stores, and some of them slept there for weeks with shotguns across their laps.
Though things settled down during the day, the rioters awaited news from the courthouse of any possible arrests in the killing. A handful of black Vietnam veterans began to meet down at McCoy's Pool Hall and out at the Soul Kitchen, discussing strategies and plotting tactics. Although their elders generally disapproved, young blacks celebrated the riot gleefully and totted up the financial costs they had inflicted upon whites. At last, they felt, the white people who ran Oxford would have to listen to them, and the sole reason for that was that they had finally resorted to open revolt. For years afterward, the young people of the Black Power generation, the generation for whom the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. spoke more loudly than his message, talked about the riot with pride. "We tried to tear that bitch up," one of them boasted. "The only thing I really hate is that we couldn't pull down that damn Confederate monument."
The morning after the riot, Boo and I walked past the Teel house on our way to school. There was no sign of the armed men we had seen the night before. The place looked empty except for an abandoned bicycle in the driveway. If we had gone inside and upstairs, which we certainly never had done before, we would have seen the bullet hole in one of the bedroom walls; someone in a passing car had fired a .30-30 rifle into the house. We did see a note taped to the front door, which we would not have dared walk up and read, not even for a bottomless charge account at Hall's Drugstore. Boo and I hurried toward downtown. There was no sign of Gerald, whom I would not see again for twelve years, not until the afternoon I went to his father's barbershop to ask his father why he and his sons had killed Henry Marrow.
Three blocks past Gerald's house, as we approached Hall's, the sidewalks and streets were sequined with broken glass, glinting in the morning sunlight. Sheets of fresh plywood, with their sharp sawdust-and-glue smell, shielded all the storefronts. Charred wood framed shattered shop windows in black, where firebombs had broken the plate glass the night before. Strapping state troopers, sent by the governor, stood on street corners with their radios and shotguns. Local cops with traffic whistles and big revolvers guarded our route to school. As we passed the Confederate monument in the middle of town, we saw a bandy-legged policeman climbing up to remove a long yellow nylon rope tied in a noose around the tarnished old soldier's greenish neck.
From the Hardcover edition.