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My Father's Name

A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War

by Lawrence Patrick Jackson

Hardcover, 243 pages, Univ of Chicago Pr, List Price: $25 |


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A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War
Lawrence Patrick Jackson

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Lawrence P. Jackson goes on a quest from Baltimore to Pittsylvania County, Va., to find the home that once belonged to his late grandfather. Part detective story, part memoir, Jackson traces his family's roots back to his grandfather's grandfather who was born or sold into slavery. My Father's Name is a detailed, historical portrait of an African-American Virginian family and a meditation on slavery and the struggles of postbellum freedom.

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Lawrence Jackson's previous books include The Indignant Generation and Ralph Ellison. He is a professor of English and African-American studies at Emory University. Rahmeek Rasul/University of Chicago Press hide caption

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Rahmeek Rasul/University of Chicago Press

A Quest For Roots Uncovers Ordinary People

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: My Father's Name

My Father's Name

A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 Lawrence P. Jackson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-38949-3


Acknowledgments............................................ix1 To Danville..............................................12 "I Knew My Father".......................................253 The Dan River Betimes in the Morning.....................454 Make Do..................................................745 The Names of Guinea Roads................................946 To the Courthouse in June................................1167 Land of the Civil War....................................1408 The Will.................................................1629 The Reckoning............................................18510 My Inheritance..........................................196Notes......................................................217Index......................................................231

Chapter One

To Danville

When my wife and I learned that we were going to have a baby in the summer of 2004, we thought it would be fitting, if we had a boy, to name the child Nathaniel for my father and grandfather, and in honor of American patriot Nat Turner. Six weeks before the baby was due, I drove up to Danville, Virginia, in Pittsylvania County, the rural point of origin for the Nathaniels of my own family saga. More accurately, I drove just north of Danville to the outlying town of Blairs. I thought that walking the terrain of my forebears would put me in a paternal frame of mind and that, with luck, I might unearth my grandfather's old house by the railroad tracks. Now that I was on the verge of contributing to another generation that would carry that puzzlingly common surname for American blacks—Jackson—I was curious about how my father's people saw the world. In the back of my mind, I wanted to better understand my father, such a formidable presence in my own memory.

My father, as an old Virginia saying goes, "went back to Guinea" in 1990, the year I finished college. Ours was a relationship filled with the anguished complexity of fathers and sons. I wanted to be like him, but never felt I could achieve his magnificent serenity. On the other hand, he desperately wanted me to build the emotional strength to be myself. By the end of his earthly life, my father and I had overcome the sore feelings and failed moments: I know that he loved me, and my love for him grows every day.

After he had gone, I tried different things to enhance my memories of him. On his birthday in 2001, I drove from Richmond, where I then lived, down Route 360 to Danville. I wanted to see the place where my grandfather had lived, which I hadn't been to since the last time my father had taken us there when I was seven years old. During that visit I had gone to the Danville tourist bureau and looked at telephone books from the 1960s and 1970s to see if I could find my grandfather's address. But I had forgotten a crucial fact: Grandpa Jackson had lived in Blairs, not nearby Danville, the comparatively robust city of fifty thousand on the Dan River. So I spent an hour in Danville's colored cemetery, vainly looking for the headstone. I remember the trip mainly on account of pictures. Every ten miles or so on the route to and from Richmond, I stopped to shoot rolls of film, taking color photographs of every tin-roof barn and chinked wooden cabin that looked as if it, like my grandfather, had had its beginnings in the nineteenth century.

My father was not particularly close to his paternal family, so after my grandfather died in 1975 we visited Blairs only one more time, the next year. My final and most complete memory of the place is from that summer trip. Most of my time was spent sitting on my great-aunt Sally's front porch while the adults talked. My sister, who was eleven that summer, had been able to stay with a classmate in Baltimore, leaving me by myself. In the sweltering August heat I spent an hour alone on the porch and swatted about seventeen flies. I was just getting coordinated enough to swat a healthy fly, and the insects seemed to me the most no-account form of animal life I had encountered: uglier than ants, vicious and stubborn. Sometimes, while I was waiting for the adults and wishing for other kids, I would jog up and down the road outside the simple white clapboard house. In the living room, Aunt Sally had only hard candy in a bowl, and I remember moaning and pleading for a Popsicle.

Our trips to Danville in the early 1970s were unremarkable—always. At 11 a.m. we would leave our home in Baltimore, outfitted to survive in case the Volkswagen broke down and we wound up stranded outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, as regularly happened. Well beyond the point of miserliness, my father resisted eating at roadside restaurants, whether Howard Johnson or Tastee Freez. In an insulated sack, my mother would pack fried chicken legs, ham sandwiches, and frozen sodas on the verge of exploding. Danville was about four hundred miles from Baltimore, and if we got what was, for the four of us, an early start at eleven in the morning, we'd arrive there about a quarter to nine, which in summer was just before dark. My father kept the speedometer needle of the Volkswagen at fifty-five, which was probably the best way to coax the old fastback down the road without repairs. My grandfather had wanted my father to buy a top-of-the-line automobile, to let everyone know that his son had prospered in the city. My father, though, was content to wear English caps, penny loafers, and khaki trousers, to marry a black Episcopalian, and to have preschool children who could read and swim.

Grandpa Jackson lived simply, sharing a two-room bungalow owned by his sister, Mary, and her husband, John Kesee. The house sat only about a hundred paces from the railroad tracks of the old Southern line, and inside there was a coldwater tap. The toilet was outside.

I spent those visits listening attentively for the carrying whistle and chugging wheels of the locomotives, anxiously looking down the tracks at the overpass for Route 29, and collecting the spikes that railroad men drove into the crossties to hold the iron rails in place. After painting them gold, I used to give the spikes to my godfathers and male relatives as holiday gifts. Grandpa had been a railroad man, though I can only remember him as a large-bellied, tobacco-brown man, smiling and joking, flashing a gold tooth on the side of his mouth, and wearing a stocking cap and an apron, with his belt buckle on the side of his pants instead of over the zipper. Whenever we came into the house he would be performing some caregiver's duty for his brother-in-law, who was ill. A comfortable and easy man, my grandfather called me dutifully on birthdays and holidays from a telephone in his house, I always assumed, speaking a staccato but cheerful version of black Virginia speech. He always sent me a card with at least five dollars, an extravagance to me. My memory tells me that Grandpa Jackson had signed his name—though not with the flair and precision of my own father, whose signature remains an architectural mystery to me.

The most joyful part of the Danville trip for my sister and me was our stay at the newly built Holiday Inn, with its buckets of ice and soda machines overflowing with Dr Pepper and Royal Crown Cola. The hotel's swimming pool had a slide, and my sister and I would play briefly at dusk when our visit to our ancient relatives had ended, or we would brave a dip in the morning, when the water was still chilly. I don't know how long the hotels had been integrated; interracial marriage had gained legal sanction in that part of the world only the year before I was born, and in 1968 small-town Danville had had the distinction of hosting one of the largest race riots that had ever taken place in North America. As a child of five or six, I didn't think much about how the waitress acted when we entered the restaurant or about the clerk's attitude when we checked out of our rooms, or why we stayed mainly at large national franchises instead of the smaller privately owned places. I do remember, though, that my father always had us wait in the car when he went in alone to the hotel registration desk, and sometimes I'd get a bit fidgety, waiting for him to return. My strongest memory of public dining experiences with my father in the 1970s and '80s centers on one recurring episode: my father's forcefully objecting to being seated by the kitchen door. But I can still recall the ritual dinner of chicken fingers that we always had at Long John Silver's, a "treat," because it was white meat without any bone.

* * *

In the fall of 2004, I was working on a book at the National Humanities Center and living in Durham, North Carolina. At the tail end of the sabbatical and as the season began to change, I looked at a map and noticed that Danville was perhaps no more than fifty miles away. Almost on impulse, I decided to steal a visit. A short drive through the countryside would be a small price to pay, to gain a surer sense of the earth and the trees, the sky and the birds; an act to renew my family memory. With any luck, I would tread the old ground of my father's fathers. Sunday was the day of ritual, and I was called.

For my country visit, I started off the day at Biscuitville with a cheese-and-scrambled-egg biscuit, driving past Durham's prized eateries, Foster's and Guglhupf. Everybody at the drive-thru was pleasant, and I got directions to the interstate. After only four miles on Interstate 40, I picked up Route 86. My watch told me that it was about 11:30, the right time for a Jackson ride to Danville. Driving through forests and alongside farms, I observed the early winter dress of the passing trees: oak, maple, poplar, and pine.

Going through the town of Hillsborough, I scanned the colonial-era historical markers and saw that George Washington once billeted there, and that Tories and patriots alike had swung by their necks. The somber past reminded me of a man I had been reading about named Odell Waller, who had shared a last name with my grandmother's mother, and who had been electrocuted in Richmond in 1941 for shooting a white Pittsylvania County farmer. Odell Waller had claimed he wasn't a violent man, but was defending himself from a white landowner who had stolen seventy-two bushels of his wheat. The incorporated city of Danville is, by tradition at least, in Pittsylvania County, and I wondered if this man had been kin to me. I also wondered, as my thoughts drifted into abstraction, if anyone related to me had been around to see George Washington. How could I determine that?

I drove past the Hillsborough Historical Society and Welcome Center, a delightful stone building dating back to the colonial era, and it occurred to me that the stones it was made of don't come from a quarry. I had known houses exactly like this in two places in Maryland: at the junction of Falls and Old Court Road, and in Ellicott City, the home town of the mathematician Benjamin Banneker. They were the types of stones you would find if you had tilled several hundred acres of ground and had upturned and collected, one by one, every troublesome rock that had stood in the path of your plow or hoe or shovel.

Yanceyville, some twenty miles further on, was smaller than Hillsborough—not much more than a water tower, a cattle farm, and a filling station combined with a general store. I could remember how much fun it was as a child to go through a well-stocked old store, with grooves on its wooden floor like lane markings telling you where you could run and how fast you could go. My grandfather, who had a reputation as a ladies' man, probably made more than one little trip to Yanceyville, after Danville and Blairs had unfolded all their delights to him. He must have made the journey on foot, I thought, as I drove along holding the speedometer at fifty-five while drivers behind me, even the big rigs, signaled and swerved into the oncoming traffic to get around. As a teenager driving with my father, I would become desperate for him to propel the car down the highway so as to keep up with the pace of traffic, and once I asked him, in my typical beleaguered way, "Why do you go slower than fifty-five?"

This time he answered me. "I like to look at the trees."

The roads must have been alive at night in the 1910s, when my grandfather would have been at his most obstreperous, and when the night air would have been filled with the sound of the owls and waddling low-slung beasts moving through the dense brush. I looked over the hills of the countryside passing by, and picked out the curious geometries of the frame houses, and the materials used to build their roofs.

The first time I checked my watch, I saw that it was getting past 12:30. I opened up the atlas on the seat next to me a couple of times and eyeballed the Virginia map again. Danville edged the North Carolina border, obliging me to flip back and forth between the N map and the V map to get a clear fix on it, which I felt a bit unsafe doing while at the wheel of the car. Besides, where the little dot should be designating the location of the town of Blairs, the map in the atlas has a rectangle labeled See inset—a map within a map showing the city of Danville proper. The "See inset" rectangle obscured Blairs. I flipped the map closed and kept driving. Something in my blood resisted stopping the car until I'd achieved my destination.

In the nineteenth century, Danville had been a highly profitable tobacco crossroads, the center of two states' worth of tobacco farmers' Bright Leaf special. The key to the town's early success was its strategic location on the Dan River, named in 1728 by the eminent Virginian William Byrd, who once had punished his slave butler by forcing him to drink a pint of urine. The river runs from Pittsylvania County through Halifax to Mecklenburg, all on the edge of the state border, and now, courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers, it empties into the huge reservoir at Lake Gaston.

On a lark, I decided to avoid Danville proper altogether and to take my chances searching for Blairs. After about four miles, I recognized that I was lost, and my errand itself began to seem ill-considered. Not a soul knew I was on the road, and I wouldn't even know anyone here to tell that I'd arrived in their neighborhood. My mother had lost track of our Danville relatives years ago, even the ones that had moved to Washington, DC. Besides, in the early 1960s, my grandmother's father, Arthur Joyce, had pressured her to move a heavy crock when she was pregnant with my sister, and she still carries the image of him and the whole Piedmont clan as a group of mean boors. Since the old man lived in the city of Roanoke, my mother suspected that the country folk were even cruder.

Disoriented somewhere between Danville and Keeling, I saw that it was a little after one o'clock; there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and I figured I could burn a little daylight. Then I asked myself: What am I really looking for? A house? A man? A family? A memory?

I couldn't answer right away. My quest had at least a minor source in purposeful envy. The day before, after a brief conversation with two white colleagues who were African American history professors—a Brit and a North Carolinian whose next- door neighbors once had lynched a black man—I realized that I couldn't afford to miss my own family's history when it was this close at hand. It seemed to me a kind of betrayal to conduct conversations with grown-up white men who had traveled the world and written books about the subtle interiors of the lives of black people in Virginia and North Carolina and be black myself, with only the vaguest awareness about specific ancestors in those same places, really only one generation removed. I exited the highway and resolved that I would find, at least, the old house where Grandpa Jackson used to live with his sister and brother-in-law. Finding that place would make the day a success.

Driving southeast on 726 in the direction of Ringgold, I passed rows of mobile homes, their front lawns already gaudy with plastic Christmas decorations, their rear yards loaded with small sheds and barns. The new dwellings reminded me of the old house. I felt positive at that moment that Grandpa, Aunt Mary, and Uncle John lived in a mobile home resting on a cinderblock foundation. The only thing disturbing my fantasy was the missing railroad tracks. Every one I saw looked familiar.

I spied several young men in overlarge sweatshirts lolling in the front yard of a house; they looked up at me with mild interest as I drove by. Next door a man toiled over the hood of a Lincoln, applying soapy water. He too looked up, curious about the stranger with Georgia license plates. On the other side of the road I noticed a man in a sharp brown jacket walking the yard of the Christ's Deliverance Baptist Church. After another mile, I made an about-face and decided I would ask the Baptist for some directions. Pulling the car slowly into the church's gravel driveway, I saw a house in the rear with a hulking, shimmering maroon Humvee parked on the grass, among half-a-dozen other rusted-out cars from various epochs. A sure sign that they were "country," I thought to myself, while I measured the glamour amid ruin. I walked over to the man, who at first seemed to have the stature of a man in his early forties; but as I got closer I saw the worn face of a person twenty years older. Making a small wave, I kept my hand in close to my body, as if I were covering him with a pistol.