The day after New Year’s in 1871, my great-great-grandfather, David Fryar, was drunk. Since he had lost his horse some time over the holiday, he was also in a temper. Seething and smashed, David started off on foot in the last sunny hours of the day, headed for the house of the man he reckoned might know something about the animal’s whereabouts. From his own cabin in central Sampson County, North Carolina, David, a Confederate veteran who had been wounded at Gettysburg, made his way toward the outskirts of the county seat, over the soft sodden fields of what would be cotton come July and down the mud-gummed roads of wet winter. As he imagined what he might do to the man he suspected had stolen his horse, David stumbled on, passing tea-colored creeks running toward the Black River, lined with stumps of cut pine and the flared grace of bald cypress trees.
When he came to Luke Shaw’s yard, David hollered for the man to come out and return his horse, his eyes casting about for a switch. Luke, who only six years earlier had been enslaved, working the fields and waterways nearby, did not say a word from inside his home. Luke had always lived up against the confines of white supremacy, but the intensity of white terrorism that now enclosed his family’s lives was different. Emancipation in Sampson County had been followed by a surge of violence against Black citizens, particularly now that Conservative, white supremacist power had swept the state house back in August. White southerners, thrashed by the war, were now, in their own words, redeemed, and looking for opportunities to exert their dominance.
Inebriated and indignant, David called again for Luke to come out. Inside the cabin, Luke’s wife, Zilpha, and his four children, all old enough to know what was happening, prayed my ancestor away. His belligerent cries still met with silence, David yelled if Luke perhaps had no ears to hear him. Though the newspaper accounts of what was about to happen don’t say, I suspect David leveled a number of physical threats against Luke, who eventually stepped outside to meet the angry young white man, slim and livid, roaring in his yard. Luke Shaw was fifty-five years old the afternoon that David staggered into his yard to incriminate him for the theft of a horse. Luke knew what white folks would do to an accused, Black horse-thief, and he asked David to leave, explaining that he did not know the location of the animal. Restrained by necessity and experience, Luke stood straight, while David made his threats and pitched his abuses. If he was quiet now, this vile white man might just leave. Then, David struck Luke with the switch, and Luke felt its sharp bite.
Luke seized a piece of firewood and smacked it across David’s face, sending him down into the mud. David struggled to get up, and when he did, wet and faint, he lunged at Luke, who hit him again. I don’t know how long the fight went on. I don’t know if there was a fight. White folks frequently fabricated tales of Black brutality from the threads of their own simmering enmity, and almost everything I know about this story comes from white-owned newspapers, sympathetic to men like David. I can only guess how the confrontation that afternoon ended: Luke went back into his home to hold his family close, and David, whupped and humiliated, staggered back home under the naked cypress, plotting retribution.
II. SAMPSON COUNTY, NORTH CAROLINA
Sampson County reeks of microbial-laced pig shit, as does much of that corner of southeastern North Carolina when the sun shines and the breeze blows in the summer. On my first visit down there, many years ago now, I could not see the notorious pink lagoons, pits in the earth holding a tremendous volume of what folks delicately call “hog waste,” but everywhere, I could smell the bacteria and excrement teeming together to make hydrogen sulfide. But eventually, even the famed rotten-egg stench of sulfide reconciled to my senses. Only when sixteen-wheelers passed me on the road, carrying six dozen hogs pressed tight against each other, snout to tail and tail to snout like strips of bacon, did I remember: it stinks here.
The smell came and went, creating an olfactory dissonance that seemed to reflect the experience of the landscape, which dithered between the dark, waterlogged woods, stemming thick and thorny from the inky wet of the Black River, and the light, sandy soil, in which grew pungent tobacco, modest soybeans, and snowy cotton. As I drove the two-lane highways that cut back and forth across one of the state’s largest counties, I admired these open sun-bleached fields and the stark beauty of their expanse after harvest. While pulled over at the edge of a tobacco field, the rich, toxic leaves already pulled from rows of wisping plant stalks, I remembered burying my grandfather, David’s grandson, underneath crabgrass strewn with browned pine needles in a nearby county, and my head buzzed in the heat. The cadence of humming insects throbbed in my head like one too many drinks, and I dug my heels into the sandy dirt of an ancient desiccated ocean and for one bloody pulse, I confused the deep love I have for my family with the warmth of intoxication.
I have stayed away from the minor chord of this landscape—the rivers and swamps of southeastern North Carolina—my whole life, terrified of cottonmouths and anything else that might drip down from Spanish-moss strung trees or murmur up from the tannins-infused waters. I preferred the fields where my family once farmed, edged with deer blinds and thin loblolly pines. My heart was eased once by the sight of wild turkeys congregating among the shriveled stalks to peck around for old dried corn like an open secret. Most North Carolinians who hail from the big cities and bloated mill towns west of Raleigh treat this part of the state like the back of beyond, a sweltering plane to traverse on their way to the beach. There is a clandestine atmosphere here familiar to visitors of many rural places that is made even more secretive by the heavy-aired hulls of swamps and broad stretches of cultivated land. Folks rarely stop to visit. Where is there to stop? What is there to see?
In Sampson County, there is no major town, except for the modest county seat, Clinton (pronounced CLIN-in), just crossroads and old farmhouses parsed out along the roads between them, traces of old plantations, churches, and long-gone farming communities now visible in dozens of roadside cemeteries, where members of my own family are buried. The landscape of Sampson County resembles an archipelago, each small community an island in an ocean of pink lagoons and tobacco fields. You can drive for ten minutes along the state roads in any direction and not pass another person, just road signs carrying the names of people, long dead and buried. On that first trip I stopped at almost every gas station I saw to fill up, just in case I got stuck in the back of some place that most folks in North Carolina never bothered to know, and that I was just barely coming to know myself.
Because Sampson County provides to an outsider like myself a distorted sense of stasis and dissociation from the rest of the state, I was not altogether surprised to read a similar description of the county from a special correspondent from the New York Tribune who visited in “search for the Ku-Klux” in August 1872, a little over a year after David Fryar came hollering into Luke Shaw’s yard. “It is a fact that the people of the surrounding counties know less of what is going on in Sampson than in almost any other county in the State,” the author wrote, his tone wafting with condescension. “It has but one town (Clinton), a collection of frame stores grouped about the Court-house square . . . when you travel into the county any distance west or northwest of Clinton you find a people almost as isolated as if they lived in the center of Africa.”
On my first visit in a blazing August, I wrote from the heat of my car that Sampson County was a husk of my own making, a place I did not understand and so it appeared to me to be empty. Every field and road reminded me of a gravestone rubbing, an activity I enjoyed as a child, in which you take charcoal or crayons and rub them over white paper placed on a gravestone. The action renders not just the letterings, but the textures, depressions, and patterns of the stone as a palimpsest on the paper. Each place I stood in was familiar enough to recognize as a place permeated with meaning for my family, but my understanding of Sampson County then was still just an etching of what this place was in the past and what my family did to and in it. I knew my family was from here, and that this striking, stinking place was settling into me, but nothing more than that. The past was palpable, but hazy. For years, I sensed Sampson County on the horizon of my vision as I made my way through a long graduate program in American Studies at the state university two hours northwest of Clinton.
When that Tribune correspondent traveled to Sampson County, he was on a mission: “the Radicals [Republicans] told me terrible tales about the Ku-Klux and the murders and whippings it had been guilty of, and the Conservatives [Democrats] assured me that the Administration had systematically intimidated hundreds of men by threatening persecution under the Ku-Klux [Klan] Act. The object of my visit was to ascertain the exact truth in regard to both these matters.” I thought about the false equivalencies in this man’s mission as I headed back to Sampson County last July, a week before I got married and added to my family tree a man I love like home, with his own roots in eastern North Carolina. A month earlier, I had found David Fryar’s name in historic newspapers and started to piece together this part of my family history through historical records. It was time to ascertain, in the words of that Tribune reporter, the exact truth: I would walk the very ground where it happened and sink knee-deep into the past. I would order the story and fill in the background. I would seek a coherent understanding of my family’s legacy of white supremacist violence. I put my wedding dress in the backseat and pulled together the scraps—memories of my grandfather, a few stories about the farm, and a dozen old newspaper clippings—and headed southeast toward Sampson County and the Black River.
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CHARLOTTE TAYLOR FRYAR is a historian living in Washington, D.C., where she writes about race, landscape, and ecology in the American South. Originally from the piedmont of North Carolina, she holds a PhD in American Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is at work on her first book which will explore the racial and natural histories of the Potomac River.