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Timothy Tyson's book about racial conflict in North Carolina is, in fact, a couple of things—both the account of a racially motivated killing in Oxford, NC, in 1970 and the story of one family's, and one young man's, coming to terms with race. The book is not, except in the broadest definition of that term, a racial conversion narrative, that genre given life by white southerners from Lillian Smith to Willie Morris and Will Campbell and beyond. Although Tyson confesses to having been, as a boy, "infected with white supremacy," his was really a pretty mild form of the disease. And he got over it, at least its worst manifestations, more quickly than did most other white racial sinners.
A professor of African American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Tyson grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in a series of eastern North Carolina towns, the son of a Methodist minister, "an Eleanor Roosevelt liberal." Despite his own genteel and generally enlightened upbringing, Tyson's family a generation or two back belonged to a world of tenant farming and "hardscrabble survival"—the kind of environment that is generally associated with bitter white racism. But Tyson's family—at least his paternal grandfather's family—seem to have been racial iconoclasts from the mid-nineteenth century on, and that streak of iconoclasm (except for one hard-to-explain flirtation with the Klan in the 1920s) continued into the twentieth century. His grandfather had become a Methodist preacher, and all his sons—Tyson's father and uncles—had become Methodist ministers as well, all of the racially liberal variety. After serving other churches in eastern North Carolina, his father had moved to Oxford, a town north of Durham [End Page 86] and near the Virginia line, in the late 1960s, and it is there—in 1970, at the age of ten—that Tim Tyson had his racial awakening.
It occurred when his good friend, Gerald Teel, walked up to his house one May morning and announced, "Daddy and Roger and 'em shot 'em a nigger." At the time, at least as he tells it, Tyson was as shocked by the racial epithet as by the deed: "We did not use that word in my house." (In fact, in almost every white memoir focusing on race that I've read, the author states at some point whether his or her family used the word "nigger" or not, though usually its use or not was as much a signifier of social class as degree of racial prejudice.) But his friend was right: his father, Robert Teel, and his brother had indeed killed 23-year-old Henry Marrow, and for approximately the same reason that Emmett Till had been killed in Mississippi fifteen years earlier—"Marrow had violated a time-honored Southern taboo and appeared to make a flirtatious remark" to Robert Teel's daughter-in-law. When Teel's son "exploded with rage," Teel and a stepson heard the commotion, got their shotguns, and shot at a fleeing Marrow, then caught up with him and beat and shot him to death while he lay on the ground. With that incident Oxford exploded. Marches and protests turned into near-riots and firebombings. Two large tobacco warehouses—with their million dollar product inside—went up in flames. And less than three months later, Robert Teel and his son were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Ten-year-old Timothy Tyson, of course, wasn't aware of all the consequences—or the context—of Henry Marrow's murder at the time, and his family left Oxford shortly afterward when the Rev. Tyson's racial views were deemed too liberal for his conservative parishioners. Timothy Tyson left the Oxford story behind until some thirteen years later, as a twenty-four-year-old freshman at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, when he decided to look into the Oxford killing for...