Southern Cultures 8.4 (2002) 4-8
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When I first began to read a lot of American history, I thought the tales and the personalities were fascinating but still remote. Whether the subject was the space race or the Salem witches, nobody I knew seemed directly involved or especially kin to me. For many people, history is the most boring subject in school, but for me it was lots of neat but distant stories.
That changed when I finally got around to the South. While I still didn't know or feel descended from anybody truly famous, events and tales I had heard about at home began showing up between hard covers. The War was the obvious example, still spoken of in hushed tones in certain family gatherings, but there were names as well. In the Carolinas alone, there were Hamptons, Tillmans, Macons, Worths, Aycocks, Loves, some guy named "Legare," and dozens more examples from other states. I still didn't know anybody famous, but I began to realize in a [End Page 4] personal way that some famous people had unfamous descendants and relatives that I might know, and that past events could reach out and shape the lives of people right around me. The past began to resonate with new associations as I began to match acquaintances with note cards, grandchildren with ancestors. I remember telling somebody that reading southern history was like walking through a local cemetery, with familiar ghosts coming forward at unexpected moments with a message for the present.
And then I remember feeling really vindicated when I found a text from the Apostle Faulkner himself. "The deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with baffled garrulous outraged ghosts," he called it in Absalom, Absalom!, and he described Quentin Compson's encounter with southern history as "listening, having to listen, to one of the ghosts . . . telling him about old ghost-times." It wasn't long before I began to feel pretty ghostly and Faulknerian myself, until the romance wore off and I realized that it wouldn't hurt to add a little fiddling and barbecue to my South, if only to give the ghosts and Spanish moss a little company.
Now I know that the South is not all about the spirits, but every once in a while I get that haunted experience again. One of them came last year, when an early draft of Daniel Levinson Wilk's essay on the Phoenix Riot came to hand, and I bleakly recognized a haunt from my own family. Wilk tells a story of racial terrorism in up-country South Carolina more than a century ago that broke out when whites tried to settle the question of African American voting there once and for all. A fracas between white Democrats and white and African American Republicans broke out at a rural polling place. Shots were fired and a white Democrat fell dead. In the days that followed, other Democrats took revenge by lynching at least eight African Americans and assaulting several white Republicans, and as many as hundreds of African Americans eventually fled the state.
Now it happens that the polling place in question was the front porch of a country store owned by my great-grandfather, Johnson Sale Watson. His son Harry, who also shows up briefly in Wilk's account, was my grandfather and the man for whom I am named. Though I don't believe in inherited guilt, I'm glad to say that Great Granddaddy shows up in this story calling for calm and restraint instead of bloodshed, and embarrassed that he signed an official report that blamed the victims for their own persecution. So, Gentle Reader, this story is not just another chapter from the textbooks for your Gentle Coeditor. It's a ghost story that hits home. A Tale From Beyond the Crypt if there ever was one.
I had known about this story for a long time. My father's dearly departed sisters were avid local historians in Greenwood and they had told me about the Phoenix Riot in tones that ranged from grim to wry. For...