Historian Charles Joyner has said that microhistory, which is the intensive historical investigation of a well-defined unit, such as a single event, a community, a family, or an individual, aspires to “search for answers to large questions in small places.” History is all around us, but most of it is lost forever, of no consequence, merely the imprint of time’s inevitability. I recently had a small and personal glimpse into this field of study, and I suspect that many microhistorical investigations begin from some personal interest. For example, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Powers spent years meticulously documenting the events surrounding the killing of Crazy Horse, which Random House published as a 467-page book in 2010. But the story behind how Powers came to write the book is almost as interesting as the book itself. As a 12-year-old boy, Powers visited Fort Robinson in Nebraska, where Crazy Horse was killed with a bayonet. The story haunted Powers, who wondered why Crazy Horse had been killed. Powers was in his 70th year of life when the book was finally published.
Although Powers’ intensive study was driven by personal curiosity that stayed with him for over 50 years, Crazy Horse was a key historical figure, and his death has historical significance. My own brush with microhistory was on a much more personal scale. But it showed me that all around us are stories that have lessons and significance, even if they had no impact beyond the communities where they occurred and the people who were there.
I grew up in the south during the years of desegregation. Which means that I was also there, and remember all too well, both segregation as well as the initial fear and mistrust that occurred when schools were integrated. And I remember, although I hate to even say it, but it happened, that every town had a section that we called “colored town”. It wasn’t considered rude to say this – it was how we spoke. It was the reality of our lives, both those of us who lived outside colored town and those who lived within. Blacks and whites sometimes worked together, although this was almost always blacks working for whites, but at night the two races separated into well-defined communities, with their own businesses, schools, and health care. My glimpses into colored town were rare. I saw it from the outside only.
Beginning in the summer of 1965 and continuing for 7 years beyond that, I spent most of my summers in a girl’s camp just outside the town of Brevard, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Although Brevard has long been a vacation destination, it’s also Appalachia, with all the isolation, poverty, and distinctive culture that implies. For me, a child of northern Florida, Brevard was a world apart. We lived in our isolated camp, where most days there were few cultural clues to our setting. But they were there, even when we were in camp. The pale-faced, poorly fed boys who lived in a shack near the archery range could sometimes be spotted – like monkeys in the trees they stared at us as we did at them. There were many legends about the Brown boys, but the reality was they were poor – bad skin, bad teeth, no-shoes-torn-clothes poor – and ignorant. One look at them screamed malnutrition and neglect. I also remember being in riding class, where we were trained in formal English equitation, while I watched the farmer across the road guide the plow his mule was pulling. Even as a child, I was keenly aware of the contrast, of the sense that I was in a place where two universes existed side by side.
But it was when we left camp, for various trips and activities, that the differences were most clear. And, depending on where a particular trip had been or was going, we often drove through Brevard’s “colored town”. And I stared. I wondered. Who were these people, and what were their lives like? What did they do each day? What did they talk about around their dinner tables? Did they have dinner tables?
I have few good visual memories of Brevard in those days. I can only see snapshots of places and events, and I can make little coherent out of those. But there is one place that is clearly in my mind – the Do Drop In. My memory is looking out the window of our rattletrap old camp bus. As we turn one particular corner, I pause from the endless singing that begins when the bus pulls out and ends only when it has parked or an adult forces our silence. I always want to see what is happening on this corner, where people gather and where I sense community. There is a two-story wood-frame building, with a porch, and many people are hanging around there, just being together – talking, sitting, playing. I can tell they are there just because it’s where they find each other. In my memory, above the porch, there is the phrase “Do Drop In.” The wood is old and the words are faint, and it mixes poverty along with pride. It is so clever, I think – that I always love to read it. The people are all black, and from the group a teenage boy stares back at the bus. He is unusual, for his hair is the color of light cream and his eyes are light. He is an albino. I learn to look for him, for I have never seen anything like this. Sometimes there is more than one albino, and as I grow older I have a learned a little about recessive genes and small populations, and I wonder about the odds of finding these two albinos here in the world apart, in this corner of Brevard where people hang out on the porch of a place that I call the Do Drop Inn.
The reality of the Do Drop In has remained a part of me. It was so distinctive I just knew that I would one day find a picture of it somewhere, with a caption like, “The Do Drop In was a central part of the black community of Brevard in the 1960s. Across from the Bethel Baptist Church, it was a gathering place, where you could buy a coca-cola and a handful of goober peas, the local name for boiled peanuts.” And there they would be, all those people, maybe even with the albinos in the photo. Maybe I could find their names, figure out what had happened to them, what their future had become. More than once I searched the internet for it, certain that someone, somewhere, would have put that picture up.
I found Do Drop Ins, spelled just that way, in Martinsville, Virigina, Gilbert, West Virginia, Pueblo, Colorado, Mountain City, Tennessee, Knob Noste, Missouri, Beebe, Arkansas, Phoenix, Arizona, Saint Louis, Missouri, New Tazewell, Tennessee, San Antonio, Texas, Findlay, Ohio, Salisbury, North Carolina, and more. But not in Brevard. And, OK, so it turned out the name isn’t nearly as original as my young mind believed. But still – I yearned to see it again.
And that’s when I began to feel that I was chasing after ghosts. I returned to Brevard in summer of 2011 for a camp reunion. I asked a friend who’d attended during my years if she remembered the “Do Drop In”. I spoke of the albinos, and the porch, and the peeling paint. Her response was a wide-eyed, “Are you sure you didn’t dream that?” Hmm… perhaps I had. But I didn’t think so. How could I have been remembering a single dream for nearly 50 years? I was sure that I’d remember the building if I saw it again, even if it were painted or falling apart. So after the reunion ended, I visited all the roads between camp and town, in both directions. And suddenly I saw a building, boarded up, neglected, right on a corner, and my heart knew this building. I did not think that it was the Do Drop In, it was only one story, but I knew I was in the old neighborhood, less than one mile from camp. I knew this was the corner our bus had passed again and again, nearly 50 years ago now.
Finding that building opened a door that led to a corridor that led me to more doors and more answers. I found a nearby sign that referred to the Historic Rosenwald community. Could it be that Brevard’s colored town had been called Rosenwald? Why would a southern black community have a Jewish name? But I had something. I had a building I knew had been there, just around the corner from the Baptist Church. And I had a name – Rosenwald. I had the oddest feeling, standing on that corner looking at that derelict building, as if I could see the ghosts of the people who had gathered there, as if I could hear the laughter of children, that although time had changed this place, taken those people away, that the essence of the events that had happened there remained forever bound to the place. Standing there photographing that building was the beginning of my microhistorical investigation, and how I came to find the larger answers hidden in this small place.
Julius Rosenwald was the head of Sears Roebuck in the early part of the 20th century, and was well known for his philanthropic accomplishments in the Chicago Jewish community. But what is much less well known is that he joined forces with Booker T Washington to build African-American schools in the Deep South at a time when there were none. The model that he used was of matching funds – communities had to raise at least some of the funds themselves. White school boards in the south were not interested in spending money on the education of black children, so often the black communities raised much of the funds themselves, sometimes with help from sympathetic white community members and churches. But always they had to take the lead.
There was no “Rosenwald community” in Brevard in the 1960s, but there was a Rosenwald School, which opened its door in 1916 and closed them in 1966, when the Brevard schools were integrated. There were communities, alright. There was Greasy Corner, Goose Hollow, Frog Bottom, Glade Creek, and French Broad. Greasy Corner, it turned out, was the place of my memory, where Mr. Jip Mills’ store stood, right down from the billiard parlor which, it turned out, was the boarded up building I had recognized and photographed. Greasy Corner was so named because it was near the Transylvania Tanning Company, and the smells included a mix of decaying animal hides and tannic acid, both unpleasant. But the Tanning Company provided employment to many in the black community. Greasy Corner was, just as I remembered, the center of activity, a major gathering place for the 500 or so residents who were excluded from many local businesses.
Dr. Betty Reed, a continuing education instructor at Brevard College, first learned of the Rosenwald School’s existence when she was substitute teaching at an adult education class in Brevard. There were 5 men there that night – 2 black and 3 white, and none of them particularly wanted to do “book work”. So she got them talking about their school days, and what she learned both angered and fascinated her – about the blacks being bused to Hendersonville 20 miles away to attend the black high school there. When the men couldn’t answer all her questions, they encouraged her to contact Mrs. Ethel K. Mills, who, it turned out, was nearly 100 years old by then and once the principal of the Brevard Rosenwald School.
What started as Dr. Reed’s one night of substitute teaching led to the publication of The Brevard Rosenwald School: Black Education and Community Building in a Southern Appalachian Town, 1920-1966. It is part of a series on the history of southern Appalachia, and it is microhistory at its best. In the grand scheme of the world, the events that took place in Transylvania County North Carolina in the early to mid 20th century had no impact. There were no wars, no recessions, nothing to record, that stemmed from events there.
Dr. Reed writes, “Before suburban sprawl dominated the landscape, a suburb existed in the small mountain town of Brevard, North Carolina. Called “Colored Town” by residents, the neighborhood was home to a thriving community of African Americans. Within its confines, supportive family interaction, bustling economic activity, and lively community involvement existed. Of greater importance, the education of children was a tri-institutional effort – a trinity of home, church, and school united to enlighten the community’s children and youth.”
I will write more about the book and the school in a future post, for now I wish to return to the matter of the Do Drop In. My initial research into the Rosenwald area turned up nothing to suggest that such an establishment had ever existed. I began to doubt myself. Perhaps I had dreamed it.
Thanks to the internet, I found an address for Dr. Reed, who I knew had spent many days taking oral histories of the area during her research for the book. I was joyous when she responded to my written letter via email, telling me that she would call all her contacts and see what she could find. Little happened at first – no one could remember it. And then, one day – I received an email from Betty with a quote from Brevard resident and businessman James Outlaw. Betty told me that James had asked her to pass along the message that I was “125% correct” about the Do Drop In. Another resident, Lois Wynn, also remembered it.
But the story kind of ends there. Ms. Wynn thought that it might have been a beauty parlor or barber shop. Now, the odd thing is, that of all the Do Drop Ins I turned up in modern times, one of them is a beauty parlor, and it’s in Salisbury North Carolina, childhood home of both my paternal grandparents. My family goes back to pre-revolutionary days in Salisbury and nearby Spencer. Did I overlap a memory from Salisbury with one from Brevard? Was it possible that both Mr. Outlaw and Ms. Wynn had also traveled to Salisbury and had mixed things up as I had?
I don’t think so. 125% is a high degree of confidence! The strength of my own memory makes me think that James Outlaw and Lois Wynn, both of whom I may well have spotted once upon a time, when our bus drove by Greasy Corner, are right when they say that I’m 125% correct. I do think the wooden 2-story building I remember was not the Do Drop In itself but Mr. Jip Mill’s store, which was a center of the community. The Do Drop In was probably very near there, and my memories have confused which sign was on which building. But it is interesting that no record of the Do Drop In exists anywhere. Dr. Reed checked business directories at the library and made many phone calls. From her investigation, she turned up exactly 3 of us who remember that name. When I had first told Dr. Reed about my interest in the business, she thought that it might well have been a boarding house, as blacks were not able to stay in local hotels, and so local residents often took in boarders.
There is no colored town in Brevard today. I am so glad that the terrible tension that existed in the 1960s is gone from our lives. Racism and inequality are still realities, but we have come so far. I am honored to be one of the few people who remember Greasy Corner, even if I wasn’t part of it.
James Outlaw, it turns out, is the father of one of America’s rising stars – operatic baritone Sidney Outlaw. There among the somewhat ragged crowd on Greasy Corner stood potential that was held down through decades of discrimination, Jim Crow laws, ignorance and hatred. There stood the future father of someone who turns hearts the world over through his beautiful voice.
The albinos – I did not imagine them. They are there, in Dr. Reed’s book, in a picture of the Glee Club. Like me, they too loved to sing, I now know. I hope that someday I learn what became of them.
What is the large question that comes from this small place? Racism is not gone. The Ku Klux Klan has marched in the streets of Brevard in recent memory. There are still inequalities. Blacks are still executed in the south in horrifically unjust numbers. As I wrote this, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia despite over a million signatures begging a stay, with no physical evidence to support his conviction. But there is hope, love, and much progress. It was not so long ago that we lived in separate worlds.
For me, this exercise, which led me to places I’d never imagined I’d go, put me into contact with people I never thought I’d have a chance to know, was deeply personal. I learned that our shared history has meaning, and that we all dreamed of a future where our own children had a chance. I wrote this piece to commemorate the long lost Do Drop In, Greasy Corner and all that it meant to the people who lived there. May our children and grandchildren find their own community, not lose the best of what we had, but turn away the worst and face the future together.
More about the Rosenwald Schools: Documentary film maker Aviva Kempner is currently raising funds to create a documentary about the Rosenwald School movement. You can learn more about the film and the movement at http://www.rosenwaldschoolsfilm.org/home.php. Oprah Winfrey, Julian Bond, and Spike Lee are all graduates of Rosenwald schools. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is leading a movement to document the condition of existing Rosenwald school buildings and offering assistance to local communities in restoring the old schools.