Tag Archives: Washington County

Being and Southerness: pineapple coconut cake, the town of Plymouth, and onion-flavored turds

by Angela Perez

One Sunday in September of 1979, the wind blew hard all day and I sat rather uncomfortably in the parking lot next to the Church of God in the small Southern town of Plymouth, North Carolina.  Here in this swampy little town the geese congregate for a spell in the fall and the air year-round smells like sulfur thanks to the smokestacks on the pulp mill down the road.   This morning, I heard Sister Dale tell Sister Overton as they were setting up the tables outside for this afternoon’s church homecoming luncheon that the stinky smell put out by the pulp mill is the smell of money.  Most of the church congregation is employed there and it’s pulp mill money what paid for all these pretty pink cotton dresses and white vinyl pumps from Rose’s.

All afternoon, old ladies with stiff grey beehive hairdos have been cutting into me, into my moistness, and exclaiming “Sister Braswell has done it again!  Good Lord, I’ll have to take twice as many sugar pills tonight!  Praise the Lord!”   I will admit, I had some competition from Sister Overton’s collard greens with fatback and homemade cornmeal dumplings (you can still see where her nimble fingers made impressions in the dough).  But at the end of the church day, it’s dessert that finishes everyone off and that’s what they taste on their lips as they drive home to watch football and vacuum the floor and crochet a little colorful lopsided afghan destined for the back of the couch.   My creamy frosting is what they will remember as they doze off in the La-Z-Boy recliner, wearily dreaming of those long ago days when afternoon sex was a sure thing on the weekend.

Ah, but I digress!  Back to church!

There among the wooden benches pulled from the vestibule into the parking lot, people moaned in ecstasy over my creamy coconut frosting and then rolled their eyes into the back of their heads (I promise I am not a sex-obsessed cake.  I just call the world as I view it.)  As Brother Braswell stuck a fork in me, I heard him whisper to the Korean mail-order bride (who was married at the time to Brother Chester, a 65-year old man who always sat through Sunday service cleaning his filthy fingernails with a rusty pocketknife) that he wanted one more go ’cause she had such a sweet-ass cooter.

The Korean woman raised her eyebrows and primly directed him to try her kimchi salad, which was an unusual dish to see on a table at a church homecoming in a small town in the South in the 70s.  “Be careful when you eat it, Brother Braswell,” said the Korean lady, “it’s real spicy, like my cooter.”  He laughed and licked some frosting off his fork in a suggestive way.  I saw his toupee was flapping in the wind just a bit and wondered if the Korean lady noticed too.

I was a pineapple coconut cake for most of an entire day, but I never let all of the compliments make me cocky.  And then, as you know, by about two o’clock that afternoon, after about 100 people had stuck a knife into my gentle sides or, in the case of some of the really old people, stuck a pissy smelling finger into my top to scoop up a dab of frosting, I was reduced to mostly fluffy golden crumbs.  Life sure is odd.  Just as you receive all the accolades and compliments and recognition that you need to go out and be confident in the world, you just up and disappear.   Doomed to a toilet bowl or an adult diaper in just a few hours.

What else can I say? Did the folks at that homecoming in Plymouth really find joy in me that day? Could I have behaved differently there amidst the giant cast iron pots of collard greens and cabbage and brightly colored Tupperware bowls of coleslaw, and mac and cheese and potato salad?  Well, I mean, sure, it doesn’t matter now, but I want to know because there will be many more cakes after me at future church homecomings.  I mean, these little kids who were digging their spoons into me all afternoon will grow up and bake their own cakes on hundreds of Saturday nights to be ready for Sunday homecoming.  This little town will grow and flourish because the ever-deepening stench of sulfur tells us so.  That pulp mill will make paper forever and little families from West Virginia will continue to move down here to find work and they’ll keep building white and yellow shot-gun houses and buying dresses and shoes from that little Rose’s department store downtown.  The world will always need paper!

Aw, sure, I was a delicious cake for just a day but I’ll tell you this: at least I wasn’t Sister Smithwick’s broccoli casserole, that one covered in French-fried onions.  That dish always makes Reverend Dean so gassy and his farts stink up the parsonage for days after homecoming because he loves the way Sister Smithwick sautees her broccoli in lard first.   But, oh, what wonderful explosions emanate from the rolls of onion-flavored turds in his butt!  What yells of disgust Brother Dean makes while he sits on the toilet!   So, kids of the South, listen to me carefully.  Keep your mind on the future and find a good husband or wife and have two children, a boy and a girl, and go to church and figure out what dish you make best and bring it to homecoming.  For this is the way of the world.

*Editor’s note:  thanks be to Istvan Orkeny, a Hungarian writer who went to the movies and hasn’t been seen since

I was the hit of the homecoming.

I was the hit of the homecoming.

 

Black folks, those illegal Mexicans you hate and the rural Christian academies of eastern N.C.: Long live the U.S.of A.!

by Angela Perez

There are no race problems in eastern North Carolina!  Who told you there were?  Those fanatics were pulling your leg, my friend, because black, white and Mexicans living Down East do indeed all still eat at the same Chinese buffet and cash their checks at the same banks.  Though, some are cashing welfare checks but, hell, somebody always is abusing the system, ain’t they?

But let’s just pretend, for a moment, the rumours WERE true.   That the rabble-rousing nay-sayers had a point.  If we go down that road, well, I suppose you could say that in the sometimes tense racial environment characterizing much of life in rural eastern North Carolina, there is a phenomenon that endlessly yet subtly fuels tension: it is called the private rural “Christian academy”.   But, like I said, those glum and laughable tales are way off the mark.

Those little Christian academies are an important part of rural life! These tin-roofed meccas of private kindergarten-through-high school education are typically funded and sponsored by the wealthy white farmers working the land around places like Buzzard’s Cross and Todd’s Crossroads and Jernigan’s Ridge and their families have worked that rich land and killed hogs for generations.   The schools usually support about 50 – 150 students tops and there is a delightful Christian element to daily learning that ensures not only will the children not have to be exposed to the shenanigans and general immoral attitude of black folks and Mexicans, but also the Lord Jesus will live in their hearts until they are called home to heaven.

These  hearty, salt-of-the-earth folks and their kids don’t generally know many black folks since they live in the rural parts of N.C., areas most of the the black people fled right after these farmers’ great-great grandfathers freed them from those happy-go-lucky days of slavery.   The wealthy male farmers, unfortunately, are still exposed to Mexicans since they employ many hundreds of them under the table to work the land, but the farmers make sure that the lewd and over-sexed Mexicans never come up to the big house for supper or lay eyes on their plump and delicious pale-skinned wives or the gentle blonde curls of their daughters.   Luckily, on the weekends, when Mexicans are swarming the rural countryside, the farmers’ wives and daughters are over at the mall in Raleigh, shopping for cute tops and nice bedding at Macy’s.  Such a fancy store and there’s always a 60% off sale on something!

Nowadays the only negroes they have to abide are those two they show on the Fox Network news channel all the time, that Obama and his uppity wife, I think they call her Flotus or something (black people name their children the craziest names and it’s been proven that those African names like Flotus can keep those children from being successful later in life).   If you look into the sky over eastern North Carolina, you can see all the wisps and clouds of earnest prayer, billowing up to the heavens, entreating Jesus and his father, God, to hurry up with the day they get those communists of color out of office and return to the good ole’ days when black people knew their place and Mexicans who did slip over the border were sent back home packing, that is, unless they worked in the fields for low wages or learned English and could make good tamales and salsa.

So back to the phenomenon of “Christian academies” that pepper the landscape in eastern N.C.  These bastions of pure and higher learning cost a few thousand a year and they are a wonderful enclave of white happiness and erudition where darker skin colors and sin don’t interfere with the 21st century like it does elsewhere.   No ebonics or baggy pants here!  No Mexican boys trying to kick those hideous soccer balls around on our pretty baseball field!  No Mexican girls with coconut oil in their hair and short Old Navy skirts trying to rape our freckled boys!  Once in a while, a wealthy family falls on hard times and the child or children must leave the sweet confines of the academy and attend public school.  Public school kids, those irascible hoodlums, often take great joy in the misfortune of these once-pampered white folks, but, having good Southern manners, they don’t say much about it to their faces.

Here on these Christian campuses, white doves are released every morning after prayer time and the girls still wear pink Espirit sweaters and Izod turtlenecks and the boys still wear white Don Johnson blazers, with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows.  When the women graduate, they are gifted 50 pounds of fat, which adheres to their middle-sections and thighs and they are granted a short haircut that’s full on the top and adorned with lovely white frosted tips.  They then have 2 white babies and attend a nearby church.  They still have rarely seen black people or Mexicans except at the grocery stores, which, for some reason, even in this day and time, are neither private nor overseered by wealthy local farmers.

Ah!  These elite academies prepare some of the the farmers’ kids for college!  Many, alas, are not ready for their exposure to knuckleheads from India and China and Africa once they hit the university grounds.  So, many will go to local universities, like East Carolina University or UNC-Wilmington, or Pitt Community College, mainly so they can rush home on the weekends and get away from the liberal, hawkish sinners of the world, especially the gay ones who walk around campus holding hands.  “It’s hell on Earth, mamma!” sob the farmers’ daughters who, alas, haven’t found husbands on campus because those gay men keep sticking their cocks where they don’t belong!  So, they rush back to the farm on Friday evenings after their last class and eat homemade fried chicken, collard greens, and biscuits and swill sweet tea, each lovely girl dreaming of that rosy-cheeked, well-to-do rural boy who will sweep her in his strong arms, make love to her, and whisper sweet promises that she will never, ever have to hold down a job or career of her own.  Or, at the very most, she’ll have to keep the accounting books for the local church, but only part-time.

The wealthy farmers’ kids who don’t get swept up in worldly desires and liberal values while away at college, usually, finally return home, or at least end up living in the “big city” that is closest to the farm, in places called Plymouth or Williamston, or New Bern or Rocky Mount.   Armed with their college degree, they become the heads of local banks or pharmacists or open a car dealership.   Since some of their biggest customers are, in fact, black people and Mexicans, they develop an easy camaraderie with them (as long as they don’t rob their stores!), but they still don’t want their children commingling with poor folks of any color, because poor folks are always up to no good.  So they continue to send their children to the elite country academy, even though nowadays that sometimes means having to drive an extra 30 – 45 minutes to get to the school instead of back in the day when attendees lived within a five-mile radius. But sometimes, my friends, you have to use up a lot of gas and have patience if you want to preserve those sweet, good old days!

That’s about it for now folks.  So, here’s to the private Christian academy and the good work they do to keep our Southern values afloat and alive.  Somebody has to do the hard work, and they know it mustn’t be those lazy black folks or illegal aliens who, for the love of Christ, don’t even bother to learn to speak English and are always driving drunk with no license.  No, this work must be done by God-fearing white people in big strong trucks, because that’s what made America what it is today!  Viva la U.S.A.!  Ooops – I’ve got to speak English if I’m going to be living on this glorious soil.  Long live the U.S.A.!

On slaves’ bones and turkey buzzards

By Angela Perez

Me and my dog Tater are in the back woods of Tyrrell County near historic Somerset Plantation, slicing through that ancient silence along the Scuppernong River, the morning sunlight glinting like diamonds on the black velvet waters. I slam on brakes and the car jerks to a stop, flinging Tater into the dashboard. There in front of the car is a mangy brown dog staring down a giant turkey buzzard, both angling to devour the carcass of a squashed snapping turtle there in the middle of the road.

I roll down my windows and listen to the starving dog growl and edge closer to the dead body. The buzzard stands his ground, flexing the broad expanse of his wings ever so often. I hear a voice to the left of me.

“Now that’s a fight right there,” said a withered old black man sidling up to my window. I looked around me trying to see from what nearby house he must have emerged from. I saw nothing around me but miles of plowed fields dissected by black water canals. “You know slaves dug those canals to connect that river to that plantation down the road,” he said. “They worked them men ’til they wore clean out and if they died while they was diggin’ they got left right where they died. Ain’t even bury ’em.” He whistled at the stray dog. “You better come away from that buzzard Mr. Dog,” he said, “he’s gonna tear your ass up when he finally gets mad.” He looked at me. “You know there’s slave bones in them ditches. They come up some nights and talk to me. Tell me things.”

He patted the side of my Jeep, “Watch out for that ole’ buzzard.” He turned around and walked back down the road behind us. I looked ahead and the dog was chewing on the turtle’s head and the bird had flown away. I looked in the rear view mirror. The old man was nowhere to be seen.

Part Two: The happy and sad story of ancient Washington County, North Carolina

by Angela Perez

When I got back to my dad’s house in Plymouth after driving around Washington County on Monday, I was agitated.  After taking all those photos of beautiful things mostly forgotten, now hidden under sinews of thick vines; of rotten shacks and crumbling mansions that people look past and just don’t notice much anymore, well, my heart felt heavy and my belly was bound up in tight achey knots.

“Dad,” I said, “I need to get back to Raleigh.”

He was sitting at the kitchen table.  He wrinkled his nose and looked down at his hands.

“I guess there’s not much for you to do when you come to visit, is there?”

“I came here to see you, dad,” I said.  “The rest doesn’t matter.”

(NOTE: my dad is almost 80 years old.  He looks good for his age, but, still, whenever my cell phone rings after 8 p.m. I immediately get stressed out that someone has called to tell me he’s died.  When you hit your 40s, late evening phone calls no longer come from eager lovers, they come from other family members telling you that some other family member is dead and gone, God rest his or her soul.)

I had told him the day before about how the state of things around the town I grew up in affected me in such a dark and pressing way.

“Guess you won’t want to come back here again,” he said.   “I don’t blame you.”

He got up and hugged me, and it made my bones sad.

“Oh, I’ll be back,” I said.  “There’s a lot of beauty along these rivers and streets.  An enormous story to tell.   History to be restored.   A community that cares, I think.  I don’t know who they are yet.  But I will.”  I really should have mentioned that the chili-cheeseburger special at Little Man had always been my biggest draw to come home, but he didn’t seem to be in a joking mood.

“When are you coming back?” he asked.

“Soon, pop, real soon.”

I’d already put my luggage in the car earlier so I called for my dog Tater and he hopped in.  As we backed out of the driveway, I saw my dad watching us from the back door as we drove off.  He was waving.

Since last weekend, I can’t get Washington County off of my mind.  There’s a calvary of ghosts in coveralls and homespun cotton dresses that’s been haunting me ever since.   The spirit of that place is not a dream.  But how will I fly this thing?

To read PART ONE, click here.

One more thing:  this conversation isn’t verbatim, but you get the gist.

One of the historic buildings on Water Street that has been left to fend for itself.  I like how the awnings are so different but the window is split between the buildings.

One of the historic buildings on Water Street that has been left to fend for itself. I like how the awnings are so different but the window is split between the buildings.

We don’t want black kids walking down Main Street: a brief history of 4th Street Elementary in Plymouth, NC

by Angela Perez

My post a few months ago about the history of Washington County in eastern North Carolina was the most popular post in the history of this blog.   The story and photos got several thousand shares and thousands and thousands of hits.  The photos of the rubble of my former elementary school, 4th Street School, were especially popular with folks from Washington County.  Many Plymouth residents fondly remember attending that little brick school on the corner of Andrew Jackson and 4th streets.

What many people don’t know is the controversial history behind the school.  It was originally built for black students in the 1920s through grant money from the Rosenwald Fund, a fund created in 1917 by Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company.  The fund was intended to improve education for African-American students in the South, primarily through the building of schools for them since they could not attend school with white students.

Throughout the 1920s, W.F. Creadle, the supervisor of the Rosenwald Fund in Raleigh, corresponded with the Washington County school superintendent, John W. Darden, about procuring money for a school for black students in Plymouth.   On July 14, 1925, Creadle wrote to Darden with some exasperation:  “I am aware of the fact that we have written and conferred a great deal about the colored school situation at Plymouth, but I am still wondering if there is not some way we can do something about it…the colored people are anxious to raise money to help on the building and I have said to you before, we shall be glad to give you $1,500 from the Rosenwald Fund.”  The black community in Plymouth was, apparently, ready to take advantage of the available grant money but no action was being taken by the Washington County Board of Education.

Finally, in the summer of 1929, the Washington County board, intending to use the Rosenwald funds as well as other money from other sources, voted to buy land from a man named Van Buren Martin for a price well over its appraised value.  Why the board was insistent that the school be located here is not clear, though one National Parks survey document from 1990 speculates the reason was political pressure and cronyism. It was indeed close to the historically black neighborhoods, but there were other near-by parcels of land also available on which to build the school.

Not only was the property overpriced, it was next to railroad tracks, and it was close to the well-to-do white residential neighborhood on Main Street.  Because the land around the school that was linked to the black neighborhoods was private property, the students would have to take a longer way to school every day by walking through a neighborhood where they were not welcomed.   The land was purchased and the school was built anyway, despite heavy coverage of public criticism from the local newspaper, the Roanoke Beacon.    In 1931, due to an outcry by the white community, however, the property between the black neighborhoods and the school was quickly obtained and 4th Street and 3rd Street, which existed but did not extend to the school grounds, were extended so that black students no longer walked past white houses and offended the sensibilities of the well-to-do.  The children originally came to the school by way of Andrew Jackson Road which intersected with the white neighborhood of Main Street.  That way in to school was quickly diverted by the 4th and 3rd street extensions and the universe returned to its proper balance.

After desegregation, that Rosenwald School became 4th Street School, which I attended in the 70s.    Growing up in Plymouth, I never once heard that the school had been a Rosenwald School.  Little did I know back then, as our bus pulled up next to the building to drop us off at the door (which was on Crowell Street), that these tiny streets had caused so much controversy in Plymouth, all in the name of making sure black people stayed where they belonged.

I vividly remember singing John Denver songs in the auditorium with black and white kids and having the time of my life.  And, oh yeah, I remember a freckle-faced girl named Rita Spruill throwing up her pizza all over me in the lunchroom, which was located in a separate building from the school that was built much later.  I remember that lunchroom pizza we got every Friday – it was rectangle shaped and tasted like Totino’s.  God, it was good.

Correction:  I had originally written in one photo caption that Mr. Estep was principal when I attended 4th Street.  But it was, in fact, Mrs. Rascoe.  Mr. Estep was my principal at Washington Street School.

4th Street Elementary.  This was the where the busses dropped us off.

4th Street Elementary. This was the where the school bus dropped us off.

4th Street Elementary.  Mrs. Rascoe was principal here when I attended.  And my two favorite teachers were Mrs. Cordon and Mrs. Benners.

4th Street Elementary. Mrs. Rascoe was principal here when I attended. And my two favorite teachers were Mrs. Cordon and Mrs. Benners.  Those stairs used to seem so monumental to my eyes.

4th Street Elementary.  We used to sing John Denver songs in the auditorium, which was just through that entryway.

4th Street Elementary. We used to sing John Denver songs in the auditorium, which was just through that entryway.

4th Street Elementary School, where I went to K-2 grades.  Nothing left.  I still have dreams about this place the way it looked in the 70s.  And I remember Rita Spruill throwing up her little rectangle of lunchroom pizza all over the table.

4th Street Elementary School, where I went to K-2 grades. Nothing left. I still have dreams about this place the way it looked in the 70s. And I remember Rita Spruill throwing up her little rectangle of lunchroom pizza all over the table.

Part One: The happy and sad story of ancient Washington County, North Carolina

by Angela Perez

I am no historian.
But I have a heavy burden on my heart and the raw ache of nostalgia over the state of things in one tiny place in North Carolina.

Poverty and decay seems to be the order of the day back home in Washington County, N.C. where I was born and raised. These days, the rural northeastern county manges to pick up some business from oblivious tourists anxious to get down Highway 64 to the Outer Banks, but other than that, there just isn’t much happening here.  More than 27 percent of the county’s population is listed as living below the poverty line, according to NC Policy Watch, and the massive layoffs over the past decade by what was once the county’s largest employer, the pulp and paper company Weyerhaeuser, have decimated much of the lower-middle to middle-class.

A drive around the county seat, Plymouth, reveals rotting old mansions and dilapidated colonial-era homes.  The historic downtown located along the serene Roanoke River has a few shops scattered along Main Street but many of the buildings are empty and falling down.  Some of these beautiful old relics don’t even have back walls and you can look through the grimy busted-out windows to see the Roanoke River rolling endlessly along behind them.   Many of the schools and churches I attended or country stores and restaurants my family frequented are just mostly rubble.
And yet, despite the lack of jobs and persistent poverty, people remain here and raise their families and survive.   Outside of the only three towns that are incorporated – Creswell, Plymouth, and Roper – there are endless miles of farms, growing tobacco, corn, cotton, and soybeans.  The eastern part of the county, heading into Tyrrell County towards the Outer Banks, boasts massive poultry farms.   Fishing in the Roanoke River, Albemarle Sound, and Lake Phelps (the 2nd largest lake in NC) provides food and recreation.   Lake Phelps is a major attraction for fishermen and birdwatchers.  The 38,000 year-old lake draws thousands of wild geese and tundra swan in the winter months.   Indian artifacts dating back 11,000 years have been found in the area and there are still prehistoric canoes buried around the lake.   Scientists have not been able to determine its origin – theories are that it was a meteor, glacial activity, high winds or underground springs.  I have spent many, many hours wandering around the water, wondering about the slaves who died here and the Indians who fished there.
The beautiful and well-preserved Somerset Place sits along Lake Phelps, offering a comprehensive view of life on a North Carolina plantation in the 1800s.  The site documents and reveals both the white owners’ and the slaves’ daily lives.  Several Civil War attacks and skirmishes occurred in Washington County and there are markers all around Plymouth denoting the locations.  The Carolina Algonquians cherished Scuppernong grapes, a variety of muscadine grape that originated in this part of N.C.  One of the county’s townships is still named Scuppernong and you can discover vines growing on most every farm and in most of the yards and around churches.  Kids growing up here grow up knowing well the tart tang of those fat, thick-skinned grapes.
Needless to say, there’s endless history in this county and while some has been preserved, so much of it is falling to the ground in a county too poor to pay for the overwhelming amount of preservation called for.   It’s been many years since I moved away from this region where most of my family still resides.  My grandfather fished every body of water in and around this county all the way from Martin County to the Outer Banks.  It is part of my psyche and when I visit, I feel sad that time just sort of left this place behind and its residents to fend for themselves.  But fend they have.  My heart aches when I see these places so full of history turned back to the dust from the whence they came.  Places like Washington County – indeed, many of the counties along Highway 64 from Raleigh to the Outer Banks are dying a slow death.  Still, there’s a lot of beauty if you just peer in close enough.  Here’s what that looks like to me in that sweet sad old county.
Author’s note: after you view the photos, click here for Part Two. 

“I’ll be John Brown”: How America’s most patriotic song kinda started out as a pro-slavery tune

by Angela Perez

As a child in Washington County, that swampy primordial stretch of flat land in the northeast of North Carolina, I often heard my mother, my aunts, and my grandparents use the phrase “I’ll be John Brown” to express surprise and amazement, along with a twinge of disdain and a touch of judgement.   They’d exclaim, “I’ll be John Browned” or “I’ll be John Brown” as a polite way to express “I’ll be damned.”

John Brown has been the inspiration for anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates, for antilynching efforts, for the Civil Rights movement and a reference point for polarizing events throughout American history.

John Brown has been the inspiration for anti-slavery and pro-slavery advocates, for antilynching efforts, for the Civil Rights movement and a reference point for polarizing events throughout American history.

For example, if the preacher’s wife had on a short dress on Sunday, my grandmother might come home from church and say, “I’ll be John Brown if she won’t near-bout showing her you-know-what.”  Or if my mother was truly baffled by a question and had no answer, she’d reply, “Hmmm…I’ll be John Browned if I know.”

My guess is that although they invoked John Brown’s name often, my family had no idea who the man was or how the expression came into being.  Little did my dear, departed grandmother know that the phrase “I’ll be John Brown” is loaded with decades of painful and inspiring history linked to slavery in the U.S.

Recently, I got to thinking about this peculiar phrase I often heard uttered by my loved ones.   I remember learning somewhere along the way in high school history (when I wasn’t shaving my legs in class or writing short romance narratives featuring me and whichever boy I was in love with at the moment) that Brown was a fierce abolitionist who led a failed and bloody insurrection against slavery at a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859.   With a band of 16 white men and 5 slaves, he captured the armory but was overpowered in just two days.  At that time, his liberation efforts, the resulting trial, and his hanging were the talk of the nation.

These details are fairly well-known to any high-school student. But as I started doing more reading and research on John Brown, I learned what an important and polarizing figure he has been throughout American history, even into the present.   In tracing the phrase “I’ll be John Browned,” I discovered in the book “Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang” there are references to the phrase being used in text as far back as 1869:

“John-Brown:  v. ref to the hanging of John Brown, U.S. abolitionist (1800-59) Esp. So. To execute by hanging (now hist._ in phrase ‘be john-browned’ to be ‘hanged’ or damned.)”

With further digging, I went on discover the extent to which the name “John Brown” has affected the American psyche.  During and after the Civil War, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups, newspapers, authors, etc. used the name of John Brown to promote their own agendas.  He became a martyr and a hero for many in the North.  The South spun the Harpers Ferry event cruelly and used its failure to drive home their belief that slavery must be preserved at all costs and that slaves were obviously happy with their circumstances.   From then until even now, John Brown has been portrayed and promoted as a villain and a hero, as a terrorist and a savior.   His actions and legacy have been points of reference for any number of movements and have continued to be.

In the South, John Brown’s spirit was decried as satanic in nature and that nature was the subject of many Southern songs in the 19th century.  The song  “John Brown’s Entrance into Hell,” written in 1863, “shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued…revealed the South’s bitterness over Brown, Lincoln, and the Republican Party.  Brown was shown being greeted in hell by devils who sang joyful hymns, ‘For well they knew the lying thief, /Would make for them an honored chief.’ ”  (from “The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harper s Ferry Raid” by John Stauffer)

JohnBrown1
Flipping the script, in the 20th century, W.E. Du Bois and Langston Hughes referenced him as part of antilynching efforts.  During the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960, John Brown’s spirit was invoked as inspiration, particularly by Malcolm X.   Tony Horwitz, a journalist and biographer of Brown, compares the Harpers Ferry raid to 9/11, likening his violent tactics to terrorism on American soil. Stauffer, notes:  “…each generation since 1859 has asked and answered for itself the questions phrased by Du Bois on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown’s raid:  ‘Was John Brown simply an episode, or was he an eternal truth?  And if a truth, how speaks the truth today?’ “
I imagine that my grandfather would have been unimpressed at best if I’d told him that every time he exclaimed, “I’ll be John Browned” he was, in fact, invoking an eternal truth.   As to origins of the phrase in the South, my guess is that its incorporation into the Southern lexicon was through the pro-slavery postulations, though, those origins were muddied over time and eventually became nothing more than a common phrase to the people who used it.
But the fact is that “I’ll be John Browned” is loaded with not just the history of the South, but of American history.  Learning about the complicated origins of an expression I’d always taken as a cute little Southern curiosity of phrasing is one of a million examples of how much darkness and light is woven together into the fabric of Southern culture.  Shame and sorrow stamps the soul and structure of selfhood down South since the Abe Lincoln days.  And though it does not wholly define us, it is always there, in our slang, in our food, in our politics…

Those John Brown songs

In learning of the 19th century songs written about John Brown, I decided to do a little digging to find some of the music influenced by him.   According to author John Wirt, the song “John Brown’s Body”  became a popular marching song among regiments of the Union Army (in Wirt’s book “Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues”).  “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by Julia Ward Howe, an American writer, using the music from the already popular song “John Brown’s Body.”  The history of that song about John Brown is part of the history of one of our nation’s most patriotic songs.  From the Library of Congress:

The original version [of Battle Hymn of the Republic] was a religious camp meeting song written in the 1850s and began “Say, brothers, will you meet us? On Canaan’s happy shore?” The song eventually spread to army posts, where its steady rhythm and catchy chorus made it a natural marching song.

Soon, though, a new version appeared that hitched the old tune to a more militant cause. When the abolitionist John Brown was executed in 1859, someone created a new, fiercer set of lyrics; the song now declared that “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!”

By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the John Brown version of the song had spread throughout the Union army. Soldiers added new verses as they marched through the South, including one that promised to hang Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, from a tree. Meanwhile, Confederate soldiers answered back with their own version, in which John Brown was hanging from a tree.

The version that we know today came to be when an abolitionist author, Julia Ward Howe, overheard Union troops singing “John Brown’s Body” and was inspired to write a set of lyrics that dramatized the rightness of the Union cause. Within a year this new hymn was being sung by civilians in the North, Union troops on the march, and even prisoners of war held in Confederate jails.

 

HueyandtheClownsThe John Brown song was well-known during that time and children were taught it in school for decades after, apparently even in the South.   One of those school children who heard it was Huey “Piano” Smith, born in 1934 in New Orleans.  Smith is a black rhythm and blues artist often credited as a major influence on the development rock and roll during the mid-1900s.  In 1958, ACE records released the album, “Havin’ a Good Time” which Smith recorded with his band The Clowns.   On that record was the song, “Well, I’ll be John Brown.”  In an interview reprinted by Wirt, Huey discusses how he came to write and record the song:

” ‘John Brown was a slave liberator,’ Huey explained.  ‘We sang about him in grammar school…We know ‘John Brown’s Body,’  and people say, ‘I’ll be John Brown.’  Well, I use slangs and things like that. When you put music with words and things together, the songs just make themselves.  And after you listen at it, it says something its own self, that you hadn’t planned.”

All this is to say, and to state the obvious, language and history in the South are as inextricably bound as anywhere else.  But in the South, that intertwining involves a lot of painful and terrible history.  With the phrase, “I’ll be John Browned,” epic moments across a century are bound up in a phrase.   It’s heavy, man, very heavy.  With words so weighed down with all that history, maybe that’s why we speak so slowly down here.   I’ll be John Browned if I know.