Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blood Done Sign My Name: A "Southern Challenge" Book Review

Timothy B. Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name (New York: Crown Publishing, 2004), 355 pages.

Our nation experienced much turmoil in the years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. This was especially true in the South where there court order desegregation rulings often invoked violent backlashes. This book is the story of such an incident, the 1970 racially motivated killing of Henry Marrow in Oxford, North Carolina. Henry, known as Dickie, was a twenty-three year old black veteran. He supposedly made a suggestive comment to the Robert Teel’s daughter-in-law and when words were said, drew a knife. After being shot, he was beaten and shot again, by three members of the Teel family. This was all done in the center of the street with eye witnesses. Outraged, young African-Americans poured into the streets, burning and looting white-owned businesses. Soon, veterans from Vietnam took over the struggle, striking blow after blow to the economic interest of the town, burning a warehouse filled with tobacco and a local lumber yard. Oxford became a war zone. After the Teel’s were found not guilty by an all white jury, the protest continued including a march to the state capital in Raleigh. Hundreds of African-Americans followed a mule drawn cart upon which Dickie’s pregnant widow rode.

One of the young leaders of the African American movement in Oxford and a friend of Dickie was Ben Chavis. A descendant of John Chavis, a free black man who fought on the American side during the Revolution and a leading educator in the early 19th Century, Ben made a name for himself in Oxford. He became well know as a leader in the Black Power movement and later, after being charged with arson and inciting riots, became known world-wide as a one of the defendants known as the Wilmington Ten. After prison, he became executive director of the NAACP, until he was forced to resign due to a scandal

Timothy Tyson was the ten years old son of the town’s Methodist minister. He was a friend of Gerald, Robert’s son, who had bragged that his father and cohorts had “shot ‘em a nigger.” The words seared into Tyson’s memory, drawing him back time and time again to learn and tell the story of what happened at Oxford. During his first semester in college, he wrote a paper on the topic. He later wrote a Master’s thesis on Dickie’s death and the trial that follows. This book, in which he tells his own story, grew out of his Master’s thesis. Tyson went on to receive a PhD at Duke and a professorship at the University of Wisconsin. He's now back teaching at Duke.

In race relations, Tyson’s father was a liberal. Tyson explores some of the issues surrounding white liberals in the civil rights movement especially after the movement turned violent. His father’s views on race got his father run out of the church in Oxford. The Bishop reassigned the elder Tyson to a church in Wilmington, NC, a city that was also experiencing it’s share of racial turmoil.

When Tyson tells his own story, he recalls some of the events in Wilmington, especially his 9th grade year as one of the first whites to be bused cross town to Williston, the formerly black high school (Click here to read about three boys—two white and one African-American—creating a “white Christmas" on Williston’s front lawn in December 1970). Although Tyson is two years younger than me (he must have skipped a grade in school) it appears he was at Williston the year after me (I was in the first class of whites bused to Williston in the 71-72 year). Although I don’t think I knew him, we would have both been at Roland Grice Jr. High School the previous year (70-71). I was in the 8th grade and he would, like my brother, would have been in the 7th. It was interesting reading about people I knew and part of the story Tyson explores, I have also wanted to tell. I’ll have to get back to writing my Williston stories.

Tyson is an engaging author and this book reads almost like a detective novel. I strongly recommend it for anyone who is interested in learning more about the civil rights struggle in the south and how it was seen through the eyes of a child. I'll have to confess that this book wasn't on my original list for the Southern Summer Reading Challenge, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

Click here for more of Sage's book reviews.


  1. Finally we have a book that I think I can add to my reading pile. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. I don't know if I can read this book. The poor English of the title is a bit much for me. ;-)

  3. Ed, It fits your non-fiction requirement!

    Murf, the title is from an African American spiritual

    Okay, I've finally made it out of Michigan, thanks to my American connection being cancelled yesterday, I'm flying Continental and have to go east (to Cleveland where I sit) to fly back west... a

  4. I thought it had a feel of ebonics to it.

    Boy, Big A is out with a bad back and all flights got cancelled or something?

  5. Hey, Sage! I got in Tuesday morning at 4AM. I was stuck in Hotlanta.

    This book sounds excellent, and I hope you don't include it, so I can have another review. Call me selfish.

    Can you imagine the horror Emmett Till must have faced? And, he was just a boy. Humans can be insensibly cruel.

  6. Wow - sounds like a great book. Nicely done review, too!

    And following up on Maggie's comment, I respect Till's mother for having her son's body displayed in all its beaten horror for all the world to see

  7. Man you are making me look bad. First you do these nice neat reviews with the right icon then you have already finished number 2! I will never finish "Prince of Tides". I love it but if I read I get behind on my friend's blogs...it is a war of interests! I have to make time for both.

    This book sounded very interesting. It amazes me how mean humans can be, how could we ever think any of us better than another for a skin color? And many still do. Ignorance breeds fear I suppose.

  8. I like the title of the book. I have not read Tyson. I think I will pick out this. I got too many already. And my school reopens on Monday!

  9. Sounds like my kind of book

    you're right books that delve into social/current/recent past, especially from somebody who was there usually do read like a good detective story because they are trying to understand what happened. Always a great mystery

  10. Thanks for the good word, Sage. My email is tbtyson@duke.edu and I would be very interested in knowing who y'all are. I am writing another book about Wilmington, for one thing. I am going to be teaching there in the fall of 2008. I am glad you liked BLOOD and grateful that you took the time to tell folks so. Questions welcome, if y'all are reading it and want to ask the author anything.
    Tim Tyson

  11. You may want to learn more about Tim Tyson at timothybtyson.com