The Spiritual Ground of History
By Cameron McWhirter
As a social science, history uses scientific—or at least systematic—methods. But there is a less tangible, spiritual aspect to history that many historians have been loath to acknowledge. Their motivations may be more akin to theologians than scientists. History requires rigor and diligence, but it also needs, I believe, mystical devotion to the importance of collective memory.
One beautiful Sunday morning a few years back, I drove 180 miles southeast of my home in metro Atlanta to visit the remote site of a forgotten mass killing. The site was a church.
On April 13, 1919, the Carswell Grove Baptist Church in Jenkins County, then one of the largest black congregations in East Georgia, with about 1,000 members, held its annual gathering to celebrate its founding. When two white police officers showed up, an altercation erupted. To this day no one is exactly sure what caused the violence, but both police officers and a black man were killed. Another black man, Joe Ruffin, who tried to defuse the situation, was shot in the head and severely wounded.
A white mob quickly formed and went on a rampage. The mob burned the church down, then killed two of Ruffin’s sons—one of them a thirteen-year-old. Rioters threw the bodies in the flames, then spread out through the area, burning black lodges, churches, and cars. They killed several other people; no one knows how many. The wounded Joe Ruffin was saved from the lynch mob only because a white county commissioner drove him at high speed to the nearest big city, Augusta, and put him in the county jail there.
Ruffin was charged with the murder of the two white officers and for months was threatened with lynching. No one was ever charged with the killings of his sons, the destruction of the church, or other crimes against African Americans throughout the county.
Later he told a jury: “There is nobody as worried for what happened at Carswell Grove Church on that awful day as I am.”
“That awful day” was the start of the worst period of anti-black rioting and lynching in American history. Riots erupted across the South, in cities like Charleston and Knoxville. They spread to major northern cities as well, like Chicago and Omaha. A riot paralyzed Washington, D.C., with shooting erupting right outside the White House. The months of April to November 1919 were so bloody that NAACP leader and writer James Weldon Johnson labeled it the “Red Summer.” Despite the shocking violence, the Red Summer has been largely forgotten today.
I had set out to try to change that. Visiting Carswell Grove was part of my research. I wanted to learn about what happened, but I also wanted to feel it, to sense it. My history of that season of violence is the product of documentary research: news accounts, court records, speeches, census records, memoirs, government reports, and more. It is a synthesis of facts: dates, statements, riots, lynchings, church burnings—political decisions made and not made.
My impulse to write the book, however, came from a place that is less tangible but equally as important as the gathering of facts: a desire to understand human relations and why things happened the way they did. I identify this desire as mystical in origin.
When preeminent historian Gordon S. Wood discussed this sensibility in his 2008 collection The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, he wrote in spiritual terms. A historical sense, he wrote, is: “To be able to see the participants of the past in this comprehensive way, to see them in the context of their own time, to describe their blindness and folly with sympathy, to recognize the extent to which they were caught up in changing circumstances over which they had little control, and to realize the degree to which they created results they never intended—to know all this about the past and to be able to relate it without anachronistic distortion to our present.”
Places like Carswell Grove have a sacredness, like a battlefield, not as a monument to violence, but as a place to honor those who suffered from violence. It’s akin to visiting Auschwitz or a slave auction house. People don’t visit these places to learn about the horrors that took place there. They visit to feel what happened there.
By faith, I am a Quaker. We are sometimes labeled “practical mystics.” I think this term applies to historians, as well. The collection of history, its exploration and conclusions, should be arrived at with clear methods and concise writing. But the impetus to explore a particular subject, as I did the Red Summer, must have a mystical aspect.
For me, visiting Carswell Grove, where all the violence began, was necessary as much for spiritual reasons as for any practical information that I gathered there.
I was driven by a need to recover something collectively forgotten, to recall, mark, and synthesize this violence into an understanding of our nation’s history. For me, visiting Carswell Grove, where all the violence began, was necessary as much for spiritual reasons as for any practical information that I gathered there.
This spiritual aspect does not require God or a god or gods. Many historians are atheists, agnostics, or intellectually uninterested in the question of a God. But good historical research and writing has to include a need—often never articulated—to commune with the dead, to understand on a human level the people about whom you are writing.
For me, Carswell Grove was the spiritual beginning of my book, and my first visit that Sunday was as much a pilgrimage as anything else. When I reached Jenkins County, one of the poorest in the state, I saw few people, just scattered buildings with sagging roofs amid miles of open farmland, broken up by copses and fences. Buzzards pecked at roadkill armadillos on the side of the roads. Hawks circled the sky. Since the 1700s, this land was cultivated for cotton and other cash crops. At first, and for more than a century, slaves tilled the ground. Later, black sharecroppers—often little better off than slaves—worked the land. Today, white farmers hire Mexican migrants, most of them in the United States illegally.
Near the unincorporated community of Perkins, I turned down Big Buckhead Church Road, which winds its way west, toward a swampy creek. Around a wooded bend I arrived at a large white clapboard church in a clearing. I pulled into the gravel drive, shut off my engine, and stepped out into the sunny silence. The Carswell Grove Baptist Church, the second built on this spot after the first was destroyed by the white mob, was dying. Windows had fallen out. Bricks lay on the ground like broken teeth. Vines grew up its twin dilapidated towers. An enormous sickly oak, easily a century old and festooned with Spanish moss like an ancient beard, towered next to the church. Both the church and the tree looked like they might fall over at any moment. I went inside and smelled the sweet, sad stench of rotting wood. The pews were covered in debris. Old church pamphlets molted on some desks. There were no signs of human defacement, no graffiti. This building was too remote and forgotten; even vandals didn’t know it was here.
Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, complained in a 1959 piece, “The Golden Age, Time Past,” in the midst of the civil rights movement, that “[A]t best Americans give but a limited attention to history. Too much happens too rapidly, and before we can evaluate it, or exhaust its meaning or pleasure, there is something new to concern us. Ours is the tempo of the motion picture, not that of the still camera, and we waste experience as we wasted the forest.”
The 1919 riots do not comport with America’s standard view of its racial history, in which the South played villain to the North’s hero. In truth, both North and South were bad on race, in their own ways, and the Red Summer laid the flaws of both regions bare. Many did not want to look at it. Most wasted the experience. As the NAACP activist Herbert Seligmann noted in 1920, the Red Summer violence was “so terrible a commentary on our civilization as to be forgotten almost as it was past.”
The trip to Carswell Grove fueled my desire to tell the forgotten story of the Red Summer. I came to see it as a duty to awaken people to what had happened and why.
That first time I visited Carswell Grove, I met a deacon, Irvin Williams, who drove up from the county seat to show me around. A sixty-seven-year-old retired big rig equipment driver, he was short, muscular, and trim. One of seventeen children of a cotton and peanut sharecropper, Williams had attended the church since boyhood. He remembered Big Buckhead Road when it was still a dirt road.
That day, I asked Williams about 1919. What he knew was hearsay, from an uncle. The story was vague and brief. It went like this: Trouble started when a church member named Joe Ruffin tied up his mule at the post of the nearby white folks’ church. When they told him to move his mule, he refused. Then shooting erupted. I asked Williams what he knew about Ruffin. He did not know much more than the man’s name.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Williams said, no black adult would tell him anything about what happened. And he never dared ask a white person.
“When I was a kid, they did everything to smother the story,” he said, looking at his work boots. “Now nobody alive really knows about it. I’ve heard a bunch of stories, but I’d like to know what really happened. Whites did not want to remember it and most black people tried to forget about it, too.”
It had all been kept in the dark, he told me, then gave me a sideways glance.
“Maybe we ought to turn the lights on,” he said.
That, at its mystical core, is the purpose of history.
Cameron McWhirter is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. In 2006–07, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. His book Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (Henry Holt & Co.) is out this summer.