“Rather than be ignored or denied, it must be acknowledged and its impact understood to reconcile our collective history.”
-Kress Building. Montgomery, AL
Everyone has a story. We like to think they are stand alone master pieces, but they are woven together, connected to the people who came b
efore, given to the people who come after. The protagonist in one is the antagonist in another, a supporting role in many more, a walk on part in countless others.
This past Friday I had the privilege of attending the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. Commonly known as the Lynching Memorial, this powerful new museum is an attempt to honor the African Americans who were killed at the hands of lynch mobs. There is a tablet for every county that had a recorded lynching, with the names of the victims etched in the rusted metal.
I sat for a long time underneath the tablet for Sampson County, North Carolina. There were two names: Doyral Bryant, murdered on January 21, 1881, and Mack Best, murdered on September 6, 1891. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more missing from the list.
I know a story about the town on that tablet.
In the early 1900s, a man named George Washington Hargrove returned to Sampson County, North Carolina. He had left twenty or thirty years earlier, vanished in the middle of the night, and it was widely assumed he was dead. When he showed back up in this close knit farming community people thought he was an imposter. Even his own sister was convinced he was a look-a-like posing as her brother in an attempt to claim an abandoned inheritance.
Over the course of the next year, the man claiming to be George Washington Hargrove found work during the day and spent his nights talking to people at the general store. The more people heard him talk, the more people started to think that the man claiming to be George Washington Hargrove might in fact be George Washington Hargrove. His crowds got bigger and eventually he started holding court at the Piney Grove Baptist Church, regaling crowds with tales of his past.
The only person who wasn’t convinced was his sister. One night during a particularly well attended story session with the man who may or may not be, his sister snuck into the back of the church, and after hearing him say something that only the real George Washington Hargrove could have known, stood up and said, “This man is my brother. He’s coming home with me.”
And he did. She took him into her home, bought him knew clothes. Restored his lost inheritance.
The fact that the real George Washington Hargrove had come back to Sampson County was massive news. He had come back from the dead. The Prodigal Son had returned. Everyone wanted to know what on earth had be been up to for the past twenty or thirty years so in addition to telling people the stories, he wrote it all down in an article published by the Sampson Independent.
He started off in Texas. That much we know. He married, bought some farm land and had two sons. One summer morning he left his wife and those two sons on that Texas farm and never saw them again. From there, facts get fuzzier. He claimed to have headed to the northwest and ended up in Alaska. Then apparently he went on an expedition to the rain forests of South America. He also wrote about why he left Sampson County in the first place. Why he had vanished in the middle of the night. He had been part of a group that killed a young African American man, quote…back with the three K’s ruled the day. Unquote.
I have seen this article. Read it with my own eyes. The paper is fragile and yellow. I had to open it carefully so as not to tear the newspaper. It’s tucked away in a box at my family’s farm house. My Grandmother was the one who showed it to me. Turns out, her father was one of the two boys who had been left in that Texas field all those years ago.
By all accounts, George Washington Hargrove was not a good person. He abandoned his children. He wound up stealing from the sister who took him in, and he probably lied about most of his exploits. He died alone, penniless, in Savannah, GA, hundreds of miles from his home.
But his story remains. The same cannot be said for man him and his friends killed.
When my Great-Grandfather was older, he claimed the land that George Washington Hargrove left behind and my family has lived in Sampson County ever since. It’s where my grandmother met my grandfather. My mom met my dad. That past was the prologue for me staring at the names Doyral Bryant and Mack Best, etched in rusted metal, at the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL.
Doyral Bryant. Was that the name of the man my Great-Great Grandfather helped kill? Was it
Mack Best? I hope it was one of those two people. At least then their names wouldn’t be lost to history. At least then the frayed threads of their lost stories could be picked up and continued. Stories that could help shed light on the impact so it can begin to be understood. Stories that can acknowledge the humanity of the the things that have happened. So our shared histories can one day be reconciled.