"In this deeply satisfying book, David Nicholson tells a rigorously researched but also sensitively imagined story of one black family’s exacting and yet triumphant rendezvous with history—Southern, African American, American, and finally human history. Nicholson understands the nuances here and works with consistent mastery to draw them out for the benefit of the reader. The Garretts of Columbia is a gift for our troubled times."
Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Stanford University, and author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography
At the heart of David Nicholson’s beautifully written and carefully researched multi-generational saga of black hope and resilience are his great-grandparents, Casper George Garrett—Papa in the book—and his wife, Anna Maria—called Mama. A professor at Allen University, Papa was also a lawyer, an active African Methodist Episcopal Church layman, and editor of three newspapers.
Dubbed black South Carolina’s “most respected disliked man” by one contemporary, he was seldom loath to attack those (inside and outside the Church) he believed disloyal to the race. Eventually his quixotic idealism resulted in his dismissal from Allen. Hardship followed, but Mama seized the opportunity to come into her own. Appointed supervisor of her South Carolina county’s rural colored schools, she trained teachers, oversaw the construction of schoolhouses, and became a pillar of the state’s African-American teachers organization. For many years the sole support of her family, this remarkable woman learned to drive at 51 to better fulfill her duties.
Based on decades of research and thousands of family letters—which include Mama’s tart-tongued observations of the failings and foibles of friends and neighbors—The Garretts of Columbia is family history as American history, rich with pivotal events viewed through the lens of the Garretts’s lives. Though Papa and Mama came of age in the bleak Jim Crow years after Reconstruction, they never stopped believing in the possibility of America. Resolutely supporting their country during the First World War, they sent three of their sons to serve.
Several of their children took advantage of the way Papa and Mama had prepared: One became a dentist. Another wrote a musical with Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. A daughter earned a doctorate at Columbia University. But not all of Mama and Papa’s children excelled—two worked as Pullman porters and two others for the post office.
And in Papa and Mama’s waning years, virtually all of their sons and daughters joined the Great Migration, scattering north in search of the freedom the South denied them.
"David Nicholson’s deep literary dive into his family’s history—against the mania of racism that haunts this nation—is poignant, powerful, and a true gift to readers."
Author of Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination thatChanged America.
"The Garretts of Columbia is a remarkably detailed, incisive, and eloquent history that reveals features of African-American achievement, aspiration, and sensibility that are often overlooked... . This is a triumph of research, reflection and imagination conveyed in beautiful, accessible, well-organized prose."
Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University, and author of Say It Loud: On Race, Law, History, and Culture
"David Nicholson's richly sourced, interestingly populated veil of color . . . may be one of the great deep reads of our time by this confessed ‘weary integrationist'. "
—David Levering Lewis
Professor of History, Emeritus, New York University, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for his two-volume biography of W.E.B. DuBois
“With a quiet dignity and resolve, David Nicholson evokes those of his own blood who went before him.... What he knows is that old, sad, shameful story: the saga of one more multigenerational black family in America who tried so hard to love their own country, even as their own country refused to love them back."
Author of Sons of Mississippi, National Book Critics Circle Award winner
"The best story is a personal story. David Nicholson tells a personal story about his family in The Garretts of Columbia. Pride, shame, and curiosity create an open, revealing book. His skilled writing takes his people from slave trade to the Great Migration. Here’s a personal story that is his story—History."
Author of Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954-1965; Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary; This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience
Photos, scrolling from left to right:
Columbia, SC, early 1900s;
C.G. and Anna Maria Garrett (center, with tiered cake) celebrating their 50th anniversary;
C.G. Garrett's son and namesake, "Tap" in World War I;
Manumission papers of Dublin Hunter, perhaps the author's fourth great-grandfather. "You can't choose your relatives, but you can choose your ancestors," the author writes. "And I choose Dublin Hunter." Laurens County Public Library ;
Mattie Phyllis Garrett, the author's grandmother;
Anna Maria Garrett—Mama;
Casper George Garrett—Papa