Book Review at Columbia Star

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You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You

By Warner M. Montgomery

Book Front CoverA pretty blonde 18–year–old girl left her disapproving parents in California in June of 1965 to join the Civil Rights Movement in the South. After a week of training in Atlanta by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, and others, Sherie Holbrook arrived in Pineville, South Carolina…

A pretty blonde 18–year–old girl left her disapproving parents in California in June of 1965 to join the Civil Rights Movement in the South. After a week of training in Atlanta by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, and others, Sherie Holbrook arrived in Pineville, South Carolina, to assist the disenfranchised blacks of Berkeley County to register to vote. For three months her small band of “Freedom Fighters” encountered KKK brutality, uncooperative law enforcement, indifferent whites, and frightened blacks. They suffered from a diet of grits, collards, and pig brain stew; dirty and moldy clothing; sleepless nights; oppressive heat; and the constant threat of violence.

Sherie in 1965 PinevilleMy mother grew up in Pineville. It was where I learned to hunt, fish, and eat oysters. To me Pineville was the Southern Way of Life in full bloom, where women were Southern Belles, men were gentle and brave, and history reigned supreme. Gen. Francis Marion, the Gamecock, lived and died in Pineville. The famous Santee Canal ran through my uncle’s land. After supper around the family hearth I heard again and again how Pineville’s homes were destroyed by the Yankees during the Civil War, rebuilt by my grandfather’s generation after Reconstruction, only to be flooded by Santee- Cooper in the late 1930s. That’s when my mother lost her land, married a man from Greeleyville, and moved to Columbia.

Sherie Holbrook Labedis My family always spent holidays and summer vacations in Pineville. I worshiped my uncles, aunts, cousins and, as they say, my ancestors. I loved the creaky homes—steamy in the summer, frigid in the winter, the cotton and corn fields and the blacks who worked in them, the pine forests home to deer and turkeys, beautiful swamps overrun with gators and mosquitoes, the mighty Santee River, and the lakes full of bream and mayflies. It was my dream to, one day, return to my ancestral home, but in 1962, I first had to save the world—a feeling I’m sure Sherie felt three years later.

I joined the Peace Corps where in Thailand I taught English and worked as a medical assistant in a leprosy hospital. It was not easy. I suffered estrangement, humiliation, and a night in jail. I learned that “World Peace” was of no concern to those who silently struggle to survive one day at a time. I realized the struggle is all around us if we only look, but most don’t look and very few ever see it.

While Sherie and her colleagues were fleeing beatings, burnings, and humiliation, I had returned from Thailand and was in Columbia teaching middle class white students the meaning of democracy and the lessons of history, and preparing to take the next step in my career, the doctoral program at the University of Michigan. As I packed up for the trip north, I was ignorant of what was going on in Pineville.

As Sherie passionately described in You came here to die, she survived Pineville, spent a quiet semester at Allen University, then returned to California where she got a degree at Berkeley, married, taught for 35 years, and retired. Looking through her trunk of memories, she discovered the notes she had taken in Pineville and turned them into a book. I am very glad she did for I gained a new perspective on the civil rights revolution in my own neighborhood.

Her memories of Pineville during the hectic days of voter registration and my memories of historic Pineville collided at several crossroads. Her Freedom House, where the civil rights workers lived, was next to J.K. Gourdin School, the school established by my grandfather in 1925 for the black children of Pineville. She witnessed the school being burned by the Klan. Her description of the tragic event is heartbreaking.

Another event she described also rang dear to me. When I was writing the series on Pineville for the Columbia Star (“Pineville, A Historic Refuge”), I visited all the churches in the village including the Redeemer Reformed Episcopal Church. She witnessed the arsonists burning down the church because the voter registration workers had met there. Members of the church only mentioned the burning in passing during my research. They focused on their noble and successful effort to rebuild it.

My memory path crossed again with Sherie’s at Allen University. She had been a student there in 1965. I taught there in 1970–71 when I returned to Columbia from two years teaching at Ohio University where I had gotten embroiled in the Anti- War Movement. She found Allen short on fundamentals and returned to Berkeley. I found Allen short on funds and long on expectations. I left after two very rewarding yet frustrating semesters.

Sherie discovered my Pineville series during her research and sent me a copy of her book. I appreciate her ability to put her civil rights work in Pineville so personally into writing. She showed a cultural side of the area I was unaware of in spite of my years in Pineville. I still love Pineville but I will look homeward differently from now on.

Because of Sherie’s book I better understand the relationships in Pineville between blacks and whites, outside agitators and Klan sympathizers, professionals and residents, old families and newcomers, and most importantly, that which has been whispered in private but never spoken in public. The Civil War, Reconstruction, Santee- Cooper, and Desegregation all damaged Pineville, the historic refuge between the Santee River and Lake Moultrie, yet the people, black and white, young and old, seem to go about their daily business as if nothing ever happened. Maybe I don’t see their real struggle.

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