Harris murders and Wolfe story inspire look at race in Asheville
by Rob Neufeld
In the anthology, “Race in Appalachia,” African-American scholar Darin Water notes, John Inscoe, the editor, “points out that, although we’ve had increasingly more research done recently on African-Americans in Southern Appalachia, the one thing that is missing are their voices.”
One of the places where some of their voices do emerge is in a pubic repudiation of the murders committed by Will Harris, a black man who, on Nov. 13, 1906, killed five men around Pack Square, fled, and died in a posse’s barrage.
The incident haunted Thomas Wolfe, who struggled for years with how to present it as, in the view of Wolfe scholars, his awareness of race relations matured.
When “The Saturday Evening Post” published “The Child by Tiger,” Wolfe’s story based on the event, in its Sept. 11, 1937 issue, “a thrilled Wolfe danced around like a wet Russian bear,” notes Joanne Marshall Mauldin, author of “Thomas Wolfe: When Do the Atrocities Begin?” and other Wolfe books.
“Often they would turn and come again,” Wolfe’s narrator says of the characters involved in the tragedy, “these faces and these voices of the past, and burn there in my memory.”
The African-American community does not talk much about Will Harris, Waters says. Its leaders at the time published a resolution that “commend(ed) our white fellow citizens for the absence of any and everything that could suggest in the least degree feelings against us as a race.”
Asheville, a tourist town, played down fears.
It seems to have been a missed opportunity, in some ways, for, as Wolfe illustrated, Harris, whose fictional representation he named Dick Prosser, reflected the unbearable pressure put upon African-Americans seeking dignity, as with Richard Wright’s “Native Son.”
Waters and Mauldin address the stories and the Asheville context of Harris and Prosser in a series of programs at the YMI and Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Nov.27 and Nov. 29.
What we know
Karen Loughmiller, organizer of the program for Buncombe County Libraries, has discovered that someone named Will Harris, not long before the shooting spree, had filed a suit against Hans Rees Tannery in Asheville for non-payment of wages.
It is not known if that is the same Will Harris. If it had been, it would have marked him as a trouble-maker in the racial climate of the day.
Oral history adds more. Waters has talked with “Urban News” publisher Johnnie Grant, and “she had heard, growing up, that Will Harris may have been like the character Thomas Wolfe creates…a former military man.” Black soldiers “came back from fighting wars for democracy and freedom and recognized that they didn’t have that here.”
Bob Terrell, in his book, “The Will Harris Murders,” identifies Harris as an escapee from a convict work gang, who had come to Asheville from Charlotte, and gotten drunk over a girl.
Loughmiller points out that we don’t even know if the man whose bullet-riddled body was displayed in a South Main Street funeral home had been Will Harris. There had been no trial.
We do know that an African-American man walked from an Eagle Street house to Pack Square and killed five people, including police officer Charles Blackstock and patrolman James Bailey. And we do know that African-American leaders distanced themselves from the horror at a time when hate-crimes against black citizens were common occurrences.
What they knew
Around the time of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, in which many African-Americans were killed, the Asheville Citizen published a political cartoon featuring a vampire-like African-American demon bearing down on a cringing white woman.
In 1900, in New Orleans, a posse hunted and gunned down Robert Charles, who’d killed a police officer in self-defense, according to current accounts, after the officer had begun rousting Charles, a black man, from a stoop in a white neighborhood.
Two months before the Will Harris murders, several African-Americans were killed in the Atlanta Race Riots, fomented by a gubernatorial campaign which sought to disenfranchise black voters and that broadcast stories of rape of white women by black men.
“Some of dese days yo’all gwine be free, just like de white folks,” an old woman told Old Fort slave Sarah Gudger on their plantation before the Civil War. Gudger at age 121 recorded her story for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937.
“But we all laugh at her,” Gudger related. “No, we just slaves,” she said, “We always have to work and never be free.”
Bringing it up to date
The disillusionment that has followed Emancipation, Reconstruction, world wars, and Civil Rights has been fierce for African-Americans, Waters affirms.
Isolation and invisibility in the Asheville community remains a strategy for African-Americans in the wake or urban renewal and in the context of disproportionate arrest rates, poverty levels, unemployment, low-wage employment, and high school dropout rates.
“Survival mechanisms can become impediments,” Waters notes.
Great-grandson, on his father’s side, of a freeman from Edneyvillle; grandson, on his mother’s side, of Burton Street world travelers, Waters, born and raised in Shiloh, had laid low at T.C. Roberson High School. “I was invisible,” he says.
It wasn’t until he attended Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and N.C. State University, where he got his Masters degree, that he began developing his interest in the social, economic, and political development of the black community in Asheville.
“Life beneath the Veneer” is the title of his Ph.D. thesis, completed at UNC Chapel Hill, with the encouragement of Harry Watson, Director of the Center for the Study of the American South, and the late John Hope Franklin, author of “From Slavery to Freedom.”
At the graduation ceremonies this May, Waters relates, “there was (an African-American) family from Memphis, Tenn. who was there to see their daughter receive her Ph.D. in chemistry. They waited outside the Dean Smith Center because they wanted to meet me. They said, ‘We just want to know if you saw what we saw today. You were the only African-American male (out of about 300 graduates) to get a Ph.D., and we just want to congratulate you for that.”
Waters had felt guilt pursuing his achievement, for it took him away from his wife and two sons, but now feels that he has done for his sons “what my grandparents created for me.”
Scholars Joanne Mauldin and Darin Waters at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. Courtesy Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
“Race, Truth, and Fiction in Thomas Wolfe’s ‘The Child by Tiger,” features Dr. Darin Waters of the History Department at UNCA presenting “African-American Survival Strategies in Asheville.” 6:30 p.m., Nov. 27, at the YMI Cultural Center; and Wolfe scholar Joanne Mauldin presenting “Thomas Wolfe and Race: An Unfound Door?” 6:30 p.m., Nov. 29 at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
Free copies of “The Child by Tiger” are available at Buncombe County Public Libraries and at The Thomas Wolfe Memorial.
The Thomas Wolfe Memorial hosts a Reader’s Theatre production of “The Child by Tiger,” Thursday. Tickets are $5.00 and can be picked up at the Memorial. A related exhibit is also on display.
The reading and discussion series, sponsored by Buncombe County Public Libraries and The Thomas Wolfe Memorial, has been made possible in part by a grant from the NC Humanities Council, a statewide non-profit and an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional sponsors of the programs include The YMI, The Friends of Mountain History, and The Urban News.
For more information, call the library at 250-4740.