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The Garretts of Columbia

A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration

David Nicholson



Published: Jan 9 2024


Published: Jan 9 2024

OA Ebook
Published: Jan 9 2024


The inclusion of this book in the Open Carolina collection is made possible by the generous funding of

A multigenerational story of hope and resilience, The Garretts of Columbia is an American history of Black struggle, sacrifice, and achievement.

At the heart of David Nicholson's beautifully written and carefully researched book, The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration, are his great-grandparents, Casper George Garrett and his wife, Anna Maria. Papa, as Garrett was known to his family, was a professor at Allen University, a lawyer, and an editor of three newspapers. Dubbed Black South Carolina's "most respected disliked man," he was always ready to attack those he believed disloyal to his race. When his quixotic idealism and acerbic editorials resulted in his dismissal from Allen, his wife, who was called Mama, came into her own as the family bread winner. She was appointed supervisor of rural colored schools, trained teachers, and oversaw the construction of schoolhouses. At 51, this remarkable woman learned to drive, taking to the back roads outside Columbia to supervise classrooms, conduct literacy drives, and instruct rural farm women in the basics of home economics.

Though Papa and Mama came of age in the bleak Jim Crow years after Reconstruction, they believed in the possibility of America. Resolutely supporting their country during the First World War, they sent three of their sons to serve. One son wrote a musical with Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. Another son became a dentist. A daughter earned a doctorate in French. And the family persevered. But, for all that Papa and Mama did to make Columbia a nurturing place, their sons and daughters joined the Great Migration, scattering north in search of the freedom the South denied them.

The Garretts embraced the hope of America and experienced the melancholy of a family separated by the search for opportunity and belonging. On the basis of decades of research and thousands of family letters—which include Mama's tart-tongued observations 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.

Listen to David Nicholson on SC Public Radio's Walter Edgar's Journal

David Nicholson is a former editor and book reviewer for the Washington Post Book World and author of Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City. He attended Haverford College before graduating from the University of the District of Columbia. Nicholson has worked as a reporter in San Francisco; Milwaukee; and Dayton, Ohio. He lives in Vienna, Virginia, with his wife and son.

"A fascinating excursion into a past that, though relatively recent, has long been hidden from view."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

""[The Garretts of Columbia] Captures a family with both the rich detail of a biographer and the artistry of a novelist. A remarkable achievement.""—David A. Taylor, Washington Independent Review of Books

"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."—Arnold Rampersad, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Stanford University, and author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

"David Nicolson'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 Biography

"With a quiet dignity and resolve, David Nicholson evokes in The Garretts of Columbia those of his own blood who went before him. He writes chiefly of his great-grandparents, whom he didn't know. What he knows from both his glands and his deep archival research is of their achievements—lawyer, newspaper editor and publisher, professor, teacher in segregated schools. 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. As I read, I kept thinking of the quiet dignity and resolve of those he has brought lovingly to life in this very fine book."—Paul Hendrickson, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

"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."—Juan Williams, author of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965

"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. It will inform those already knowledgeable about African American history, and it will provide a wonderful introduction to those new to the field. This is a triumph of research, reflection, and imagination conveyed in beautiful, accessible, well-organized prose. Hopefully The Garretts of Columbia will garner the wide audience that it deserves."—Randall Kennedy, Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University, and author of Say It Loud: On Race, Law, History, and Culture

"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."—Wil Haygood, author of Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America

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