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The Garretts Of Columbia
A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration

By David Nicholson

University of South Carolina Press (January 24, 2024)

About The Project

“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.

—Paul Hendrickson, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

"This is a triumph of research, reflection, and imagination conveyed in beautiful, accessible, well-organized prose. Hopefully, it will garner the wide audience that it deserves."

—Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University, and author of Say It Loud: On Race, Law, History, and Culture

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, staunch African Methodist Episcopal Church layman, and editor of three newspapers.

Dubbed Black South Carolina’s “most respected disliked man,” Papa was always ready to attack those he believed disloyal to the 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 breadwinner. Appointed supervisor of her county’s rural colored schools, she trained teachers and oversaw the construction of schoolhouses. At age 51, this remarkable woman learned to drive, taking to the backroads 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. Later, one son would write a musical with Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. Another son would become a dentist. A daughter earned a doctorate in French after World War II.

Mama and Papa embraced the hope of America and experienced the melancholy of a family separated by the search for opportunity and belonging: For all that they 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.

Based on 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’ lives.

Having first laid eyes on each other on a picket line outside a Woolworth’s in Chicago in 1960, Velma and Norman Hill quickly forged a partnership of equals. 

 

In 1960, a brick hurled by an angry white mob knocked Velma unconscious during a protest she’d organized to desegregate Rainbow Beach on Lake Michigan, a protest now considered a key battle in the civil rights struggle. Norman took the 21-year-old in his arms and rushed her to safety. The injuries she sustained at Rainbow Beach caused Velma to lose the child she was carrying. Velma and Norman married a month later--the start of their lifelong commitment to one another and to the fight for civil rights and economic justice in America.

 

Mentored by two movement giants, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the Hills worked, individually and as a couple, on voter registration drives, the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, as well as countless campaigns to desegregate restaurants, public schools, housing and labor unions.

 

Through their eyes, readers gain access to such pivotal moments as the meeting of advisors hoping to convince Martin Luther King, Jr to consolidate his work in the South rather than take on the intractable racism of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley… imploring Stokely Carmichael to not turn his back on nonviolence… and convincing George Meany, the powerful head of the AFL-CIO, to fund a new organization to bring race, labor, and politics together.

 

Through their important work, the Hills have crossed paths with Malcolm X and Presidents William Clinton and Barack Obama.

The Hills continue to dedicate their lives to racial and economic justice. Climbing the Rough Side of the Mountain is a history, a call to action and a much-needed road map to guide a new generation of activists working to build a more just America.

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR
THE GARRETTS OF COLUMBIA


“A rigorously researched but also sensitively imagined story of one black family’s exacting and yet triumphant rendezvous with 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 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

 

“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 Biography.

 

“A remarkably detailed, incisive, and eloquent history. . . . A triumph of research, reflection, and imagination conveyed in beautiful, accessible, well-organized prose.”

—Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor of Law, Harvard University, and author of Say It Loud: On Race, Law, History, and Culture

 

“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.”

—Paul Hendrickson, author of Sons of Mississippi, National Book Critics Circle Award winner

 

“Pride, shame, and curiosity create an open, revealing book. Nicholson’s 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

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About the Authors

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. The New York Times praised its “sensitivity and grace,” and the Los Angeles Times included it on a list of books that “show us where to find the real America.” It was also featured in Publisher’s Weekly as one of “7 Essential Washington, D.C., Books (That Aren’t About Politics).” Nicholson attended Haverford College before graduating from the University of the District of Columbia. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Nicholson has worked as a reporter in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Dayton, Ohio. He lives in Vienna, Virginia, with his wife and son.

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