Tracking the ghosts of Edgefield County


"You ever drink the water, you never be leaving this-here place."
old South Carolina saying

Lynched Not even if you go all the way to California. One afternoon while I was doing research for this essay, someone beat up Uncle Bud Sawyer about a half block from where I work. It was in the East side of Oakland, one of the nation's roughest neighborhoods.

Uncle Bud had been sitting in his car when he was attacked. The blows to his face were so severe, they opened up cuts a quarter of an inch thick. His skull was fractured; he suffered a concussion. He stayed in the hospital for more than a week.

Uncle Bud is an elderly African American man. He has little money. He is gentle and soft-spoken, painstakingly particular about minding his own affairs and keeping out of the business of others. He is a frail person, weighing perhaps 105 pounds. He has only one eye, the result of an old industrial accident.

Last year he suffered a stroke, leaving his right side partially paralyzed. Whoever beat him had to deliver several great blows to the head and face of an old man who had no way of defending himself. Although Uncle Bud will not say one way or the other, given the neighborhood and the circumstances, the attacker was almost certainly an African American.

Increasingly, the violence of blacks against blacks is becoming the way of life in many African-American communities. If you are looking for a reason, you will not find it in the inner cities or on a "gangsta rap" video or in liberal criminal policies or in the permissiveness of the welfare state or in the weakening of the black church or in the breakdown of "family values." Some of these exacerbate the problem; some of them are the result. But they are not the source. For that, you must look to the Old South.

Here you will find places like Edgefield County, one of the more frightening spots in this country. At least, it is for an African American. I know. I've been there.

Edgefield is peach country and, on the surface, is beautiful. The orchard rows of sweet-flowered trees stretch on for mile after rolling mile. Along the main north-south highway that runs from Savannah to Charlotte stand clean, white-board houses and restored colonial mansions dotted here and there between acres of farmland and groves of green woods.

Wave to folks, both white and black, and they will smile and wave back. Passing through in your car you think that this is where you might want to return when you retire. But stop and stay long enough, and you will catch the odor. It does not take long to recognize it.

It is the smell of fear so old and ingrained that it taints the very earth. It is the smell of terror. It is the smell of death. Stay long enough and you will understand the real Edgefield County, sprawling along the Georgia border like some great sick beast sullen and brooding, uneasy, malevolent, the stench of its old segregated systems buzzing its blacktop highways like hot flies on the rotting veins of a dying regime, the clayed ground so dank and red it seems as if it was oozing up blood from the bodies of the murdered martyrs buried in its fields and creek banks. Black martyrs.

"I don't even much go through there," I once was told by an older African-American woman who lived in neighboring Aiken County. "I just drives around it, always. It's bad things happened up in Edgefield. It's bad things still happening."

One flees Edgefield County in deep fear, hoping you can leave the images behind you. But you cannot. Ghosts first emerge from their own graveyard, but they do not remain there. Like some deadly, unidentified disease, the Edgefield Terror has slowly spread itself north and west, infecting the entire country.

Though at first he had no idea where it came from or where the trail would lead, New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield picked up the stench in the late 1980s, in a prison in upstate New York. The paper had assigned the co-author of the Pentagon Papers series to write a background story on Willie Bosket, a 24-year-old black man who New York prison authorities considered one of the most violent criminals in the state's history. The paper wanted to use Bosket as a test case to find out why so many young African-American men were becoming so violent.

Bosket was a good example. While in reform school, where he was first confined at the age of 9 because his mother could not handle him, he "assaulted his social workers with scissors or metal chairs, set other inmates on fire. Psychiatrists prescribed antipsychotic drugs; they had no effect. By the age of 15, Willie claimed he had committed 2,000 crimes, including 200 armed robberies and 25 stabbings."

When he was 15, Bosket shot and killed two men during separate robberies on Manhattan subways. His five-year sentence for the murders, the maximum possible for a juvenile offender under New York law at the time, prompted the state legislature to pass the first law in the nation allowing juveniles to be tried as adults for certain heinous crimes. It was called the "Willie Bosket Law."

Butterfield writes he had no preconceived idea of what his research would turn up, though he supposed that the cause of Bosket's violence would lie somewhere in his upbringing and family background. But Butterfield's research and interviews with Bosket and Bosket's family eventually took him back through 130 years of African American history and eventually to Edgefield County, where the Boskets were confined in slavery.

The simple newspaper story assignment eventually became a book, All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, a seminal study of how anti-black violence eventually begat an era of black-initiated violence.

In Edgefield, it began with a type of brutality often seen but rarely identified as such: white-on-white violence.

Butterfield attributes this phenomenon in Edgefield partly to the history of the large Scottish-Irish contingent among the area's settlers, a bloody history recently glorified in Mel Gibson's Academy Award-winning Braveheart.

"Their way of life," Butterfield writes, "was an outgrowth of seven centuries of fighting between the kings of England and Scotland over the borderlands they inhabited. They had grown inured to their towns being sacked and burned and their kin tortured to death. When they came to America, they brought with them a penchant for family feuds, a love of whiskey and a warrior ethic that demanded vengeance." A no-less-noted observer than Benjamin Franklin referred to them as "white savages."

Add the factor of race so combustible a material throughout American history and the horror of this "white savage" violence against African Americans in Edgefield can scarcely be imagined.

When the Civil War ended with the defeat of the Confederacy and the breaking of the slave chains, Edgefield and its sister Deep South counties sunk in their teeth and sucked at the life of the African-descended people within their reach while the rest of the nation looked the other way. When those African-Americans tried to exercise their dearly won freedoms of the right to vote and economic independence, the violence broke upon them like great sheets of Hell's fire.

They lost their jobs. They were thrown off the land. They were beaten. They were jailed. Ghostly men in pale, flowing robes came to firebomb their houses in the silent screaming of the night. They were dragged from their homes and hung from trees and burned, their body parts sliced off and passed around the crowd to be put on mantelpieces in pickle jars as souvenirs.

Butterfield quotes B.O. Townsend, a South Carolina writer of the post-Civil War period, as saying, "[t]he whites do not think it wrong to shoot, stab, or knock-down negroes on slight provocation. It is actually thought a great point, among certain classes, to be able to boast that one has killed or beaten a negro. It is quite impossible to convict a white of a crime against a colored man."

Butterfield's study shows a family of Bosket men coming of age in such violent savagery, trying initially to exist in peace within its framework but eventually falling into a life of brutality themselves.

Pud Bosket, Willie's great-great-grandfather, grew up a generation after the end of the Civil War and the broken promises of Emancipation. Pud was a notorious "bad nigger," the kind about whom songs are composed and stories written. Unable to find work on any of the area farms because he refused to submit to a white farmer who tried to beat him with a whip, Pud made a living gambling and breaking into stores.

He served time on South Carolina's notorious chain gangs, and was both feared and respected within the African-American community. "He didn't bother nobody, but if you pushed him, you had to beat him," Pud's brother once said. "Step on his foot, at a dance or walking by, just brush him, and there'd be a fight. He wasn't never scared."

In such a manner was born the legendary "black-on-black violence," a shimmering time-space in which murderous fights break out in an instant on the basis of seemingly minor and meaningless provocations. An imagined slur or slight. A supposed stolen item. A piece of clothing soiled or moved out of place.

The first felony conviction of Huey Newton, years before he became founder and leader of the Black Panther Party, came after he stabbed another black man for stepping on his shoe. Observers often shake their heads and express bafflement at such actions. There is a cause, of course, but one that such observers either overlook out of ignorance or conveniently refuse to acknowledge.

For many years, America turned a deaf ear to black victims of violence, thinking it all right or acceptable or tolerable because the victims were well black. In one of the more unforgettable lines of The Godfather, an Italian Mafia don declares his belief that it is morally defensible to deal drugs to "the dark people, the coloreds [because] they're animals, anyway; so let them lose their souls." He seeks to insulate his own neighborhood's schools, to protect the children of his own kind.

But violence knows no boundaries. It is no respecter of law, nor of person. Once unleashed, it is a dog that roams and bites at will. The Boskets carried it with them, out of Edgefield, and within time they ceased to care whether those they victimized were black or white.

All the male descendants of Pud Bosket were molded in his "bad nigger" image. All became brutally violent men and professional criminals. Willie Bosket's grandfather, James, roamed up and down the East Coast as an armed robber. James once so savagely beat Willie's father, Butch, that it left slavelike scars on the boy's back. In turn, Butch killed two men with a knife in a Milwaukee pawn shop because he thought one of the men had cheated him out of some pornographic pictures. The two victims were white.

It is Butch who best demonstrates both the pathos and the potential of the Bosket family. While in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth he received his GED and then began taking courses at the University of Kansas, receiving a bachelor of arts degree "with highest distinction." He finished in the top three percent of his class, receiving 38 As and two Bs out of 40 courses. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the only prison inmate ever to earn this honor. Butch was later killed in a shootout while trying to escape from a prison hospital.

Besides the tendency toward violent behavior, Willie Bosket apparently inherited at least one other important characteristic from his father: his IQ has been measured at the genius level. Not smart enough, however, to escape his family's troubles. Are we?

Twenty-five-hundred miles this nation has come from the killing fields of Edgefield County, and set our backs to the great Pacific, and dug our heels in the rocky sand of California's coastal cities but, like Willie Bosket marking time in his upstate New York prison cell, we have not been able to leave our past behind us.

The herds of sharks do not wait in anticipation beyond the entrance to the San Francisco Bay as they once followed the slaving ships along the Atlantic route of the Middle Passage, but African Americans continue to die violent deaths; sometimes at the hands of police or jailhouse guards, but more often killed by our own kind black martyrs still, to a cause no longer identified.

So the questions are asked often these days: Why are so many African Americans becoming so violent? And why is that violence so often turned against other African Americans?

One answer comes in the response of the Oakland police to the beating of Uncle Bud Sawyer. A police officer arrived shortly after the ambulance. She tried to question the man, but even in his best days after his stroke he was hard to understand, and now the combination of shock and pain killers made him incoherent.

The officer gave up, her investigation quickly over. The vicious beating of an elderly, defenseless, disabled man did not merit more than a couple of questions, not even a walk across the street to knock on a single door.

And what signal does that give to the rest of the community? The signal that violence against an African American is no big deal. It is an old message, often passed down only indirectly, sometimes in old folks' stories, sometimes in song.

Butterfield's study of the saga of the Bosket family begins to shed some light on the causes of African-American violence, but it leaves us with another important question: is black violence inherited in any way or is it all the creation of the anti-black violence of slavery and its aftermath?

There is a segment of the African- American community that believes Africa is the source of all that is good and enlightened in the world and that Europe is the source of all that is corrupt and violent.

Such a theory assumes that had they not been enslaved by Europeans and brought to America, Africans would have lived in peace and harmony among themselves for the rest of time.

It is the mirror opposite of the old European theory used to justify the slave trade in the first place: that Africans were savages who would have butchered themselves into oblivion had it not been for the civilizing influence of the European conquerors.

Both theories, of course, are bull.

One should begin with the idea that elements of good and evil and tendencies toward violence and peace are spread fairly equally throughout all the races of the world, and that every human being carries some percentage of each attribute around with us.

No race has cornered the market either way. Just what type of person we become is a complex combination of the intermix of genetic inheritance, psychological makeup and physical environment, the type of family life in which we grow up, the type of society in which we live.

From whence came this violence? The long line of cause and effect begins to stretch back to the beginning of human existence, becoming little more than an interesting, but perhaps useless, academic exercise.

The point is not to cast blame, but rather to understand how to affect a cure.

Uncle Bud Sawyer is out of the hospital now. The scars of his beating are deep and ugly, an uneasy and unsettling counterpoint to the mellowing lines of age traveling across his dark face. Before the assault he did minor repairs on cars to supplement his retirement income.

Now he can only shuffle along the street as an ancient, pained soul, his feet unable to lose contact with the ground, his body unable to keep its equilibrium without a walking stick. His speech is so impossibly slurred that when he shops he must point to the items that he wants rather than ask for them. He moves like the whisper of a ghost, a haunt from the graves of Edgefield County.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor worked for 20 years in the Black Freedom Movement in South Carolina. This essay was adapted from one originally published in Metro newspaper, in San Jose, California.

Stay long enough and you will understand the real Edgefield County, sprawling along the Georgia border like some great sick beast sullen and brooding, uneasy, malevolent, the stench of its old segregated systems buzzing its blacktop highways like hot flies on the rotting veins of a dying regime, the clay ground so dank and red it seems as if it was oozing up blood from the bodies of the murdered martyrs buried in its fields and creek banks.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 6/13/96