Racial tensions inform Tyson’s memoir


Historian Timothy Tyson teaches a class at Duke University. A UMNS photo by Jon Gardiner, Duke University.

Timothy Tyson never forgot what happened in Oxford, N.C., the summer he turned 11.

The memories of the murder there that inflamed racial tensions persisted even after the family left town when his father, the Rev. Vernon Tyson, was asked to move to another United Methodist church in Wilmington.

The younger Tyson returned to Oxford for occasional visits, paying attention to how the community coped with racial tension and connecting it with his experiences with school integration as a middle- and high-school student.

“We had a lot of violence in the hallways,” recalled Tyson, a historian who is now 50 years old. “We had dozens of buildings burned in Wilmington. We had the National Guard in the streets.

“Going through the experience of school integration, which was both good and bad, made me want to know how this craziness got started.”

One day in 1982, when he was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Tyson discovered he could look up back issues of the Raleigh, N.C., News-Observer at Jenkins Library.

Ricky Schroder portrays the Rev. Vernon Tyson in “Blood Done Sign My Name.” A UMNS photo courtesy of Paladin / Real Folk Productions.

He was so intent on reading the news coverage of the May 11, 1970, killing of Henry “Dickie” Marrow, an African-American Vietnam War veteran, and its aftermath, that he sat in the library for 12 hours straight. When the building closed at midnight, he hid in a restroom until everyone had left, then continued reading the old news accounts for the rest of the night.

Later, Tyson went to Oxford and conducted his first oral history, interviewing Robert Teel, one of those accused and acquitted in Marrow’s murder, for a paper he was writing for college.

He transferred to Emory University and finished his undergraduate degree there. But his obsession continued when he returned to North Carolina to attend graduate school at Duke University. For his master’s thesis in history, which he finished in 1990, Tyson wrote “a more detached, historical account” of the murder and its impact on Oxford.

Beginnings of the book

For 12 years, he left the story alone – until one morning, at the age of 42, when he found himself writing the first chapter of what would become his book. “I knew that I was finally ready,” he said.

As he was writing, Tyson talked nearly every day with his father. One day, a package arrived at his doorstep, containing his mother’s diary and his father’s journal, which helped him with the chronology of the story.

“Blood Done Sign My Name,” published in 2004, won the Southern Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Tyson received the Louisville Grawmeyer Award in Religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2006.

After teaching for years at the University of Wisconsin, Tyson is back at Duke University, serving as a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies and a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School. He also teaches in Duke’s history department and at the University of North Carolina.

Vernon Tyson, now 80 and serving as interim pastor at Elevation United Methodist Church in Benson, N.C., about 30 minutes from his home, accompanied his son to the Feb. 10 premiere of the movie version of "Blood Done Sign My Name" at the Pan-African Film and Arts Festival in Los Angeles.

His mother, Martha Tyson, was unable to make the trip. She had commitments to her United Methodist Women unit at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh.

Timothy Tyson worships at Amity United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill and at the Duke University chapel, “but I’m often found where my daddy happens to be preaching,” he added.

He conducts his own type of “ministry of reconciliation” by visiting dozens of churches and high schools each year with Mary Williams, a gospel singer, to lead conversations about race relations. He also has participated in discussions after performances of a stage version of his book by Mike Wiley, a playwright and actor.

“Even though many things have changed, we’re still very segregated,” he said. “We still haven’t resolved the tension between the gospel and the social realities of our own lives.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.