Riding With Mr. Washington

How my great-grandfather invented himself at the end of Reconstruction

The author's great-grandfather, C. G. Garrett (second from right), and unidentified contemporaries in Columbia, South Carolina, 1940s (Courtesy of the author)
The author's great-grandfather, C. G. Garrett (second from right), and unidentified contemporaries in Columbia, South Carolina, 1940s (Courtesy of the author)

I was telling a white friend about my great-grandfather, a lawyer, newspaper editor, and college professor who began his career in the 1890s, when her face wrinkled in puzzlement.

“Was he married to a white woman?” she asked.

Stunned, I stammered, “No,” and explained that in South Carolina—where laws prohibiting intermarriage dated back to the 1700s—it might have cost him his life just to have gazed too long in a white woman’s direction.

Our conversation was decades ago, but I still sometimes marvel at how little my friend knew of Black history, and how her ignorance (there’s no other word for it) fueled the incredible assumption that a Black man could have made something of himself only by marrying a white woman. Though I tried to explain, I’m not sure she understood that African Americans like my great-grandfather have always managed, somehow, to invent and reinvent themselves despite a world that regarded them as less than human, improvising a way out of no way. What could be more American than that?


One day in the late 1970s, my mother, Ruth, a librarian at the Library of Congress, ventured into the attic of her Washington, D.C., rowhouse. There she found trunks, suitcases, and cardboard boxes filled with letters, diaries, photographs, and a few flaking copies of The Light, one of the newspapers that my great-grandfather edited. A few letters dated from the late 1800s—they’d been there since her father bought the house in 1928.

I’m not sure she understood that African Americans like my great-grandfather have always managed, somehow, to invent and reinvent themselves despite a world that regarded them as less than human.

After Ruth died, I inherited this material, but 20 years would pass before I finally began to examine the trail she left for me to follow. What I discovered was a distinguished family tree. I found forebears who’d repatriated themselves and died in Africa. I found a great-uncle who collaborated with Langston Hughes on a musical during the Harlem Renaissance. I found that great-uncle’s sister, who met François “Papa Doc” Duvalier during her two-year sojourn in Haiti in the 1940s. And then there was that great-grandfather whose story my friend was unable to imagine.

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David Nicholson is the author of The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family From Slavery to the Dawn of Integration.

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