The Power of Storytelling
31 October 2019
My last column was titled, “History Center: Another Hijacking Underway”. I addressed the effort by Mayor Mitch Colvin and some members of the Fayetteville City Council to make major changes to the planned North Carolina Civil War and Reconstruction History Center. No matter what the outcome-stopping the project, making changes, or proceeding as the project organizers plan-the actions of Mayor Colvin and his group guarantee substantial racial division and tension in Fayetteville for years to come.
This concern, regarding how our city will be negatively impacted by what I see as an effort to, at the last minute, generate opposition to the History Center was validated and deepened when I attended a meeting on Thursday evening, 26 September 2019. That meeting was organized by Val Applewhite, former city councilwoman, with Advance Carolina and the Fayetteville Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as co-sponsors. Clearly, the goal of this meeting was to generate opposition, in the black community, to this project.
I left that Thursday night meeting totally frustrated and feeling tremendous sadness. My concern is not only the racial tension, but the overall adverse impact on a city that is trying to become a better place for all people.
One change called for by Mayor Colvin is in the concept of the History Center. He made this point during his comments at the meeting. I sent the mayor an email asking what he understands to be the current concept and what changes he desires. Getting no response, based on his meeting comments, it seems there is concern that slavery and the Civil War will not be accurately presented. Given this “concept” concern, research for my column titled, “Needed: NC Civil War & Reconstruction History Center” shows that the Center’s focus will be on telling the stories of people in North Carolina during the Civil War and Reconstruction. This from the Center’s website:
“Our State’s story needs room to breathe because it extends beyond those four years of war and because it cannot be neatly wrapped in Confederate gray. North Carolina’s enduring Civil War legacy is more like a quilt: a patch work of blue and gray, white and black, and various shades in between.”
History is not always neat; it is often complicated and messy. It is about people, places, and events that are both admirable and shameful.
Here at the site of General Sherman’s “final march” on the Fayetteville Arsenal, this definition comes into stark focus. The History Center takes an unflinching look at all sides of the Civil War, for all North Carolinians. Taking multiple perspectives and many untold stories into account, the collective memory of our state and our heritage becomes rich and multi-layered, and the many thousands who created this history will not be forgotten.
At the bottom line, the History Center will focus on the stories of North Carolinians of every color and gender; how they were affected by, and responded to, the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. Giving attention to these stories can help build greater understanding between people who, because of how history has been portrayed, live in separate and contentious worlds. Simply put, there is tremendous power in storytelling.
On the same night as that disturbing meeting, I received a text from Dr. Ezra Merritt. He does not live in Fayetteville, but told me about an opinion piece that was in that day’s Fayetteville Observer online edition, and in the print edition, on 27 October 2019. The column was written by Carol Megathlin and titled, “Murder still shocks, 80 years later”. Megathlin writes, “I am a white woman who grew up in the deep South of the 50s and 60s.”
That bit of background comes after the writer reflects on an article she had read by Rachel Cargle titled, “I Refuse to Listen to White Women Cry”. Megathlin explains that Cargle calls for action in response to her stories about discrimination. Cargle’s comment about stories of discrimination and the call to action prompts Megathlin to write:
“I submit that when confronted with firsthand accounts of the dehumanizing indignity suffered by African Americans, people of conscience naturally grow sick at heart.”
“I felt just such an emotion as we took our Honor Flight veterans on a tour of their war memorials in the District.”
Megathlin goes on to recount how, on that trip, she met Dr. Ezra “EZ” Merritt, an 85-year-old retired U.S. Army Colonel who served 33 years. He was the only black in Megathlin’s group. In the heart of this column, she shares a story that Dr. Merritt told her while walking in Arlington National Cemetery. Merritt was the youngest of six boys and two girls. His father, Ezra “Pete” Merritt, was a sharecropper who refused to play by the boss’ rules. For instance, Pete kept his own records of purchases at the company store. He did this because the company store would keep records all year and then claim that sharecroppers owed more than had been earned. Based on Ezra Merritt’s account, the writer paints a word picture of a man, Pete Merritt, who was independent in his thinking, sought to advance himself and his family even in horribly difficult circumstances, and refused to be victimized or manipulated by anybody.
Megathlin writes: “One night, a black man named Tom Williams burst into the Merritt’s sharecropper shack. Pete was seated at the dinner table with his children. His wife and a daughter were in the kitchen.” He went on to kill Pete Merritt by shooting him in the back. Williams was sentenced to prison, but not death. Later, he received the death penalty for killing several people after he was released from prison. It later came to light that somebody paid Tom Williams $50 to kill Pete Williams. In that time, for a black man, this was the price of being independent in his thinking, seeking to advance himself, and his family -even in horribly difficult circumstances- and refusing to be victimized or manipulated by anybody. Pete Merritt’s eight children, all of them, went on to have very successful lives.
Near the end of her piece, Carol Megathlin writes this:
Ms. Cargle preaches “knowledge plus empathy plus action” to whites. We rely on people like her and EZ Merritt to provide the knowledge. What we do with it – confronting racism in ourselves and others, or not – requires the humility to be honest with ourselves. Our response tests the depth of our courage, and reveals the quality of our character.
To more fully appreciate and understand the story of Pete Merritt and the writer’s response, please read Carol Megathlin’s piece at https://www.fayobserver.com/news/20190926/megathlin-murder-still-shocks-80-years-later.
I know this story well. Ezra “Pete” Merritt was my paternal grandfather. In the book that he and I wrote about my father’s life, Daddy explains the $50 payment to Tom Williams. The chaplain who walked Tom Williams to the electric chair told Daddy he asked Williams why he killed Pete Merritt. Tom responded, “The white folk gave me $50.”
I was in my early 20s when my father told me the whole story. For some 50 years, that story has inspired me, influenced my approach to life, but not filled me with hatred of white people. I suppose it helped that I saw my father assess people based on their life story and actions, not their skin color. He could take this approach because sharing his story with others, including white Americans, and hearing theirs with an open mind, allowed for forming positive and close relationships with many people…regardless of race.
Obviously, Carol Megathlin was positively affected by hearing Uncle Ezra tell our story. I have also been positively impacted by this story. There is power in storytelling. However, the stories that can touch hearts, change minds for the better, and heal broken relationships are not limited to stories of black Americans and slavery. All of us have stories and there is power in sharing them. Storytelling is central to the concept of the History Center. Let it happen…let it help us be reconciled in Fayetteville and across this nation.