Most Americans can’t tell you the names of their great-grandparents, much less what they did for a living or the impact they had on the people around them. But David Nicholson isn’t most people. Eager to learn more about his ancestors, he began a “labor of love” more than a decade ago to record them in print. The result: The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration, an impeccably researched book that illuminates key moments in American history through the lens of family biography.
Nicholson, a former editor and book reviewer for The Washington Post Book World, counts himself fortunate that his mother kept “literally thousands of letters, diaries, photographs” passed down through the family. When she died in 1986, she left them to him. Nicholson says it took about a year to organize everything, followed by “at least 10 years researching and writing various drafts,” which included several research trips to South Carolina.
“Late in the process of writing the book, I discovered that my motivation was really wanting to make sure that these people were not forgotten, that there’d be some evidence of their lives and the things that they did,” he says.
The book begins with the “mythic figure” of Nicholson’s ancestor whom he calls “the African” who purchased freedom for himself, his wife, and two of his children. (Tragically, he could not afford to keep the rest of his children.) Nicholson’s great-grandparents, Casper George Garrett and Anna Maria Garrett, feature most prominently in the book. The former was a community leader — a professor at a Black college in Columbia who edited three newspapers and a layman in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The latter, Nicholson marvels, “didn’t work for many years, and when she did, she became supervisor of the rural colored schools.” At 51, she learned how to drive “so she could visit these schools in the country.”
The book holds appeal to those with an interest in American history. “There are no monuments honoring either of them [his great-grandparents] and there are no buildings named after them,” Nicholson says. “But they were still important in terms of helping provide direction and inspiration for the Black community in those decades in the late part of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century.”
Feature image: Author David Nicholson’s great-grandparents celebrate their 50th anniversary in 1940. Photo courtesy David Nicholson.