A Story for Our Times: Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

William Miller, Wellington’s only Black doctor, and Mr. Watson, the town’s Black lawyer, are talking about the innocent Black man charged with the murder of a white elderly woman. “One of our race,” Watson tells Miller, “is about to be put to death without judge or jury, ostensibly because he committed a crime,–really because he is a negro…It is thus made a race issue, on the one side as well as on the other.” Old Sandy Campbell is to be lynched!

There is a knock at the door. Mrs. Miller announces the arrival of “big Josh Green.” Josh Green is angry and desperate. For a second time, he has come to Dr. Miller, pleading for support.

It is 1899, and we are in is North Carolina. The advocates of white supremacy and their many vocal and silent supporters are steadily dismantling Reconstruction. 

The young man waste no time. “’Doctuh…de w’ite folks is talkin’ ’bout lynchin’ Sandy Campbell fer killin’ ole Mis’ Ochiltree.’”

And Watson asks: “What can we do to protect him?” 

Miller: The sheriff. Maybe we go to the sheriff? Maybe the “’general government’” can be called on to intervene? Even the president?

           No, answers Watson. “’There’s no hope there.’”

          “’Den w’at we gwine ter do!’” asks Green.                                                                                      

Signs are up. “’Colored’ on black letters upon a white background.” Blacks are to be reminded that between them and “the rest of mankind not of his [or her] on color, there was by law a great gulf fixed.”

Now is not the time, Miller tells Watson and Green. Without organization, supplies and “’outside sympathy,’” we can do nothing. “Our time will come,–the time when we can command respect for our rights; but it is not yet in sight. Give it up, boys, and wait. Good may come of this, after all.”

Green reminds the men of his family’s history. When he was 10 years old, a posse of white supremacy dragged his father out of their home, and while he and his mother watched, the white men, lead by Captain McBane, killed him. Green swore “’dat some day er ‘nother I’d kill dat man.’” And, now, he is alone: his mother passed away this very morning!

“’What is to be gained by fighting?” Miller asks Green. The younger man ignores the question.

“’If I should git laid out in dis commotion dat’s gwine on, will you collec’ my wages f’m yo’ brother, and see dat de ole ‘oman is put away right?’”

Miller and Watson agree to go to the mayor and then to Judge Everton. Watson instructs Green to stay put. You are “too truculent.”On the street, you are likely to cause trouble, and may do “’more harm than good’” if you accompany us.

A short while later, the two professionals return to Miller’s home. Their efforts to appeal to local authority fails. The two went seeking recognition of Black humanity to a community who only see Blacks as either “bad negroes” or “good negroes,” good servants or criminals. Do these professionals recognize that the logic of white supremacy? Of course they do. An aspect of white supremacy, Miller and Watson acknowledge, prevents the white mayor and the white judge from acknowledging Black professionals as their equals. Miller and Watson feel the fear, internalize it. Miller warns Green: Do not do anything “rash”! Perhaps someone else from the ranks of local authority can help. Some savior! Maybe Mr. Tom Delamere. (Unbeknown to the three men,  Delamere is the murderer of his aunt, Mrs. Ochiltree).

Miller is emphatic! Be peaceful! “’These are bad times for bad negroes.’” Be Peaceful! “'[E]ndure a little injustice’” or expect to find yourself dangling at the end of a rope from a tree! But Green feels he has endured enough. He will have his revenge. His response is “matter-of-fact”: “’I expec’s ter die a vi’lent  death in a quarrel wid a w’ite man…an fu’thermo’, he’s gwine ter die at the same time, er a little befo’.’”

After Green leaves, Millers thinks about the young man.

           Here was a negro who could remember an injury, who could shape his life to a definite     purpose, if not a high or holy one. When his race reached the point where they would resent a           wrong, there was hope that they might soon attain the stage where they would try, and, if need       be, die, to defend a right.


He, Miller, would be willing to “give up his life to a cause.” But “would he be equally willing…to die for it?”

           No. His task is to persuade Green to give it up! Green wants revenge! He wants to retaliate. He wants the head of just one man. McBane may deserve “any evil fate,” Miller concludes, but his murder would not go unavenged. How would McBane’s murder accomplish anything to alter the institutionalized oppression of Black people? “To kill another for revenge was pitifully human and weak.” Miller’s solution is to wait. Remain peaceful. Non-violent. Those who resort to systemic violence will grow tired—and then, the meek shall inherit the Earth.


           In 1899, Charles Chesnutt turns his back on a lucrative stenography practice in Cleveland to focus on the conditions of Black people in his home state of North Carolina. As early as 1878, he is concerned with the plight of Wilmington’s majority Black population by expressing his feelings of humiliation and shame at the conduct of Wilmington, North Carolina’s white population and its disenfranchisement of its Black citizens. In the letters he receives from Wilmington, friends write of the growing hatred directed at the Black population there. Chesnutt responds. In one letter, published in The Literary Career of Charles Chesnutt, Chesnutt writes, “the white people of the South do not want to be governed by the Negro at all; whether well or ill; more than that, they do not want the Negroes to share with them the power which their numbers justly entitle them to.”

Not content to wait on a remedy, Chesnutt challenges the nation. He writes articles. Speaking to the “good” people of the North, he tries to persuade them to understand the horrors of what has taken place in Wilmington, North Carolina. Without confronting the root of racism, Wilmington, North Carolina can spread and be repeated here and aboard.

Less than a year before, on November 10, two thousand white men, the “good” people of Wilmington, honored the call to “’Kill the niggers.’” They congregated in the heart of town and, with their guns and rifles and torches, spread out. The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 had begun. The other “good” people of Wilmington turned their heads and embraced silence.

Critical of the literary medium, Chesnutt blasts the North’s press for “its treatment of Blacks and its handling of these myths and stereotypes” (The Literary), for such blatantly erroneous depictions contributes to the continuing dehumanization of Black citizens. Turning to literature, Chesnutt examines what transpired to bring about the Wilmington coup and subsequent massacre of Blacks in his novel, The Marrow of Tradition, published in 1901.


For the Morning Chronicle’s founder, Major Philip Carteret, a “good” Black is one who remembers his or her place in the God-given ordering of humanity. A “good” Black is one who serves the white community. There are the definitely “bad negroes,” Carteret believes, and they seem to have forgotten their place and role in Wellington. In contrast to his devoted servant, Sandy Campbell, the “bad negroes” are masquerading as public officials, lawyers, doctors, and editors of newspapers. What’s next? Sandy, however, is different. In a conversation with Mrs. Ochiltree and her nephew, Tom Delamere, Carteret vouches for his well-behaved servant. He trusts Sandy with his life!

‘No doubt…the negro is capable of a certain doglike fidelity,–I make the comparison in a kindly sense,–a certain personal devotion which is admirable in itself, and fits him eminently      for a servile career. I should imagine, however, that one could more safely trust his life with a   negro than his portable property.’


But the Black citizenry, on the other hand, is another matter. The concept of a Black citizenship is “’a grotesque farce’”! What citizen of Wellington is willing to stand by and witness “Sambo and Dinah” rise “from the kitchen to the cabinet” without considering it “a spectacle to make the gods laugh.” Something must be done—and soon!

Who does Carteret turn to? Captain McBane! Personally, Carteret despises McBane and considers the man beneath his class, “an illiterate and vulgar white man of no ancestry,” yet suitable to carry on with the daily reminders of white rule to a Black population. Carteret takes up the battle cry of white supremacy, and the Morning Chronicle’s campaign is a boom for McBane and his compatriots.

In the meantime, the town cannot ignore the rumbling from the Blacks responding to the arrest of Sandy Campbell. In a planning meeting, General Belmont reminds Carteret and McBane that Blacks may respond to the arrest with violence. He saw what happened in Haiti. He heard the drums and felt the heat of flames. Blacks there rose up! “’Nigger domination.’” That’s Reconstruction! “’Nigger domination,’” shouts McBane. This isn’t Haiti! This is the United States of America!

           And in the United States of America, the reader is reminded, the nation “was rushing forward with giant strides toward colossal wealth and world-dominion, before the exigencies of which mere abstract ethical theories must not be permitted to stand.” No! No! No nigger domination! Manifest Destiny, Global power, yes!

Everyone at the planning meeting understands that the Morning Chronicle has its supporters locally as well as nationally. “All over the country,” the public supports the “conspirators,” seeing them as the original conspirators who freed the colonies from British rule. In other words, “a permanent white supremacy” is in league with national sentiment and not with the monstrous alternative calling for equality between us and anti-Americans. Our way of life, our freedom, our wives and children, everything we stand for is in danger of being toppled by terrorists. Beasts! The “good” citizens, consequently, prepare to procure “both arms and ammunition in large quantities.” Then get to work. Carteret and the Morning Chronicle are to be commended for their foresight and initiative!

The Wellington Grays drill “with great assiduity.”

Fear expands outward from the “conspirators” to Wellington citizens who expect their leaders, Major, Carteret, Captain McBane, and General Belmont, to plan a course of action that would rid Wellington of the menace. At the next meeting, the men take up the first item on the agenda. It is an article condemning white supremacy, written by the Black editor of the Afro-American Banner. The article explains the real reason for the practice of lynching; it points the reader’s attention to “a fanciful purity of race”! The men are outraged! The existence of the article is bad enough, but worse, it reaches circulation in a northern newspaper! Can this even happen? A “colored man” is ultimately indicting “the laws and social system of the South”! Well, that means war! There is Sandy Campbell, a faithful servant, murdering a white woman. And now this outrage from an uppity nigger! The editor of the Black newspaper was an easy target for the venom of hatred. Was because, as the campaign’s first course of action, the editor is forced to flee Wellington, effectively shutting down the Afro-American Banner.

But let us back up and return to the ads in the same paper. Look, says Chesnutt! Look at the ads in the Afro-American Banner, if you please. A product that guarantees “kinky” hair will disappear! The “face bleach” will turn black or brown skin “four or five shades lighter”–a mulatto– “perfectly white”! What a paradox! But, then, whiteness, too, is a white-hot commodity!

In the meantime, Mammy Jane (Mrs. Carteret’s faithful servant), Sandy, and Jerry are among Wellington’s servant class who receive their orders with “unctuous gratitude” and backs bent “almost double.” Nonetheless, McBane offers to pay for the burials of “’all the niggers that are killed.’” For General Belmont, so much the better: “’There are several negroes too many in this town, which will be much the better without them,’”–including, he adds, the “’too mouthy…yellow lawyer, Watson.’”


Much has happened since Miller, Watson, and Green last met. Captain McBane, “the leading organ of his party and the most influential paper in the state,” is spouting the “cant about race purity and supremacy and imperative necessity.” His battle cry echoes that of the Morning Chronicle: “’White supremacy everywhere!’” In turn, the Morning Chronicle writes a fury of articles, all written in “white heat,” sounding “the tocsin of a new crusade” in Wellington. Many Blacks say their farewells, desert their homes, and depart Wellington.

But Dr. Miller is trapped in inertia. His thoughts focus on hatred of the whites in the town, situating him in a nightmarish contemplation of fear and resignation. He cannot join Josh Green and Blacks remaining in Wellington. As he watches the party under Green’s leadership moving down the road, he is convinced he “acted wisely in declining to accompany them.” How can he confront the hate of those white men when he has to consider the future of his wive and son in this town? He has the hospital, after all. Yet Miller is “conscious of a distant feeling of shame and envy that he, too, did not feel impelled to throw away his life in a hopeless struggle.” Is the fight over for Miller? Has there ever been a fight for Dr. Miller?

And where is Josh Green? Where, if not with Captain McBane, of course. For Green, the past, present, and future is McBane? What is life if not the death of McBane? His twin, Captain McBane, envisions only whiteness. He is in love with the image of white-hot flames. There is one enemy for Green and many for McBane. Both have been alienated from humanity by the ideology of white supremacy so that neither can grapple with ideas about justice and freedom for all of humanity. Fratricide is the name of the game. Revenge is their loyal and faithful servant. In courting death, both see the face of the other (“I see his face,” says Green) and both are in awe of their power to annihilate the other. Brothers in the macabre!

White supremacy works best when perpetrators and victims work in tandem.

There will be no education. No raising the consciousness of the rank-and-file here!

The white-hot flames are raging now!

Sandy is released from prison after it was discovered that he, too, is innocent of the murder of Mrs. Ochiltree, and immediately, he leaves town. Watson sent his family to safety, and, as he informs Miller, he prepares his exit.

In the meantime, the “’war’ had reached the women and children.” Among the dead children are William and Janet Miller’s young son. So who is surprised to stumble upon Mammy Jane’s body in the street? Or see Jerry, Major Carteret’s servant, pleading for his life as he runs toward his master? “’Majah Carteret—O majah! It’s me, suh, Jerry, suh…I would n’ do nothin’ ‘g’inst de w’ite folks, suh…” Who is surprised when Carteret cannot hear him over the “roar of rage”? Look, Jerry waves his white handkerchief! He promises to be “good” and loyal. Under the circumstances, Chesnutt’s narrator explains, Jerry’s “reliance upon his white friends, all failed him in the moment of supreme need. In any hour when the depths of race hatred are stirred, the negro was no more than a brute beast, set upon by other brute beast whose only instinct was to kill and destroys.” In the presence Carteret and his editor, the mob kill Jerry. And Carteret tells his editor that he did not mean for anyone to die!

Did Carteret expect his rhetoric to result in a bloodless coup?

The white mob thirst for “black blood” intensifies. Any Black standing still or attempting to flee, now, is cut down. The white mob, according to one of the rioters, Harry Hayden, were “’respectable citizens.’” Many were “’men of property, intelligence, culture…clergyman, lawyers, bankers, merchants.’” Don’t call them a mob: “They are revolutionists asserting a sacred privilege and a right.’”

Those citizens protecting their “sacred privilege” and rights surrounded homes. And the hospital. Miller’s hospital! “’Vengeance!’ vengeance!’” they yell. “’Kill the niggers!’” Bodies lay dead in the street. “Inoffensive people, slain in cold blood because they had been bold enough to question the authority of those who had assailed them, or frightened enough to flee when they had been ordered to stand still.” The “good” smash windows, set fire to homes, and kill. The “present course” of the insurrection of those “good” citizens protecting their privileges and rights “was but the logical outcome of the crusade which the Morning Chronicle had preached, in season and out of season.”


Not long ago, I lived in a city considered liberal in a state considered progressive. Not long after I left this city, I spoke to a former neighbor. He is a younger white man who lives with his partner in the building where I used to live. I had spoken several times to this individual whose “freedom” allowed him to, well, to speak his mind and voice his opinions. I usually held back. I never discussed with him my activism or my subject matter. I was just an older Black women. And what do we know? On the other hand, I did not express any religious or political bias toward the LGTB community. So we could talk—or rather he could talk.

Months before this conversation by phone, he informed me and another white male tenant that he and his partner were gun enthusiasts. He rattled off the kinds of guns he and his partner had in their apartment. What battle are they preparing for, I wondered? What future event, what future world do they envision? I had seen the both of them, on several occasions, dressed in green camouflage fatigues.

Toward the end of our conversation, he mentioned the police shooting of a young Black man by the police in that liberal town. I began by saying that I heard and, yes, here again was another murder of a Black American by the police and, yes, again…

“’He deserved to be killed! I’m sorry, but you don’t touch a police officer. He deserved to die!’”

The young teen, Tony Robertson, deserved to die!

We do not know what happened, I tried to say. He deserved to die! He does not say that that “Black” kid deserved to be murdered! To die! But I know. And he thinks I would agree with his assessment of what happened?  I would agree with him that yet another unarmed young Black teen deserved to be killed? What ideology is in play here?

Ever wonder how Adam Lanza or Eric Harris or Dylan Klebold can operate under the radar, despite their attire, despite their behavior, and despite their website manifestos in which these young men “free” to speak and even, in the case of Dylann Roof, proudly, as if naturally, display swastikas and rifles? Roof declares, in his manifesto, that he “had no choice” but to murder Black people. He alone could not take the “fight” to the “ghetto.” So he picked a Black church in Charleston were he could be brave: “Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

On the other end of the line, I hear a voice without shame, without empathy. What does he fear?

           And if asked most Americans will say they denounce Donald Trump!


Green flees to the hospital, where even the patients have fled. McBane, “the baser elements of the white population, recruited from the wharves and the saloons, was now predominant,” seeking Green. The two men meet, surrounded in flames. Reaching the front line of the crowd, Green is armed “with a huge bowie-knife, a relic of the civil war, which he had carried on his person for many years for a definite purpose.” Of his party, “all but the bravest shrank back.”

McBane waited for Green. The crowd was “entirely congenial” to him—he who had lived “a life of violence and cruelty.” His contract with the state for convicts had been terminated, yet, here he is to the end. And he fires his gun. “A pistol-flame flashed” in Green’s face, but Green continued forward until he reached McBane. Raising his arms, Green buried the knife “to the hilt in the heart of his enemy.” Both men fell to the ground, dead. “When the crowd dashed forward to wreck vengeance” on Green’s “dead” body, there was “a smile still upon his face.”

But smile at what?

The 1898 Wilmington coup d’etat resulted in the deaths of 15 to 60 people. Over 2000 Blacks fled the town, leaving behind land and worldly possessions. White supremacist removed duly-elected Black representatives and the remaining Black population lost their political rights…

“I do not want to become the accomplice of my torturers,” writer, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, Jean Amery writes, in At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities. So he lives residing with his resentments because he refuses to forget the crime and its cover up. He refuses “post” anything. He refuses to accept the hypocrisy of “peace”  and “democracy.” No one he writes, wants to relieve me of his resentments, “except the organs of public opinion-making, which buy it.” So I persists! Truth is not for sale!

Chesnutt offers nothing for sale! And do not think for a moment that those weak and hateful were the target of his resentment. Enacting their role as players in a pathetic drama, they give up their lives, generation after generation, to the logic of that fanciful idea of racial impurity. Some profit in this sacrifice of humanity while others silently abide. No, the repression of the truth about the human condition is worth maintaining our resentments, contrary to the moralist and psychologists, as Amery noted, who urge us to sleep the sleep of the blissful. It is through Chesnutt’s refusal to forget that we learn to reject complicity. And persists, too.

Dr. Lenore Daniels

Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literature, with a specialty in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola University, Chicago. Her publications include scholarly articles for The Canadian Women’s Studies Journal, The Griot, and Americana. She has served as a writer for several community newsletters and co-editor for Chicago Alliance for Neighbourhood Safety Newsletter. Currently, she writes a commentary for The Journal, Platteville, Wisconsin and the Black Commentator.

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