Charles Joyner (1935-2016): Friends and faculty share memories
Charles Joyner, who died on Sept. 13, is in the top flight of scholars of the American South. He grew up in South Carolina and was proud of his deep Horry County roots. After graduating from Myrtle Beach High School, he earned a history degree from Presbyterian College and a master’s degree from University of South Carolina. After two years in the Army, he earned doctorates from USC and the University of Pennsylvania. His teaching career included positions at Pfeiffer College and St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina before joining the Coastal Carolina faculty in 1980. He accepted an appointment in 1988 to CCU’s first faculty chair, the Burroughs Distinguished Chair in Southern History and Culture, which he held until his retirement in 2007. He is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work on slavery in All Saints Parish, "Down by the Riverside" (1984), but it was the personal way in which he combined his deep scholarship with his multiform talents (folklorist, musician, singer, artist, cross-stitch designer, puppeteer) that made him legendary; and it was his genuine kindness for everyone he met that made him beloved, as these brief tributes from some of Chaz’s CCU colleagues show.
Eldred “Wink” Prince Jr.
Charles Joyner had more friends than anyone I ever knew, in more places than anyone I ever knew. In many ways, Chaz helped to put Coastal Carolina University on the map. He used his resources, his reputation, his incomparable network of friendships to connect our history department to people and places around the world. He was like a river. I have been at conferences where I knew no one, but as soon as someone saw my CCU nametag they would instantly say, “Oh, that’s where Chaz is!” And right away I had an entrance or an opportunity to make a friend. Chaz Joyner was the best friend that I ever had, and he may have been the best friend that you ever had.
I was working in the CCU administration in the 1980s when Chaz joined the faculty, and we were buds from the beginning. I had worked in TV production before getting into academia, and Chaz and I got involved in some television history projects that involved some travel. I learned early on that we needed to build in more travel time if Chaz was going to drive, because he would start telling history stories, and the more he talked, the slower he drove! But the stories were great and nobody complained. What a blessing to have known and spent time with Chaz.
The recognition that Chaz brought to CCU was priceless. The national figures that he brought here—he would just pick up the phone and call John Hope Franklin, Vann Woodward, William Styron. He dearly loved this place. I remember changing planes once in the Atlanta airport and my wife Judy said, “Look, there’s Chaz Joyner over there playing the piano!” So I put a cup on the piano and dropped a dollar bill in it. He never gave me back the dollar.
I remember one wonderful night when my husband, the late Paul Rice, and Chaz traded songs for hours, and it was spectacular.
The thing I will miss most is the impromptu conversations we would have on any number of subjects, but especially music. We would begin by talking about Sam Cooke or some old Southern bluesman and end up at Beethoven. I remember asking him who was his choice for the best Beethoven conductor. I chose Furtwangler, and Chaz said, “I like Karajan, except that he was a Nazi!” His breadth of knowledge was amazing.
Chaz was invited to give a speech at a college where I was teaching at the time in Virginia, and most visiting professors would just give their lectures, have a drink, cash their checks and leave. But Chaz asked me where my son went to school, and he took his puppet Woody out to this third-grade class and sat on the floor with those kids and entertained them for an hour. He did a lot of volunteer work in the public schools.
It was never my intent to become a Southern historian. Chaz diagnosed my problem one day while we were lunching and talking about “The Burden,” why some Southern intellectuals were so driven by being Southern. Some of us, I said, deny it, some repress it, and some wear it on their sleeves. “What is it?” I asked. Chaz calmly and deliberately replied, “Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.” I knew that, for I had been living with Robert Penn Warren’s Jack Burden since 1966, but it was the way Chaz put it, so simply yet so precisely. That ability was part of his genius and the hallmark of his style.
We who had the privilege to call Charles Joyner our colleague recognize his brilliance as a scholar but will likely remember him for his warmth, kindness and generosity. When I arrived at CCU in 1999, Chaz showed great interest in my work and in my career. He and Jean also treated my family like their own kin, acting like surrogate grandparents to my daughter, Sarah (now a CCU student). I quickly learned that Chaz had friends virtually everywhere, including my dissertation adviser. At times I wondered, "Who doesn’t Chaz know?" I will miss Chaz’s counsel, bottomless reservoir of anecdotes and warm laugh. He was a wonderful man and a great friend.
He was a supportive, good-humored and inspiring member of the faculty, and a public intellectual who represented the institution with honor and dignity. He was also the avatar of Coastal’s intellectual aspirations -- Coastal as a center of inquiry and discussion, a place where knowledge could be created. His example empowered the small but determined scholarly community at this university…. With his towering integrity and affection for this institution, a quiet word from Chaz was sometimes worth more than a ream of policies. In the wrong hands, that power could have been corrosive. Chaz exercised his political power rarely, and often for the protection and elevation of his fellow faculty.
We owe Chaz a debt. Coastal would have existed without him, but it would have been duller, narrower, meaner place.