South by Southeast
ABOVE: The opening spread of "South by Southeast" from the Spring 2001 issue of Coastal Magazine
South by Southeast
By Doug Bell
Charles Joyner got his calling early. His parents, who taught him to read before he started school, gave him a book on the Presidents of the United States when he was around five. In short order, he had all their names memorized chronologically—up through Franklin Roosevelt, who held office at the time.
“I couldn’t wait to take history classes in school,” say Joyner, his rich baritone glowing, excited even by the memory of the prospect. School didn’t disappoint, and high school brought a revelation.
“Mary Long was my American history teacher at Myrtle Beach High School. She didn’t focus on wars or dates or presidents, but on larger movements of history,” he recalls. “She also staged debates. In one of them I was assigned to defend the English side in the American Revolution. Well, I didn’t know that England had a side. That’s when I learned that it’s not a good guy-bad guy world. For the most part, it’s real people with honest differences of opinion. That was the first time I saw history as an intellectual exercise, as a way to understand human experience. I haven’t outgrown that yet.”
Not surprisingly, Joyner majored in history in college, earning a bachelor’s degree at Presbyterian College in Clinton S.C., and went on to get a Ph.D. in history from the University of South Carolina. In the late 1960s, while he was on the faculty at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, N.C., he started work on what was intended to be a routine scholarly article. He wound up writing a book that changed his life.
In the summer of 1969, Joyner received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to research the oral histories of African-American ex-slaves which had been collected in the 1930s as part of the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project. Scrolling through the microfilm, he was intrigued to find that several of the interviews were from Murrells Inlet and had been conducted by Genevieve Willcox Chandler.
Although Chandler was something of an institution at the Inlet—she was hostess at Brookgreen Gardens for many years—Joyner didn’t know her personally. Beginning that summer, he and Chandler formed a close friendship as she began introducing him to the children and grandchildren of Welcome Beese, Hagar Brown, and other African-American men and women she had interviewed back in 1937. He was fascinated by their stories, their songs, their language.
Joyner began making regular trips to the Inlet, to Sandy Island and other areas along the Waccamaw Neck—that area of land situated roughly between Murrells Inlet and Georgetown where the great antebellum rice plantation flourished—to conduct his own interviews. He became friends with African-American preachers like the Rev. George Besselieu, who led him to other descendants. Joyner took notes on their speech, their customs, their crafts, all of which he was delighted to find still vigorously alive after generations of change and assimilation. He also looked into written sources filed away in various libraries—censuses, inventories, wills and estate papers of area plantation owners. Gradually he began to build a multilayered portrait of the unique African-American culture that existed on the Waccamaw Neck prior to the Civil War.
The culture is called Gullah. The terms refers to both the language—a rich creole mixing English and African vocabulary and grammatical elements—and to the general culture and folklife which developed among the slaves who lived along the coast and the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia.
“Just the research process itself was stimulating beyond anything I could have imagined,” says Joyner. “In researching most historical subjects, you might get a pinch of information from Texas, a whiff from Tennessee and maybe a nugget from North Carolina. But here I was able to collect more information than I could readily absorb, all about one spot right in my own backyard. I could talk to close relatives of people I was writing about. I could stand in the graveyards where they were buried, the slaves and the masters. No other project I had ever worked on seemed so real to me.”
In order to do justice to the material he was gathering, Joyner realized he was going to need more specialized education in the fields of folklore and anthropology. “The project called on everything I knew as a historian and made it clear to me that I had a lot more to learn.” So he undertook another Ph.D., this time in folklore and folklife from the University of Pennsylvania, all while continuing to probe deeper in the Gullah story.
Although his hair turned from black to gray in the process, Joyner’s painstaking approach paid off. The book that eventually emerged, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, was immediately recognized as a landmark study of American slavery when it was published in 1984. In it, Joyner recreates the experience of the Waccamaw slaves in careful detail, illuminating the intricate structure of the rice plantation in all its physical and its human complexity. Praised for its comprehensiveness, Down by the Riverside traces the story of the Gullah people from their African homeland, where they first learned the secrets of rice cultivation, and combs through the evidence of their considerable legacy in America from several perspectives: historical, folkloristic, technological, linguistic, ethnic, religious and musical. Joyner also explains how change and adaptation, which are inevitable in any society, have helped Gullah culture survive and develop.
The book helped establish Joyner’s reputation as a chief authority on Southern history and culture. He has since been in regular demand for lectures and conferences around the world, including two stints as a Fulbright lecturer in New Zealand. He has been called on to edit new editions of Classic Southern books such as A Woman Rice Planter by Elizabeth Allston Pringle and Green Thursday by Julia Peterkin, as well as to write countless introductions to other works related to various aspects of Southern culture.
William Ferris, chairman of the National Endowment for Humanities, sized up Joyner’s erudition in a remark he made while delivering Coastal’s May commencement address three years ago. Speaking of the mammoth, highly acclaimed reference work, The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which Ferris spearheaded and edited, he said, “Charles Joyner wrote nearly half of it. I can never thank him enough—and we certainly never paid him enough.”
In 1988, after visiting professorships at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Mississippi, Joyner accepted an appointment to Coastal Carolina University’s first faculty chair. The Burroughs Distinguished Chair in Southern History and Culture had been created early that year by the late Henry Burroughs Sr. of Conway to stimulate the study and preservation of history and culture of South Carolina’s Waccamaw region.
It was a homecoming for the Myrtle Beach native, whose roots reach back two centuries in Horry County soil, and a natural fit professionally. From his office in the Prince Building—a comfortably cluttered study and library crammed with books on every conceivable aspect of the American South from Faulkner’s novels to the Georgetown County Census of 1850—Joyner has continued to study, write, lecture and accrue honors. He is also the director of the Waccamaw Center for Cultural and Historical Studies, the research center of Coastal’s Thomas W. and Robin W. Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts.
One of the center’s missions is to present public lectures and conferences, a task which calls on another of Joyner’s great gifts: friendship. His research and travels have brought him in contact with many illustrious scholars and writes around world, many of whom have visited the Coastal campus because “Chas” invited them to lecture or take part in a conference. Among them are William Styron, C. Vann Woodward, Josephine Humphries, Elizabeth Spencer, Dori Sanders and David Hackett Fischer.
In a field of scholarship inherently fraught with differing interpretations, factious theoretical approaches, and constant revisionism, Joyner’s calm integrity and tolerant disposition are much respected. “I don’t feel competitive, it’s not my nature,” he says. “I’m very ambitious, but I never felt that my getting ahead should require me to put anyone else down.” Joyner says he also learned something about professional good manners from his mentor and friend, the late C. Vann Woodward of Yale University, one of the leading American historians of the 20th century. “Vann set a splendid example of how to disagree and get along at the same time.”
Joyner never had a better opportunity to exercise his diplomatic skills than last spring, when he bravely joined the fray over the Confederate flag as the controversy raged in the statehouse and across South Carolina.
“It was frustrating to hear over and over how the legislature was being bombarded with information from the heritage groups stating that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War. I felt that the lawmakers and the public deserved to know the real history of the situation.”
Sticking strictly to historical facts, Joyner wrote a short paper showing indisputably that perpetuating slavery was a primary motivation for waging the war. He then circulated it among colleagues for comments. They urged him to edit it down to two pages and send it to the South Carolina Historical Association for endorsement. An overwhelming majority signed it and on March 31, 2000, Joyner, with more than 70 other historians standing behind him, led an unprecedented and widely publicized press conference at the South Carolina Library on the USC campus.
“Our aim was not to take sides or tell people how to think,” says Joyner, “but to help resolve the controversy.” Although the effort was well received by the press and the academic community, a few South Carolina historians did not sign the document and a small group of dissenters delivered a counterargument. A few days after his press conference, Joyner spoke to the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. At the meeting, he passed around copies of his statement from the press conference. “I didn’t know whether I persuaded anyone, but they received me very cordially. Nobody refused to take a copy. All in all, through the whole flag issue I don’t think I lost a friend.”
Joyner’s latest book, Shared Traditions, published in 1999, is a collection of essays that explore how the culture of the South has been shaped by the fusion of African and European influences. The essay subjects reflect the breadth of his interests. In addition to further considerations of Gullah culture and American slavery, there are pieces on the abolitionist John Brown, on the development of Southern musical styles, on Appalachian dulcimer makes, on Jewish life in Georgetown, S.C., on British and Irish cultural influences in the American South, on the effect of resort development on folk culture, and on the legend of Alice Flagg, the Grand Strand’s favorite ghost, which Joyner runs through the wringer of modern folklore scholarship.
For his next book, which will be based on a series of lectures he will give later this year at the University of Virginia, Joyner turns to a subject which has been his lifelong passion: music. As anyone knows who has seen him perform with the Chosen Sisters, an African-American singing trio from Pawleys Island, he is more than a scholar of music—it’s in his bones.
“I was into music before we ever had an instrument in the house,” says Joyner, who plays guitar, banjo, dulcimer, autoharp and harmonica and can clap out the most complicated polyrhythmic backbeat in his sleep. He grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and loved the early “hillbilly” string band music of groups life J.E. Mainer and the Crazy Mountaineers. As he got older he began to listen to a wide range of music. By the time he became a professional historian, music was central to his work as a scholar.
Joyner’s first published article was about the protest songs which came out of a famous cotton mill strike in Gastonia, N.C., in 1929. His first book was Folks Songs of South Carolina, published in 1971, which was partly inspired by his Gullah research. In the 1960s and 1970s, he traveled with his portable tape recorder through the Appalachians and the Ozarks to capture American folk music at its source, making the acquaintance of Frank Proffitt and other venerable standard-bearers of the art. He also made trips to England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Newfoundland to study the root systems that fed early Southern music and culture.
The story of Southern music is an epic of multicultural give and take, according to Joyner, a fusion of various African and European influences which has given birth or essential sustenance to practically every genre of American music: blues, jazz, folk, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, gospel, bluegrass and Cajun.
“Name any American music that doesn’t have its roots in the South,” he says, more as an expression of wonder than a challenge. “The remarkable thing is that all these diverse musical forms are really more closely related than is apparent on the surface. They cross-fertilize one another in endlessly interesting ways.” Dizzy Gillespie would seem to have very little in common with, say, Bill Monroe, but jazz and bluegrass are linked by ancestry and by their ability to change and grow by borrowing new sounds, according to Joyner. The ultimate exemplar of this process is Elvis Presley, whose mixture of “black” urban blues and “white” country-gospel set off a chain of events which changed the course of music forever. For Joyner, this crisscrossing phenomenon is a metaphor for the South as a whole. “There is something that our musicians have always understood, but out politicians too often haven’t—that whatever difference might exist between black and white cultures, there is an underlying unity that binds the South together. That’s what this next book is about. I think it’s the book I’ve always wanted to write.”
In this photo from the Spring 2001 Coastal Magazine, Charles Joyner sits in his Prince Building office. He passed away in 2016.