Race, Truth, and Fiction in Thomas Wolfe’s ‘The Child by Tiger’

Ms. Joanne Mauldin, Thomas Wolfe scholar, and Dr. Darin Waters of the UNC Asheville History Department. Photo: Urban News

Discussion Series at the YMI

On a cold, snowy November evening in 1906, a black man called “Will Harris,” whose real identity was unknown, went on a killing spree that took the lives of three blacks and two whites in Asheville.

At the time, Thomas Wolfe was six years old; thirty-two years later, he wrote about the events in a short story entitled “The Child by Tiger.”

Wolfe’s narrative will be the focus of a display at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial on North Market St., throughout November, and of a two-part discussion series at the YMI Cultural Center on November 27 and 29. The programs will be led by Dr. Darin Waters of the UNC Asheville History Department and independent Thomas Wolfe scholar Ms. Joanne Mauldin.

The programs are free and open to the public, but advance registration is requested. The first 300 who register (at any Buncombe County library) will receive a free copy of “The Child by Tiger.”

Among the issues to be discussed are: Is Asheville still segregated? Are race relations in Asheville different from those in other parts of North Carolina? Does the 1906 Will Harris event illustrate any truths about why race relations in Asheville are what they are? What impression did the event make on Thomas Wolfe the child, and what does the adult Wolfe’s short story, “The Child by Tiger,” suggest about the event and the writer? How does the written record differ from the lore handed down through generations in Asheville’s black community?

The Will Harris Event

According to accounts in Asheville newspapers, on November 13, 1906, an African American newcomer of unknown past and uncertain name—possibly “Will Harris”—embarked on a killing spree that began on Valley Street and ended with the death of a policeman on Pack Square.

With deaths in both the African American and white communities, both races rallied to find the shooter. Within two days he was hunted down and killed, and his bullet-riddled body was displayed in a storefront window on South Main Street. Various possible identities emerged, but no definite information about his identity or his past ever came to light. The unclaimed body was buried in a pauper’s grave in historic Riverside Cemetery.

Because police did not have enough guns and ammunition to outfit a posse to chase down “Will Harris,” they got what they needed from Finkelstein’s Pawn Shop on Pack Square – where Harris had previously purchased the gun he used for his killing spree. Photo: NC Collection, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC

Contemporary newspaper accounts emphasized that black and white populations suffered the same trauma at the hands of the killer, responded with similar outrage, participated in a unified response, and received similar comfort from their respective communities. The morning after the killings, the Asheville Gazette-News headlined: “Negro Desperado Kills Two Officers And Two Negroes.” The Asheville Citizen commented, “If there was any possible race feeling, it could not be discovered.”

Clippings from local papers show that as news of the event spread beyond Asheville, officials and prominent citizens became concerned with damage control.

On November 18, Asheville Mayor Alfred S. Barnard sent a wire to regional and national newspapers stating that “Reports of the killing of a Negro desperado near here are greatly exaggerated.… There was no mob, no lynching, and no lawlessness.” A mass meeting of African Americans that evening, with whites in attendance, resulted in a series of resolutions “repudiating Will Harris as a member of our race,” “endorsing the steps taken by our good white fellow citizens,” and “commending our white fellow citizens for the absence of any and everything that could suggest in the least degree feelings against us as a race.”

Two Races United in Outrage

It is hardly surprising that black and white communities would unite against a threat that seemed random and color-blind. But the degree of consensus and unanimity of feeling openly expressed suggest that race relations in Asheville may have operated on a different dynamic from that prevailing outside the mountains.

Dr. Darin Waters, who has studied the history of Asheville’s African American population during the post-Civil-War era of 1870-1900, says “The high-profile nature of Harris’s actions, and the lynching that followed, served to reinforce an enduring and negative pattern on race relations in Asheville. Through lectures and discussions, Asheville’s diverse communities can re-examine this event with the goal of uncovering its larger and longer term implications.”

The Buncombe County Library is offering free copies of Wolfe’s short story for participants. Commenting on the project, Library Director Ed Sheary said, “This project draws together the disciplines of history and literature, the resources of the public library, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, and the YMI Cultural Center. The result will be a community dialogue that will hopefully illuminate some of the reasons that race relations are what they are in Asheville.”

Sharon Kelly West, Chairperson of the YMI Board, noted that “This particular topic is of special interest as it is in alignment with our value of inclusiveness as we embrace appreciation for culture.” Christian Edwards, Director of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site, looks forward to the series. “We are proud and very excited to help bring this part of our history to the forefront of community discussion,” she says. “It is a topic that needs discourse.” The site’s special display for the series begins November 1.

Joann Mauldin and Dr. Waters compare original works of Thomas Wolfe at the Thomas Wolfe House in Asheville. Photo: Urban News

Thomas Wolfe and “The Child by Tiger”

The Will Harris event is all but forgotten now, but Wolfe himself never forgot it. The narrator in his story, published in September 1938, says, “The years passed, and all of us were given unto time. We went our ways. But often they would turn and come again, these faces and these voices of the past, and burn there in my memory…. Then I would hear the furious bell, the crowd a-clamor and the baying of the dogs, and feel the shadow coming that would never disappear.”

Clearly the events of those November days stayed with him for more than thirty years, and his fictional version of the event is considered by many to be his best work. “While Wolfe is a writer of fiction, we know him to be the foremost chronicler of early twentieth century Asheville,” says Sheary. “His fictional characters are more real than any historical account.”

In the story, Wolfe calls the Will Harris character “Dick Prosser,” indicating that the author was likely aware of Gabriel Prosser, leader of one of the most important slave rebellions in American history. Prosser is a compelling character, described as “gentle,” “powerful,” and “accomplished.” “He could cook, he could tend a furnace, he could drive a car,” writes Wolfe. Prosser coaches the young white boys in the neighborhood on the finer points of boxing, shooting, and throwing a football. He can take insult and even unprovoked assault with iron self-control. In short, he is an admirable character, whom we come to think we know—but what can any white person truly know of someone whose life has been shaped by the daily necessity of navigating a racist society? In the end, precious little, Wolfe shows.

Beyond Will Harris

The historical Will Harris event shows a remarkable degree of cooperation between blacks and whites at a time of racially charged confrontations in the South. This cooperative tenor continued to characterize race relations, at least on the surface, through the 1950s. But the widespread cultural changes of the 1960s clearly challenged old patterns of race relations: With young people in the forefront, the African American community brought a new dynamic into play here, engaging in concerted actions, including sit-ins and picketing, to integrate lunch counters, movie theaters, schools, and the workforce.

But much of the legacy of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s for race relations here is disturbing. The combination of school desegregation and urban renewal decimated black centers of power and unity, undermined trust in civic processes, and reinforced old feelings of exclusion and powerlessness.

At a public meeting in 2008, respected elder Willie Mae Brown said, “We have had Model Cities and we know what Model Cities have done. We’ve had urban renewal and we know what happened during that period. Any major change that takes place within the city of Asheville affects the black community negatively.” At the same meeting Asheville resident Viola Williams asserted: “You just want to pretend we had a voice in this.” Businesswoman Sylvia Farrington observed that “This community is ‘diverse’; Asheville is still segregated.”

Echoing some of these perceptions, local teacher Andrew Weatherly wrote in a letter to the Mountain Xpress in June 2010, “Black friends of mine who are visiting or move here ask: where the black people are. I’ve heard white friends who have lived here for years become surprised to learn that more than a few black people even live in Asheville.” Weatherly went on to ask, “Does it matter that Asheville is segregated? Are people in Asheville freely choosing segregation? Is de facto segregation racism? If Asheville wants to do something about it, then do the white people have most of the decision-making power?”

Dr. Waters agrees that, “No one can deny that racism still plagues our society. When census data show that more than 57% of African Americans in Asheville/Buncombe County live below the poverty line, one must ask: to what extent does this result from continued discrimination and outdated survival mechanisms? How does this dynamic impact rising generations of African Americans here? Can we begin to forge a new dynamic in race relations? Let’s talk about it!”

The discussion series at the YMI Cultural Center, coupled with the display at the Wolfe Memorial, will give all citizens an opportunity to do just that. Click here for event details.

These events are made possible by a mini-grant from The NC Humanities Council, a statewide nonprofit and affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, awarded to Buncombe County Public libraries. They are co-sponsored by the Buncombe County Library System and with community partners The Friends of Buncombe Libraries, The Urban News, Mountain Lit, and The Friends of Mountain History.

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