South Carolina native Pam Durban will read from her fourth novel, “The Tree of Forgetfulness,” at 6 p.m. Monday at USC. The appearance is part of a series of author events presented by USC’s Institute of Southern Studies.
Durban’s newest book fictionalizes the lynching of three African-Americans in Aiken in 1926 — a story Durban “heard little whispers of” during childhood visits to her grandparents and one that generated 30 front-page stories in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
Durban, author of the novels “So Far Back” and “The Laughing Place,” and the Doris Betts Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina — says that strangely, details of the case have been erased from formal histories of Aiken.
“Part of my interest in it is that at the time, it was a huge national story,” generating front-page stories in Pulitzer’s paper and sparking an undercover investigation by the NAACP.
“And yet, the story has disappeared from the history of Aiken,” says Durban (pronounced dur-BAN).
She finds that erasure “interesting and appalling,” considering that “everybody (in Aiken) knew what happened and who was there.”
In her quest for information, Durban talked with Fitzhugh Brundage, an American historian who also teaches at Chapel Hill, and won from him an agreement that the lynchings were America’s most publicized.
After the lynchings, newspaper magnate Pulitzer sent a reporter south to tell the story of how Aiken’s sheriff came to die in a liquor raid, and how the three blacks – two men and a woman – charged in the shootout that resulted in his death were hauled out of the local jail and then shot to death themselves in front of a crowd that comprised nearly the whole town. (The term “lynching” refers to death by violence and does not necessarily involve ropes and trees.)
The NAACP also sent a light-skinned black man named Walter White to investigate. Durban says that White delivered to authorities the names of those who had performed the lynchings.
Still, three grand juries refused to indict anyone in the deaths of the three African-Americans, and the local coroner said their shootings had been “at the hands of persons unknown.”
Durban’s grandmother was a member of a prominent family in Aiken at the time — her brothers all were doctors.
“That started me thinking of what my family’s role may have been,” Durban says. The coroner, Durban found in her research, was a great-uncle.
Durban is fairly certain no one in her family bore responsibility for the shootings themselves — her grandfather was Catholic and French, and thus could not become a Ku Klux Klan member — but she doesn’t know what they did see or, perhaps, repressed.
As in her book “So Far Back,” Durban again introduces a spiritual presence: a “curious granddaughter” asking her grandfather to at last tell the truth as he dies. She is the spectral presence, Durban says, and her fictionalized grandfather, the dying man.
Durban’s novel doesn’t reveal any new truths nor come to any important conclusions. All she wanted to do, she says, was tell the story.
“It’s important to see its legacy — to understand the legacy” of the event, she says. “We ignore the past at our peril.”