Carrie Allen McCray thinks of herself as a teacher and social worker, not a writer.
When she saw the first copy of her new book, "Freedom's Child," just off the press, "I opened it and hugged it to me. It felt so wonderful. I had wanted to do this for such a long time." McCray can measure time over a longer span than most.The book - an affectionate, revealing history of her mother, the offspring of a union between a freed black slave and a white Confederate general - represents something of a closure for her. It covers years of ignorance and curiosity, a period of rage, and now, finally, at the age of 84, a time of acceptance.
"I couldn't write this book before now," says McCray, who makes her home in Columbia.
A bold suggestion
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It was a book that came to publication by a circuitous route. McCray initially wrote it as a novel, a fictionalized account of an African-American woman's discovery that her grandfather was an officer in the Confederate army.
"She was trying to write it without having a fictional technique available to her," says Shannon Ravenel, McCray's editor at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was Ravenel, a Charleston native, who had the idea of changing the approach to the book, when she read some of the manuscript at a writers conference at the College of Charleston four years ago.
"I made a bold suggestion: What would you think of starting over and telling the story as it happened? Making it a nonfiction account?" Ravenel said. "And Carrie being Carrie, she did exactly that."
McCray recalls the advice well. "Shannon was right. I was trying to write something I didn't know how to do."
She had known about the Confederate general for many years of her adult life.
He was Brig. Gen. J.R. Jones of Harrisonburg, Va. A framed photograph of him hung over her mother's bedroom mantelpiece. But McCray was only a young girl at the time, and she didn't think to raise questions about him.
She found out later when her brother told her the truth. That the general had had an affair with his black servant, Malinda Rice, and that McCray's mother was the offspring, another twist in that tortuous relationship between whites and blacks in the 19th century South.
"I was angry about that during the'60s," McCray says. I was angry with the general. Of course, I didn't know him. I never even thought of him as my grandfather. I just knew he was a Confederate general, and I couldn't deal with that."
But in 1990, McCray went to Harrisonburg, she encountered a young researcher named Dale Harter.
He was looking for descendants of Jones, a general whose existence had been virtually obliterated from official records by historians and his own community because of his affair with the former slave and because he acknowledged his illegitimate daughter publicly and continued to pay her expenses even after the early death of her mother.
McCray's book has helped her understand her past and given her a new appreciation of her mother. But it also has helped to revive knowledge of the general and to set the record straight on his life and work.
"Maybe there can be some healing through all of this," McCray says.
She speaks of attending a Civil War conference in Aiken recently where there were a number of white re-enactors playing the role of Confederate soldiers. "We talked about the book, and you know, they came over and hugged me. It felt like the most wonderful thing."
A tireless activist
"Freedom's Child" is not so much about the discovery, however, as it is a recounting of the life of McCray's mother Mary, who died in 1935.
"She was an activist in every way," McCray says. She was a woman born to break down barriers, and she found plenty as a black woman in the early part of this century.
She was a tireless promoter of educational opportunities for blacks, wife of the president of Virginia Seminary, and, after his death, acting president.
Through a lifetime in the NAACP, she worked for legal rights for her race. She was the mother of 10 children. She numbered among her acquaintances men of the stature of W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes.
And she bequeathed her daughter a formidable intelligence and determination to match her own.
"Mother was a very creative woman. She was very bright. I'm very proud of her ... I hope she would like this book," McCray says.
'You're a poet'
McCray lived for 73 years before she decided to become a writer "seriously." She still has some problems with that.
"A few years ago I went to Squaw (Valley Community of Writers). I was so surprised to be accepted. It was wonderfully open experience for me. I told them that I didn't feel like a writer, that I think of myself as a teacher and a social worker. And Galway Kinnell told me, 'You're a poet.' That had a real impact on me."
She had one short story published in an omnibus collection in 1966, but her first book, a volume of poetry, "Piece of Time," appeared in 1993. It was critically acclaimed and even landed McCray on National Public Radio reading some of her poems to a national audience at the age of 83.
"Talk about amazement," she says with a laugh.
She was born in Lynchburg, Va., the next-to-last of her mother's brood. A college graduate, she was for many years a social worker in New York and Brooklyn and finally a teacher. In 1976 she received a national honor; she was named United Negro college Fund Teacher of the Year. In 1979, she retired as associate professor of Social Work and Sociology at Talladega College, where she earned her undergraduate degree nearly a half-century earlier
Her second husband, John McCray, was among the best-known black journalists in the South, "a courageous fighter for the cause of racial equality when it was dangerous to do so," McCray recalls.
In the 1940s and '50s, he published the Lighthouse and Informer, a black newspaper in Columbia, pushing for full freedom for African-Americans. His cause was fully shared by his wife.
Older is better
McCray turns 85 in the fall. She laughs that her publisher already calls her 85 "because I think they think it sounds a little better."
She is in good health, as anyone who sees or hears her can attest. But 85 is a bit beyond the usual age for authors, so while she's got a busy schedule of trips and autographings coming up, her travel has been arranged to give her time off, too.
"We're not going to beat her down at all," Algonquin's Ravenel says of her author's schedule.
"She has quite a wonderful story to tell everyone," Ravenel adds. "I think she'll have a great time telling them."