Erwin also has the misfortune of having hosted -- if that is how to say it -- a racial pogrom. 100 years ago this weekend -- May 19, 1918, on Pentecost Sunday -- an incident of some kind (local history says cards) enflamed a lynch mob that killed a black man, corralled the town's entire black population to watch the burning of his corpse, and threatened a similar fate to any blacks who did not leave the next day. Suffice it to say that the warning was heeded. With that, Erwin became a "sundown town" in which blacks were not permitted to live.
I drove over to Erwin this morning to look for evidence of any memory of the event.
"I heard about it growing up," said the librarian at the Erwin library, as she led me back into the local history room, an overstuffed room that looks like it might have been a ticket office back in the days when this was the train station.
Libraries often have files of newspaper clippings and other ephemera related to significant events in local history. The librarian unlocked a file cabinet for me and invited me to browse at my leisure, although she herself had only a vague awareness of the event and no knowledge of any information about it.
There was nothing about the pogrom in the clippings file. There was however a big, fat folder about the elephant, though: Mary, the renegade elephant who killed her circus handler in Kingsport, but, in order to be "executed," had to be brought to Erwin where there was railroad equipment big enough to hang her. That was in 1916, two years before the African-American purge, about which people know nothing. Mary, on the other hand ... Mary is the only thing many, many people know about Erwin.
The library has a very quiet cat who kept me company in the chair next to me while I didn't find what I was looking for.
I then walked over to the town newspaper office and bought the current newspaper (a weekly), which covered a couple of annual culinary celebrations elsewhere in the county: a ramp festival over in Flag Pond and a strawberry festival in Unicoi. There were stories about high school students racing solar-powered vehicles at Bristol Motor Speedway, a visit from a gubernatorial candidate, a fatal industrial accident at a tire plant, and an opinion columnist who allowed as how a front porch might be the key to an agreement between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
Nothing about a purge of black residents 100 years ago, though.
The day wasn't a total bust. The library in Johnson City had a book that was relevant: Buried in the Bitter Waters, a book about twelve such "racial cleansing" incidents as Erwin's written by Pulitzer-winning journalist Elliot Jaspin and published in 2007. Some previous reader had flagged the chapter about Erwin by dog-earing its first page. I left it that way. "Something in the Air," says the chapter title. On Pentecost Sunday, what would that be?
I feel sure that the feeling in Erwin is probably something along the lines of "why dredge up the unpleasant past?" But don't we commemorate bad things all the time? We make whole religions out of bad events. Disasters from war receive monumental treatment routinely (Pearl Harbor, 9/11). Even events for which the nation must accept blame -- think of the "Trail of Tears" -- are studied, remembered, and memorialized.
Ironically, Erwin itself has done this with the elephant Mary. Hanging an elephant is bizarre and weird and unpleasant. But Erwin thrives on that part of its history. If you go to the town site, you will see that you can "become an elephant artist." The town is having eight fiberglass elephants brought to downtown, and it is soliciting participants for their decoration. After being exhibited for a time, the painted elephants will be auctioned off, with a portion of the proceeds to go to the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, TN, where "retired captive elephants" live out their dotage.
Now, imagine an entire nation putting that kind of thought and care into deriving some ethical or moral recompense for 350 years of slavery, racial apartheid, and the programmatic deprivation of the civil rights of African-Americans. That's a John Lennon-sized "imagine," I realize, but hey, Erwin, you could be the dreamer that starts the ball rolling.
Like what happened on Pentecost.