David Nicholson at Harvard Book Store


The Garretts of Columbia:
A Black South Carolina Family
from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration

In conversation with RANDALL KENNEDY


January 31, 2024
7:00 PM ET


Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

Harvard Book Store welcomes DAVID NICHOLSON—author of Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City—for a discussion of his new book The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration. He will be joined in conversation by RANDALL KENNEDY—Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School.

About The Garretts of Columbia

At the heart of David Nicholson's beautifully written and carefully researched book, The Garretts of Columbia: A Black South Carolina Family from Slavery to the Dawn of Integration, are his great-grandparents, Casper George Garrett and his wife, Anna Maria. Papa, as Garrett was known to his family, was a professor at Allen University, a lawyer, and an editor of three newspapers. Dubbed Black South Carolina's "most respected disliked man," he was always ready to attack those he believed disloyal to his race. When his quixotic idealism and acerbic editorials resulted in his dismissal from Allen, his wife, who was called Mama, came into her own as the family bread winner. She was appointed supervisor of rural colored schools, trained teachers, and oversaw the construction of schoolhouses. At 51, this remarkable woman learned to drive, taking to the back roads outside Columbia to supervise classrooms, conduct literacy drives, and instruct rural farm women in the basics of home economics.

Though Papa and Mama came of age in the bleak Jim Crow years after Reconstruction, they believed in the possibility of America. Resolutely supporting their country during the First World War, they sent three of their sons to serve. One son wrote a musical with Langston Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. Another son became a dentist. A daughter earned a doctorate in French. And the family persevered. But, for all that Papa and Mama did to make Columbia a nurturing place, their sons and daughters joined the Great Migration, scattering north in search of the freedom the South denied them.

The Garretts embraced the hope of America and experienced the melancholy of a family separated by the search for opportunity and belonging. On the basis of decades of research and thousands of family letters—which include Mama's tart-tongued observations of friends and neighbors—The Garretts of Columbia is family history as American history, rich with pivotal events viewed through the lens of the Garretts's lives.

Praise for The Garretts of Columbia

"In this deeply satisfying book, David Nicholson tells a rigorously researched but also sensitively imagined story of one Black family's exacting and yet triumphant rendezvous with history—Southern, African American, American, and finally human history. Nicholson understands the nuances here and works with consistent mastery to draw them out for the benefit of the reader. The Garretts of Columbia is a gift for our troubled times." —Arnold Rampersad, Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Stanford University, and author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography

"David Nicholson's richly sourced, interestingly populated veil of color, wherein a man's ambition and a woman's wisdom and three begotten Garrett generations will never know how or where character, luck, education, or persistence might have taken them in an equal world, may be one of the great deep reads of our time by this confessed 'weary integrationist.'" —David Levering Lewis, Professor of History, Emeritus, New York University, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography

"With a quiet dignity and resolve, David Nicholson evokes in The Garretts of Columbia those of his own blood who went before him. He writes chiefly of his great-grandparents, whom he didn't know. What he knows from both his glands and his deep archival research is of their achievements—lawyer, newspaper editor and publisher, professor, teacher in segregated schools. What he knows is that old, sad, shameful story: the saga of one more multigenerational black family in America who tried so hard to love their own country, even as their own country refused to love them back. As I read, I kept thinking of the quiet dignity and resolve of those he has brought lovingly to life in this very fine book." —Paul Hendrickson, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy

Masking Policy

Masks are encouraged but not required for this event.

David Nicholson
David Nicholson

David Nicholson

David Nicholson is a former editor and book reviewer for the Washington Post Book World and author of Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City. The New York Times praised its “sensitivity and grace,” and the Los Angeles Times included it on a list of books that “show us where to find the real America.” It was also featured in Publisher’s Weekly as one of “7 Essential Washington, D.C., Books (That Aren’t About Politics).” Nicholson attended Haverford College before graduating from the University of the District of Columbia. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. Nicholson has worked as a reporter in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Dayton, Ohio. He lives in Vienna, Virginia, with his wife and son.

Randall Kennedy
Randall Kennedy

Randall Kennedy

Randall Kennedy obtained his schooling at St. Albans School, Princeton University, and Yale Law School.  He served as a law clerk for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the United States Court of Appeals and for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court.  Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School, a member of the Bars of the District of Columbia and the United States supreme Court, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society.  A contributor to a wide range of publications, Kennedy has also written several books, the most recent of which is Say it Loud! On Race, Law, History and Culture.

Photo credit: Martha Stewart
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