Tales of the Silver Fox: Part 1

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

― Marcus Garvey
Arthur Sr., Emma, and Arthur Outen Jr., Columbia, South Carolina, 1942

Children lined up outside the Nickelodeon Theater to see Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Among the anxious fans crowded into the segregated movie house was fourteen year old Arthur William Outen Jr. the third child and oldest son of Arthur and Emma Outen. Arthur Jr. was born October 29, 1925 and had two older sisters Eunice born in 1916 and Amelia born in 1921 and one younger brother Otis born in 1928. The Outens’ were a middle class family who managed to keep their shotgun house in the midst of the Great Depression due to Arthur Sr.’s job working for the US Postal Service. The Outens’ lived at multi room shot gun house at 1817 Waverley Street in a segregated neighborhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Like most parents the Outens tried to safeguard their children from the violence and dangers of Jim Crow South Carolina. Growing up in an all Black community, the young Arthur Outen Jr. didn’t notice the sting of segregation unless he went to school or the movies. Jim Crow South Carolina did not afford many Black children the opportunity to attend elementary school, so institutions like Benedict College offered elementary school classes for Black youth. Arthur Jr. attended school at Benedict from the first through the fourth grade.

Arthur and Otis Outen, Columbia, South Carolina, ca. 1938

As a child Arthur and his younger brother Otis would get into mischief. “If there was trouble, I was in it,” Arthur said. On one occasion Arthur and Otis were walking to their friend Bob Trotter’s house when two white brothers began throwing rocks at them. The Outen brothers threw rocks back. One rock landed its mark and struck one of the white boys in the chest, causing him to bleed and bruise slightly. Arthur and Otis continued to their friend Bob’s house. After meeting Bob the boys made their way to Benedict College to watch the football game. Meanwhile, the boy who had been hit by the rock showed his mother his bruise and she promptly called the police. The Outen brothers and their friend made it to the game and climbed a tree to watch the game. Eventually the boys spotted a white police officer looking for them. The three boys scurried out of the tree and took off running. The boys sought refuge at an aunts house near by. Eventually the officer tracked the Outen brothers down and said, “You boys were down the way fighting, and gone and hurt somebody!” After seeing the fear and shame in the boys’ eyes the officer said “Awww shucks go on back,” and he let the boys go. The Outen brothers, Bob Trotter, and their aunt were lucky to escape the encounter without physical harm. In the Jim Crow era Black people were lynched for far less and the Outen brothers had assaulted a white child.

One example is of retuning WWII veteran Sergeant Isaac Woodard Jr., who was taking the Greyhound Bus from Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia to his home in North Carolina. Along the way he argued with the bus driver, who refused to let him use the bathroom at a rest stop. When the bus stopped in Batesburg, South Carolina, the driver called the police; they removed Woodard from the bus, beat him with nightsticks and ultimately gouged out his eyes. Woodard survived imprisonment and the assaults. If this could happen to a Black soldier in uniform who spoke back to a white person, one can guess the penalty for being accused of harming someone white.

Just 25 years prior to Arthur being born, in 1900 a 19-year-old Black boy named Will Burts was accused of attempting to rape a white woman. Knowing that there was little chance to receive a fair trial and fearing for his life, Burts fled Columbia and headed west across the state towards Georgia. He made it 50 miles in 3 days but was caught by a farmer who turned him over to a lynch mob of over 250 people. The farmer was paid $100 for apprehending Burts. The vigilantes took Burts back to Columbia to hang him. Some in the mob wanted to wait until nightfall when children were out of school and the workday was over. They wanted to make the lynching into a "spectacle". Drunk with bloodlust the mob voted to lynch Burts immediately, lest he escape or be rescued by those demanding a trial. The mob fashioned a noose out of a clothesline and attached one end to the accused child's neck and the other end was thrown over the limb of a giant oak tree. Burts was then ordered to climb the tree and stand on one of the branches. When he complied, he was shot, falling some distance and snapping the rope. The infuriated onlookers forced him back into the tree where they riddled his body with bullets.[1] There is no evidence Will Burts ever committed a crime. Mob rule subverts the judicial system. It is likely Burts would have met a similar fate had he gone to trail. Often Black defendants were accused of crimes they did not commit. Jim Crow era trials often contained fabricated evidence, white witnesses lying on the stand, Black witnesses (if there were any) intimidated into making false claims, and all white juries and judges with a pre determined outcome. These kangaroo courts were a mainstay of the American legal system for much of America's history. Lynchings also were entertainment for white Americans. Spectators would bring their children as a family gathering. Vendors would carve up their victims and sell teeth, hair, fingers, toes, other body parts, pieces of rope, wood, and anything that was associated with the lynching would be sold as souvenirs.  This type of mob rule was commonplace in America not just in the south. When Reconstruction ended in 1877 every southern state quickly set about creating laws and protocols intended to keep Blacks subservient to white society. If a Black person “got out of line” or “didn’t know their place” they were subject to being whipped, imprisoned, and even lynched. Between the early days of Jim Crow in 1882 and the high-water mark of the Civil Rights movement in 1968, 4,743 people were lynched in the United States.  Of those about 73% were Black. [2] 

Emma Bell Gibson Outen, Arthur’s mother, was traditional for that time. She managed the affairs at home and brought in extra money for the household as a seamstress and dressmaker. On one hand she was described as genteel, southern and proper. Other family stories describe her having cat like reflexes and being able to snatch a fly out the air with one hand. And when baking she would place the mixing bowl under her arm and use her hand as a beater rather than using a whisk or mixer. Her parents, Young Cob Gibson and Amelia White, were born enslaved prior to the Civil War. Young Gibson would live to be 103 years old. Emma’s husband, Arthur Outen Sr., was self-taught and worked many jobs including as a farmer, a hospital worker, a US Postal Service employee, and was also a firefighter. Arthur Sr. was a serious man who stood about 5’ 9” and had a deep booming voice with a smooth genteel southern accent. His mother, Celia Cornelia Flora Catherine Selena Murphy, had a name so long that her grandchildren had a difficult time remembering it. The identity of Arthur Sr.’s biological father is unknown, and he was adopted by his stepfather Powell Outen. Arthur Sr. had a very fair complexion and was often mistaken for a white man. He could have easily migrated out of the south with thousands of other Black migrants during the Great Migration, abandoning Jim Crow in search of better opportunities and a better life. He would have easily blended into the white communities of his final destination, but he decided to stay in his native South Carolina, planting his roots deep and casting his lot among the middle-class Black community of Columbia.

Although his highest level of education was the 5th grade, Arthur Sr. pushed his children to get college educations. “We had the best schools in the country and the best teachers,” Arthur Jr. said years later. In 1941 Arthur Jr. was going into the 10th grade he approached his father and said “Dad I’ve had it with school, I think I’ll give up school.” The stern older Outen replied, “If you live, you will finish high school, conversation over.” Arthur completed high school graduating in 1942 from Booker T. Washington High School in Columbia, South Carolina. All of the Outen children would graduate from the same high school, attend Benedict College and all except his younger brother Otis would go into education. Arthur said, “There were 596 in my graduating class and all 596 went professional.” This means everyone in his graduating class of 1942 became doctors, lawyers, teachers, or took up a job outside of the trades. The world was engulphed in the Second World War when Arthur graduated from high school in 1942. Black Americans were fighting both fascism and Jim Crow. Arthur Outen Jr. would soon join the war on both fronts.

[1] Ralph Ginzburg. 100 years of lynchings. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press (1988) 30

[2] NAACP poster Bernard and Sherley Kinsey Collection

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