North Carolina as It Was, Split and Seething: "Blood Done Sign My Name"

Historians in the News

Whether or not North Carolinians are more inclined than other Americans to follow Thomas Wolfe’s injunction to “look homeward,” some past the age of 50 have personal reasons to cast a retrospective glance on the state of their youth. It was a time when a century of Jim Crow laws and segregation were being challenged by the advocates of civil rights in a struggle that was often more bitter and bloody than popular history likes to admit.

For Robert K. Steel, the re-evaluation of his placid recollections of the white-picket-fence world of Durham, N.C., accelerated in the summer of 2005 when he read Timothy B. Tyson’s “Blood Done Sign My Name.” That acclaimed book recounts how, in 1970, the author’s hometown, Oxford, N.C., erupted in racial turmoil after an all-white jury acquitted a white store owner and one of his sons of the murder of a young black man.

A former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Steel found Dr. Tyson’s work “fascinating and compelling,” he said in an interview in his office in Greenwich, Conn. Though he’d never had an itch for movie producing, he was so struck by the book’s cinematic potential that he urged it on a Greenwich acquaintance and fellow North Carolina native, Jeb Stuart, who has screenwriting credits on Hollywood action hits including “Die Hard” and “The Fugitive.” The result of their collaboration reaches theaters across the Southeast and in other major markets on Friday.

Mr. Stuart also found personal as well as cinematic reasons to connect with the material. Dr. Tyson, who was 11 in 1970, chronicles the struggles that his father, Vernon, a Methodist minister, faced in advocating civil rights progress to a conservative parish. (Vernon Tyson was effectively driven out of Oxford by the end of 1970.) Mr. Stuart’s father was a Presbyterian minister who faced similar trials in Gastonia, N.C....

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