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the original bricks on the side of the St. James Holiness Church, founded by my great-great-grandmother Laura in Laurinburg, NC

the original bricks on the side of the St. James Holiness Church, founded by my great-great-grandmother Laura McCoy in Laurinburg, NC

This is one of those pictures. One tasked with the work of remembering, bearing the weight of all these stories. All our lives we have heard Granddaddy go on and on about Laurinburg, but had never been ourselves. North Carolina has always meant Grandma’s people, and they are from a different part. So after much planning, packing and repacking of the trunk, delayed departure times, a/c battles with grandma who is too cold and pregnant me who is too hot, bumper to bumper lurches and swerves on 95 South, and the obligatory stop at Cracker Barrel, we finally meet the place where so many of my grandfather’s truths are born.

This we do 65 years since he first left Scotland County for college, then army, then wife, then work, then family, then north, then us. He is joined by the three oldest grandchildren for the anniversary of the historic Laurinburg Normal Industrial Institute, his beloved high school that was the only school with secondary education open to black people for miles and miles around. He and his prom date are two of the three members present from the class of 1948. We snap pictures of him with his friends, his brothers’ friends, old neighbors, band mates, and people close to his family.

He takes us on a tour of Laurinburg. We see the funeral home where he had his first job. It is still on Main Street. We learn how to differentiate where the blacks and whites (still) live by the size of the trees planted in the yard. He points out places where the family used to live. Not an actual structure with a roof and four walls, but rather the bush that now grows in the spot where once there was a house where he was born.

At the cemetery, we search old headstones for the family name. He tugs at the overgrown weeds crowding out his grandmother’s name. We listen to the history, its nuances, its inconsistencies, its silences, while standing over the graves of his mother’s mother and his father’s father. There are still headstones missing for some of his people, but they are all buried here he says. This cemetery is so old; some graves have faded markers, and there are headstones that have been knocked over by vandals. As we leave, we see that erosion has partially exposed the coffin of someone else whose family has likely passed on from their Laurinburg days.

He takes us to the church that his grandmother founded. Because no other church would let a woman preach, she started her own. And her workforce of six grandsons dug it out and built it up brick by brick. The church has since expanded, but the original brickwork is still there. He walks around the church, pointing out the features that have survived all the changes a new millennium would bring.

All this we do on his swollen leg, but he is determined to show us where we are from. And we see with each deliberate step that the work of knowing and remembering the map of his life is just beginning. There is so much more listening to be done, so much to read between the lines of what he says and does not say. It is as if we are trying to connect the dots between generations, find a bridge in our language that will bring the world of a man who entered Earth in 1929 through a small, segregated town in the South a little closer.

This is an early entry in a series of essays exploring my family’s relationship to Laurinburg, North Carolina and learning about the family legacies through the eyes of my grandfather.