Robert Leslie Pettigrew (December 9, 1923 – March 25, 2021)

He was invariably there, my Uncle Bob, as I worked to unpeel the family history we both knew lay stuck inside those boxes of my grandmother’s—the ones she’d collected for half a century, then surrendered to him, who held onto them for another decade or so before he packed them up and shipped them to me. “Perishable Fresh Fruit,” read the lid of one box. I put it in my closet and left it there, unopened, for another half-dozen years.

My beloved Uncle Bob: inheritor of his mother’s (my grandmother’s) overflowing archive and her strict devotion to family, the only religion I ever knew her to preach.

Early on, she picked Bob, her only son, as the one to take over the family history business when she got too old and addled to handle it herself. Loyal to the core (or possibly lacking the will it would have taken to stand up to her withering frown) he dutifully took on the task.

One of the things she gave him was a key: an old, bent, quasi-rusted tool of the sort a child might draw to illustrate the concept of “key.” I’ve got it now on my desk. Uncle Bob sent it to me years ago, in a cardboard container he’d carefully carved out to hold the treasure. He attached a note, in which he sketched the outline of the key and speculated about its origins—“something to do with the family, I never knew exactly what”—and then went on, in his engineer’s way, to ruminate on the “shape of the matching combination part inside the lock.”

In much the same way, he handed me the key to the book I’ve just finished writing about our slaveholding Scarlett ancestors. He did it five summers ago, when I was visiting him in Wyoming. He happened to mention a memory my grandmother had harbored lifelong. I’d never heard the story before—not from my mother, and certainly not from my grandmother—and it quickly became the driving engine for my book.

Specifically, my uncle told me that his mother had told him, when he was just a kid—this would have been in the early 1930s—that she was haunted by memories of the men in her family going out into the night in Brunswick, Georgia, in the first years of the 20th century, and doing something wrong.

When I asked my uncle to write down the details of the story, he did. “Your Grandmother did tell me of ‘men riding off in the night, mysteriously, and returning without explanation,’ of that I’m quite sure. She didn’t mention any names nor did she directly suggest any reasons. … It was I who mentally related her comments to night raids on Negroes, not your Grandmother (at least not vocally), but I still believe that relationship was true.”

A chance conversation in 2016—one of those spider threads that have the power to utterly change what we know about the past. My uncle’s passing revelation pushed me to places I would never have gone on my own and led me to uncover a plausible source for my grandmother’s nightmare—a killing of a young Black man in Brunswick in 1901 that involved one of her uncles.

That my own Uncle Bob—prudent engineer, cautious family historian, a man whose political instincts erred toward the conservative—was willing to break my grandmother’s code of silence says worlds about the man. He knew the information he gave me was likely to expose uncomfortable truths about our family, and he did it anyway. I wish more people would heed his example.

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