What Josh White taught me about Greenville

Living in Greenville for almost 15 years, I’ve seen some significant transition take place in our city. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the history of this place – the textile mills, the visionary business men and women, and the progressive thinkers who have made it what it is today.

Last month, I had the privilege of working on a mural project with Furman University to honor musicians from Greenville. This project introduced me to a man named Josh White. Learning about him has given me a completely new perspective on Greenville.

Musicians honored in the Southern Sounds mural: Russ Morin (L) and Josh White (R)

Musicians honored in the Southern Sounds mural: Russ Morin (L) and Josh White (R)

Josh's story and his connection to Greenville is actually quite heartbreaking. He was born to a minister and his wife in 1914. "But his childhood ended prematurely and tragically in 1921, when a white bill collector came into his home and rudely spat on the family's immaculate floor. Indignant at this insult to his wife, Dennis White grabbed the man by the collar and shoved him out the door. Shortly afterwards five white sheriff's deputies showed up to arrest him. As an example to other blacks, they beat him, tied him behind a horse and dragged him through the town to jail. Incapacitated by the after effects of the beatings and ill treatment he had received, he spent the rest of his life as a patient in a mental institution." [1]

As an 8 year old, Josh went on the road to assist traveling musicians and to help support his family (he was one of 5 brothers and sisters who were left without a father at home). His talent led him down a road of success where he eventually became "...the first black singer to give a White House command performance (1941), to perform in previously segregated hotels (1942), to get a million-selling record ("One Meatball", 1944), and the first to make a solo concert tour of America (1945). He was also the first folk and blues artist to perform in a nightclub, the first to tour internationally, and (along with Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie) the first to be honored with a US postage stamp.” [2]

Furman Students working on the base of the Southern Sounds mural

Furman Students working on the base of the Southern Sounds mural

In every account of Josh’s life that I found online, it begins with the fact that he was born ”in the black section of Greenville, South Carolina”. This single line has prompted me to look closer into the history of my city than I ever have before — beyond the mills and the prominent business leaders. Josh’s story has brought to light some of the realities of segregation that I’ve never thought about before.

It's easy to get caught up in the shiny, new face of Greenville. The one that we all love and can't stop telling anyone who doesn't live here about. At the same time, there are parts of history — everyone’s history — that are unflattering, but we can’t afford to forget about or ignore those pieces. They deeply affect how our present looks, and I don’t think a city is any different.

I don’t even have the words to express how Josh's story has affected me. And I have no doubt that many similar stories could be told over the years, in cities all over the country.

So I’m digging in. Seeking to understand more about the way things used to be, so that I can better understand my community now. Josh's story has opened my eyes to a new side of Greenville, and I can already tell I have a lot to learn.