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Two letters, 1990-1992, Ralph Ellison to Lowry Ware

Two letters, 1990-1992, from novelist Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) to Erskine College history professor Lowry Ware reveal Ellison's profound interest in his South Carolina roots, and especially his "attempts to give order to my grandfather's [Alfred Ellison, of Abbeville] ambiguity as former slave, law man (`magistrate'), farmer-politician, and insightful but unlettered citizen"¾a "crossword puzzle of a legend."

In an eight-page typewritten letter of 7 September 1990, Ellison acknowledges Ware's special contribution to the family research ("your gift from my grandfather's past"), remarking that "not only is it one of the most unexpected communications I've ever received, but it does much to fill some of the gaps in my vague knowledge of an ancestor whose story has intrigued me since my childhood."

Ellison proceeds to identify his grandfather as "the respected patriarch of a family whose oldest members had migrated to my birthplace in Oklahoma but lived worlds away in South Carolina. Therefore I knew of his existence only through older relatives who endowed his image with an aura of authority that I had no way of grasping." Through an aunt, Ellison had learned that his grandfather "had once had a role in local politics, and that one of his brothers had served in the South Carolina legislature." He speaks of having taken "an abstract pride in being the grandson of the mysterious Alfred Ellison," whom he described from a photograph found among his father's possessions¾"A brown-skinned patriarch with veiled eyes and head of thick dark hair who faced the camera sporting a white goatee that was carefully trimmed in the then current style."

Ellison recalls the one brief visit he had with his grandfather, when as a youngster he was taken to Abbeville shortly after his father's death. From this sojourn of a few days he retained "a child's vivid but spotty memories of the family's old home and its owner." These included "its fireplaces that were so tall that a three year old could step beneath the mantles and peer up the chimneys, my Aunt Bell's cooking, and the huge feather bed in which I slept. I also remember the fresh fruit, melons, and vegetables that were gathered each day and heaped on the back porch to be carefully sorted and arranged for the market¾which suggests that my grandfather was still active as a farmer." Ellison recalls that he and his grandfather "got along fairly well, perhaps because we were united in our mutual grief."

One particularly interesting aside is Ellison's observation that he and his brother "identified with the friends of our parents, most of whom had migrated to Oklahoma from the South, and this whether they were working folk or professionals. Indeed it was among these and the jazz musicians who soon followed that I found heroes and role models as interesting as those I encountered in books."

In a second lengthy letter, 17 June 1992, Ellison begins by recounting for Ware a trip he made that month to receive the Chicago Public Library's Harold Washington Literary Award and to open the Printers Row Book Fair with a welcoming speech. He records his astonishment over learning that "Mayor Daly, that most unlikely son of his father...had proclaimed...the Nineteenth of June, Ralph Ellison Day." Ellison and his wife "dreamed of the past and made the most of the present, dined and danced in the once racially restricted downtown area, and enjoyed the jostling and bustling. Yes, and the freewheeling style of windy Chicago."

He then responds to "the wonderful gifts of [Ware's] letter, documents, and Old Abbeville." He writes¾"I found myself caught up again in the confusion of the past with the present. This time by wandering in my imagination through the streets and town square of old Abbeville." But most of all he was "quite overwhelmed by your book's portrait of my grandfather, Big Alfred¾A moniker new to me and thus all the more startling and amusing. Big Alfred indeed!"

Ellison comments upon the skill of Ware's "illuminating gift"¾that of "a novelist who grasps the importance of supplying significant details in aiding his readers to pierce the mysteries of history"¾and upon the corroboration of the truth of Ellison's impression that his grandfather was indeed "a figure of importance in old Abbeville." He speaks of the complexity of grasping such truth, "given the distance in time, the distortions and mystery with which most historians of the Reconstruction have cloaked the lives of ex-slaves like my grandfather." Ellison remarks that during his childhood he "had known quite a few Freedmen, most of whom were intelligent, hard-working citizens. Still there was a mystery about them which I viewed as a matter of manner and style. They seemed to expect far more from society than their free-born descendants, and this gave them an aura of unreality."

He goes on to say that he had occasion on the Fourth of July to watch from his eighth-floor New York apartment the passing of the Tall Ships on the Hudson River¾"I was again made aware of the presence of the past in the present, that volatile mixture of the positive and negative." He then mentions "the car- burning and looting that occurred a block east from our building, which is located not far from that in which David [Dinkins] lived before becoming our Mayor. Now the occupant of Gracie Mansion, he's busy making history by overseeing affairs involved with a Democratic convention in which two young Southerners are running for the top jobs of the nation. Can it be that now at long last this nation is finally accepting its regional and racial diversity?"

He concludes this letter by referring Ware to the book Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South, by Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, which contained information on Ellison's grandfather. He observes finally that it was possible that what bothered the Ellison slaves far more than their owner's racial identity was his class status¾"which was as unusual as their being items of his property."

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