It has been more than a few years ago when the location of my fifth grade was a second floor classroom above the kitchen at Central School. It is impossible to forget the exact location as the scents from the rising yeast rolls and various foods cooking filtered into the classroom all day.
Miss Christine Gibson was my teacher that year, and there were two new subjects introduced to our class: history and poetry. I was “game” for history, but poetry was in another world or universe. To stand on a rooftop and shout: “I HATE POETRY!” would have been an understatement.
That all changed one Sunday afternoon after church and our after-church dinner. My Ma, Pa, and I took a drive through the Scotland County countryside and stopped by Spring Hill Cemetery. Since Pa was the local funeral director, it was not uncommon for us to visit cemeteries on our Sunday afternoon rides.
That Sunday we stopped and walked to a tall marble memorial or grave marker of John Charles McNeill. I read the front, sides, and back of the memorial before asking: “Who was he?”
“He was a poet,” was Ma’s reply.
On the back of his memorial were the words: “We know, O Lord, so little what is best; Wingless, we move so lowly; But in thy calm all-knowledge let us rest — Oh, holy, holy, holy!”
Ma reached into her pocketbook and took out a red and black book, “Lyrics from Cotton Land,” by John Charles McNeill: “This is a book of his poetry.” With the book of poetry in hand and standing at a poet’s grave; history and poetry merged together in my young mind. His poetry was history on the very basic level of being told by the common people of his day. He shared the language and prose of the common folks who were fortunate enough to live around him from his birth in 1874 to his unfortunate and early death in 1907: the African-Americans, the Croatan/Lumbee Indians, the whites, and he even captured the Scottish brogue of his ancestors. His poetry not only revealed their dialect, but their way of life.
Unfortunately, there is probably a generation if not more of people living in and around Scotland County, North Carolina who have never heard about and are not familiar with the poetry and prose of John Charles McNeill. Perhaps they can now become enlightened.
Born at the family home place near Wagram in 1874, John Charles was of the Scottish stock that settled in the Cape Fear region in in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Growing up working amongst black and white laborers on his family farm, he also spent much of his time swimming, fishing, and hunting near his beloved “Lumbee” River, or the more romantic name that he always called the Lumber River.
He attended school at Spring Hill Academy which was then located between Temperance Hall and Spring Hill Cemetery.
At Spring Hill Academy he excelled in nearly every subject.
Today, his restored birthplace home has even been relocated to a location near Temperance Hall and Spring Hill Cemetery.
At about the age of 12, he and his family moved to the Riverton community along the banks of the Lumbee to live amongst other family members.
John Charles later attended Wake Forest and in 1894 published his first poem in the school newspaper of which he later became editor. In 1897 he passed the bar to practice law, and graduated from Wake Forest in 1898 as the class valedictorian.
The next few years were spent either teaching at Wake Forest, practicing law in Lumberton, teaching at Mercer College in Georgia, but it was people and writing that held his interests. He purchased interest in a weekly newspaper in Lumberton, and wrote extensively for them.
Later he sold his interest in the newspaper, moved to Laurinburg in 1903, once more began the practice of law, and was elected to the State House of Representatives. In 1904 he was approached in Laurinburg by The Charlotte Observer and offered a position to “write anything for publication.” He moved to Charlotte.
October 19, 1905 John Charles McNeill was presented the first Patterson Cup by the State of North Carolina for excellence in literature. President Theodore Roosevelt, a lover of his poetry presented the award to him at the North Carolina Senate Chamber in Raleigh. The award was the beginning of the designation Poet Laureate of North Carolina making John Charles McNeill the first recipient of that notorious award.
Life in Charlotte proved to be too urban for McNeill and he returned in 1907 to his beloved Riverton and the Lumbee. Shortly afterward, his health took a turn for the worse, and he died at his family home on October 17, 1907.
John Charles McNeill left behind a lasting legacy of poems, my favorite of which is “Sunburnt Boys,” of which I can personally recall its descriptions after swimming, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking his beloved Lumbee on numerous occasions. “Sunburnt Boys” paints an accurate picture of the Lumbee and life lived in it, on it and about it:
“Down on the Lumbee river Where the eddies ripple cool
Your boat, I know, glides stealthily About some shady pool.
The summer’s heats have lulled asleep The fish-hawk’s chattering noise,
And all the swamp lies hushed about You sunburnt boys.
You see the minnow’s waves that rock The cradled lily leaves.
From a far field some farmer’s song, Singing among his sheaves,
Comes mellow to you where you sit, Each man with boatman’s poise,
There, in the shimmering water lights, You sunburnt boys.
I know your haunts: each gnarly bole That guards the waterside,
Each tuft of flags and rushes where The river reptiles hide,
Each dimpling nook wherein the bass His eager life employs
Until he dies — the captive of You sunburnt boys.
You will not — will you? — soon forget When I was one of you,
Nor love me less that time has borne My craft to currents new;
Nor shall I ever cease to share Your hardships and your joys,
Robust, rough-spoken, gentle-hearted Sunburnt boys!”
No truer or more loving words have ever described the beautiful “Lumbee” River!
“Sundown” which is engraved on his memorial or grave marker was originally written when visiting a relative living in the old McNeill home place on Sneadtown Road. It was there whilst sitting on the front porch and watching the sun set in the Sandhills that he penned the words.
John Charles’ remarkable understanding of the Scottish brogue and the language of his ancestors was revealed in “On the Cape Fear.” Part of it reads as follows:
“Prince Charlie an’ I, we war chased owre the sea
Wi naething but conscience for glory.
An’ here I drew sawrd, when the land wad be free,
An’ was whipped tae a hole as a Tory.
When the Bonny Blue Flag was flung tae the breeze,
I girded mysel’ tae defend it:
They warstled me down tae my hands an’ my knees
An’ flogged my auld backbane tae bend it.”
His understanding of the blacks with whom he played and worked revealed some very forward thinking ideas on their treatment, but his mastery of their dialect (and diet) is revealed in “Possum Time Again:”
“Oh, dip some ‘taters down in grease En fling de dogs a ‘tater apiece.
Ram yo’ brogans clean er tacks, Split de splinters en fetch de ax.
It’s ‘possum time again!
Catfish tender, catfish tough, We’s done et eatfish long enough.
We’s tar’d er collards en white-side meat, En we’s gwine have supp’n wut’s good
It’s ‘possum time again!
Ironically, John Charles kept a pet possum, and personally it is hard to imagine that anyone would prefer to eat possum over collards and fat back, but that’s the way it was.
During John Charles’ life The University of North Carolina at Pembroke was known as the Croatan Normal School. The current Lumbees were then known as Croatans, as they were are believed to be partially descended from the Croatans of Roanoke Island that also included the English survivors of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony. Once again, John Charles captured another dialect and philosophy in “Croatan Philosophy”:
“I seds in my yard when de sun goes down
An’ wadches he toad frawgs hobbin’ aroun’;
Den I smokes my pipe an’ kicks my cur
An’ I wonder whud a toad frawg is fer.
I hyurs de skeeter hawk raddle his wings,
But dur’s plenty er skeeters lef’ to sing.
An’ de skeeters desseres, I don’ know whur
De skeeters comes fum ner whud dee is fer.
Hid ‘pears to me, above an’ abound,
Dad de skeeters an’ frawgs is er-crowd’n’ me oud.
Hid takes all my time t slap an’ to stomp,
An’ I thing I’ll hadder move ouder de swamp.”
Regardless of the chosen dialect or the subject, John Charles McNeill’s poems are history lessons of rural, southeastern North Carolina, notably his native Scotland County.
In recent years several books have been released or re-released that cover poems by John Charles McNeill: “Songs, Merry and Sad,” “Lyrics from Cotton Land,” and “The Pocket John Charles McNeill.” All are available from Amazon.com, although all are out of print, and some of his poems may be found on the Internet.
As the Hon. J. Dickson Phillips, retired from the U. S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote: “John Charles McNeill’s poetry — particularly his wonderful true dialect poems — magically evoke the goodness and beauty, the pathos and poignancy, that underlay the harshness of the times and society of the post-Reconstructed, impoverished rural South. His special gift was the ability to sense and to capture with matchless fidelity the speech and scenes and the innermost longings that reflected the kinder and gentler soul of that society, and the special beauty of the rural countryside that he obviously knew and loved so well. For those of us who can remember and who share his love for the people and the time and the place, his poems are a priceless legacy.”
Beacham McDougald is president of McDougald Funeral Home and Crematorium in Laurinburg. He serves as vice chair of the Scotland County Highland Games, on the Scotland County Tourism Development Authority, and is the founder and liaison of the Scotland High School-Oban High School student exchange program. He can be reached at email@example.com.