Celebrity Journalist Beth Macy Visits

by Patrick Duggan
Celebrity journalist Beth Macy spent the last couple months touring the country in support of her new book, Truevine, with stops in Rich- mond, Washington DC, and New York City. On Oct. 25, she spent an evening at Ferrum College talking to students and faculty about how she dug up the incredible story behind the book, which took place only a short drive from Ferrum’s campus.
In the early 1900s in Truevine, VA, brothers George and Willie Muse were kidnapped by the circus. Dramatic Al- binism, prominent African features, and thick dreadlocks made them golden side-show material in Jim Crow eras southern Virginia. The original legend was accompanied by varying accounts of how George and Willie were snatched. According to Truevine native A.J. Reeves, who is now 102 years old, they were taken from the Rocky Mount carnival. Macy has her own theory: their mother, Har- riet Muse, may have
actually leased them to the circus expecting they would be returned. Instead, the showmen told them their mother was dead and that they should stop crying. The Muse Broth- ers worked that job without pay for almost 30 years. They were traded and sold into circus after circus under an array of stage names, including “Eko and Iko,” “The Ecuadorian Savages,” and “Ambassadors from Mars.” When Harriet finally found them after 28 years of searching,they were performing in the Barnum and Bailey circus, one of the most fa- mous traveling circuses in the world.
In the years following, George and Willie unintentionally became a symbol of the civil-rights movement. Truevine tackles that angle of their ordeal and explores the key moral dilemma of their story; were the Muse brothers better off before they were kidnapped, or did it spare them the harsh vulnerability of southern, black life in the early 20th century? At the time of their kidnapping, the Roanoke Commonwealth Attorney was also the founder and head of the local KKK chapter; in her book, Macy wrote of a one Roanoke woman who had trained the pet par- rots on her front porch to call black people N-words as they walked by. “Only in a place like Truevine [in the early 1900s] could being kidnapped seem like an opportunity,” Macy said. She sees significant parallels between the Muses’ struggle and the struggles that ethnic minorities face in America today, specifically in the rising generation.
“It’s not all that different,” Macy said. “I think the things you’re seeing now, like the riots in Balti- more and the police shootings of unarmed black men, it’s all the same kind of issue. Things don’t happen in a vacuum, things happen because there is history behind them. We as white people need to try to put our- selves in black people’s shoes and understand that they have different history than we do, that maybe we benefited from a society that put black people down for 300 years. I think we all need to own a little bit of that history, and until we do, it seems like history keeps repeating itself.”
Macy started chasing the sto- ry over a decade ago; what was first nothing more than a potential news- paper feature became a full-length book. She first heard rumors of the Muses while she was working at The Roanoke Times, where their tale was described to her as “the story no one could get.” At this point, the story of the Muse Brothers had aged into the mythos of the region; it was most commonly used by mothers to scare their children into behaving and stay- ing close to home. That challenge sent Macy into the investigation of a lifetime. Nancy Saunders, the broth- ers’ grandniece and caretaker, was Macy’s primary source, the closest living link to their legacy. Initially, Saunders wanted nothing to do with Macy or her newspaper; Willie was old and had already been exploited for the better part of his life. Eventu- ally Saunders warmed up, and after years of limited cooperation, the two became friends. Saunders wasn’t the only source who was hesitant to participate; un- earthing the Muse’s story was a long, complicated process. Occasionally, she would bring black friends who could vouch for her to interviews; otherwise, the Franklin county African-American elders who helped her put together the story would probably have given her the boot. Careful navigation and unbreakable persistence helped her unearth a story that had withered into nothing more than a cautionary legend told to misbehaved children. “If someone doesn’t want to be interviewed by me, but I feel like I have to have them talk to me, I’ll just wait,” Macy said. “I’ll keep going back, and I’ll call somebody else to vouch for me. I have a lot of differ- ent kinds of people in my contacts. It’s just always been a big emphasis of mine, being inclusive. I probably know more types of people than most journalists do. And with a book, in- stead of spending five hours or five days [working], you get to spend a year or more. So when somebody says no, that’s just kind of like, they don’t know me yet.” Long before she started writ-
ing books, Macy grew up in Urbana, Ohio. She went to college at Bowling Green State University and landed her first writing job in Columbus, Ohio. After spending some time in Savannah, Georgia, she took a job at The Roanoke Times in 1989 and stayed there until 2014. During her time there, Macy wrote a column that drew the admiration of Ferrum professors Katherine Grimes and Lana Whited, her first fans to ask her for her autograph. She published her first book, Factory Man, the year she left The Roanoke Times. Set in the 1980s, the book revolves around the early days of John Bassett III, the now highly successful chair- man of Vaughan Bassett Furniture Co. Bassett’s story drew her for the same reasons the Muse Brothers did: “[They] both share these threads of outsiders    and    underdogs    that    I’ m drawn to,” Macy said. Both books have received praise from a plethora of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and NPR. In addition, both are getting the Hollywood treatment: Truevine’s film rights have been purchased by Leonardo Dicaprio and Factory Man’s by Tom Hanks. Despite her dizzyingly fast ascent from newspa- per reporter to film-inspirer, Macy is devoted to these small-town stories and has no intention of abandoning her roots. I grew up in in a small town myself,” Macy said. “A lot of small towns in America got shafted with globalization and my goal has al- ways been to tell the story of the underdog. I think in New York or Washington, people don’t pay atten- tion to issues in rural America, and I think that’s part of what has lead to Donald Trump. I just try to bring attention to the people I know and live with.” Truevine and Factory Man are on shelves and ready for pur- chase. To learn more, check out Macy’s blog, Intrepidpapergirl.com.

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