Who Was This “White Man’s Darkey”?

It’s not difficult to understand why Mattie Clyburn Rice believed that her father’s story was intertwined with Confederate soldiers. It was. Growing up Ms. Rice listened to her father’s stories about Confederate soldiers and the war. It goes without saying that it must have been an exciting time in his life and it should come as no surprise that he wanted to pass on those experiences to his family. One thing that has been lost in all the controversy surrounding Weary Clyburn’s official status in the Confederate army is that the core of his story is true. Weary’s wartime experiences helped to forge a close relationship with veterans in Monroe, NC. What else can explain the fact that his passing was covered in the local paper? This, however, does not change the fact that the available records demonstrate that he was a slave and not a soldier.

We can’t know much about Weary’s wartime experience, but his obituary does shed some light on how race shaped and defined the limits of his wartime experience and his postwar interaction with Confederate veterans and the surrounding community.

Consider Clyburn’s obituary, which appeared in the Monroe Journal on April 1, 1930 under the title, “Old Colored Man Is Buried in the Uniform of Gray.”  He was given this “honor by reason of having been in the Confederate ranks and a life time of faithfulness to the men and their descendants who made up the Confederate armies.”  The obituary is clear to point out the distinction between being “in” the Confederate ranks and serving as a soldier.  Later in the notice the writer does note that Clyburn went to war to “cook for his master, Col. Frank Clyburn of the 12th South Carolina Regiment.”  The story of Weary saving Frank on the battlefield is referenced, which fits perfectly within the overall emphasis of faithfulness to his master.

Had Uncle Weary been a white man he would have been a Confederate hotspur.  Being dark of skin and born a slave he could approach his ideal by being as near like the fighting white folks that he grew up among as his skin and lack of education would allow.  All his life he was a white man’s darkey and his principle did not change when he came back from the war.  He went with his white folks and became a Democrat.

It’s a remarkable passage and tells us quite a bit about what white North Carolinians chose to remember about Clyburn’s life.  At every point, beginning with a reference to “Uncle,” Clyburn’s life and character are made to fit white assumptions about how blacks should behave.  He was worth remembering because his actions could so easily be interpreted in a way that would not upset a well-established Jim Crow society by 1930 and at help to maintain the belief that slaves were loyal before and during the war. “He was a white man’s darkey”: in other words, he acknowledged his place and his experience in the ranks as a slave did not change his understanding of that place even after emancipation and Confederate defeat. In short, he never threatened the established white hierarchy. Weary even “became a Democrat.”

After the war Clyburn was best known for his participation in Confederate veterans reunions; however, he apparently was never acknowledged as a soldier.  Rather, he played the fiddle at these events and around area hotels to bring in money. Weary provided the entertainment. Confederate veterans acknowledged enough of what Clyburn hoped to remember as a life of martial manhood and bravery and in turn he remembered a war that adhered closely to crucial aspects of the Lost Cause.

The nature of the relationship between Ms. Rice and the descendants of Confederate veterans continues to be mutually beneficial. Stories passed down to Ms. Rice by her father about his wartime experiences can now be passed down to the next generation and the descendants of those veterans can continue to appropriate those stories for their own purposes.

Lost in all of this is that the strength and love that has clearly endured in the Rice family and its very survival since 1865 depended on the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery. Weary Clyburn’s descendants should never lose sight of the fact that their ancestor’s bravery helped him to survive a war and slavery.

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