“How’d your family wind up here in small-town North Carolina?” I’d ask an old timer.
“Pa was peddling, and this is where the horse died,” was one common answer.
“Pa went to the train station in Richmond (or Baltimore or Norfolk), and he only had 25 cents, and he bought a ticket as far as that would take him,” was another answer.
Were these stories literally true? Possibly, but more likely they were folkloric ways of saying that Pa was down on his luck, out of resources, and came to Weldon or Wilson, Milton or Morganton with little in his pocket. These stories express a deep truth metaphorically.
Harry Kittner in Weldon told another popular story that he heard from his brother Joe. Their Dad, Louis, a cobbler, was standing on the sidewalk as the robed and masked Ku Klux Klan marched down the street. “There’s Jack Johnson,” their father noted. Then, “there’s Bob Barnes,” and “there’s Sam Smith.”
“But, Dad, how do you know who those people are when they’re all masked?”
“I sold them their shoes,” he answered.
Did it really happen? Who knows? But an identical story is printed in histories of Mississippi and Indiana, and it has been heard elsewhere. The truth again is what the story conveys. Local Jews did not feel threatened by the Klan, whom they recognized as neighbors, as customers in their stores. Another story that I heard repeated is of Klansmen coming to Jewish-owned stores to buy sheets. Milton Supman (later Soupy Sales) recalls that story about his father’s store in Franklinton.
Historians confirm that not everywhere was the local Klan anti-Semitic despite its national reputation. Frequently, Jews, like the Kittner brothers, will tell of fathers who were invited to join the Klan. According to Leon Dworksy, his father Solomon Dworsky—a Durham pawnbroker with a Yiddish accent and rabbinic ordination from a Polish yeshiva—was invited to join the Klan. A Durham newspaper account from the 1920s mentions Jews attending a local Klan rally. Historian Leonard Rapport, who grew up there, recalled attending a Klan rally as a kid. “They didn’t know they weren’t supposed to like Jews,” Harry Kittner reflected.
Community folklore does not always accord with the documentary record. Eli Evans in The Provincials retells the stories that he heard of how the Durham Jewish community began in the1880s when Buck Duke imported Jewish immigrant cigarette rollers. Yes, Duke did hire 125 or so Jews from New York to Durham, but virtually all left town after a few years. Tax records and newspaper ads from the 1870s record names like Goldstein, Nachman, Levy, Mohsberg, and Kaufman. The persisting East European immigrant community overlooked these (mostly) German Jewish merchants who had established the cemetery and organized worship. Jews created a narrative that identified community origins with the Dukes and the tobacco industry. It’s a darn good story, a better one than a more commonplace story of peddlers and storekeepers.
Jews are a storytelling people. What do we do on Passover but tell a story? Where is the material evidence or documentation that a great multitude wandered 40 years in the Sinai desert? Stories bind us as a people and to our heritage. Jews, like all peoples, continue today to create narratives to make sense of their experience.
I’ll thus end with a story. Did it happen? Who cares? It tells a truth about who we are, how we lived, what we felt. It both teaches and delights.
Young Roy Levy was threatened on a Durham schoolyard by a bully who wanted to know why he killed Christ. “I didn’t do it,” Roy answered innocently. “My brother Dave did it.”
Photo above of Louis Kittner in his shoe shop