Rewriting history

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 3rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Rethinking slavery. 

This year marks 400 years since traders brought the first slaves to American soil. But even after all that time, historians continue to wrestle with the way that story is told.

EICHER: That story includes important historical dates marked this week. That’s when Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg signaled the turning point of the Civil War.

A Christian author who wrote about Vicksburg and the subject of slavery 30 years ago decided recently to rewrite it—at least a few pages of it.

Here’s WORLD Radio’s Kim Henderson with a story of redemptive revision.

KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: The Grillis home is quintessentially Southern. Pink azaleas bloom near the two-story porch. Views from the kitchen scan a fishing pond and an apple orchard.

AUDIO: [Sound of dog barking]

In the foyer, a terrier known as Knox—named for John Knox—scoots across a hardwood floor. His barking lets Pam Grillis know visitors have arrived for 2 o’clock tea. 

AUDIO: [Sound of tea kettle whistling]

But Grillis’s Southern ties run deeper than tea time or the hundred-acre tract of land she shares with her husband. Three decades ago this former English professor wrote a book about Vicksburg, Mississippi—a city once known as the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.”

Her book sold well. Several high school and college classes selected it as a textbook.  

AUDIO: [Sound of walker rolling across the floor]

 Grillis uses a rolling walker to move into her home’s extensive library. 

GRILLIS: I can never part with a book. I love the feel of them, the smell of them…

Nine years ago she suffered a spinal cord injury. Her books are a lifeline. 

GRILLIS: Now being confined to home, being a shut-in, my books really are the world because they speak to me and communicate to me and allow me to keep touch with the world.

But Grillis’s physical challenges can make accessing books difficult, so a few years ago her son bought her an e-reader. She loves it. It got her thinking about revising her text and releasing it as an e-book.

GRILLIS: This is the original copy of the book Vicksburg and Warren County: A History of People and Place that was published in 1992…

Her original editors set limits. They wanted a comprehensive history, but nothing controversial. Grillis had things she wanted to write about slavery, but to the editors, it came down to money. More words means more pages—and more printing costs. And if her ideas were too controversial, those words might cost the publisher sales.

GRILLIS: In the original version, I do have the sentence saying in 1830s and early 1840s, most of Warren Countians did not view slavery as a moral issue. There were ministers and other public figures who denounced it, but on the whole, the issue of slavery did not occupy a large part of the southern consciousness. Uh, and I talk about the Mississippi colonization society and so forth. And that’s, that’s all they let me have. That was that one little section, and I was not allowed to go any further. 

Grillis describes herself then as young and eager and unsure of how far she could press her editors. 

GRILLIS: These were things I believed 30 years ago, but they were things that I was willing to let slide. I don’t know if that qualifies as a sin or just a moral lapse or just bad judgment. I’m not sure. But it is something that has nagged at me all that time—that I didn’t press.

Producing a revised e-book meant Grillis had an opportunity to make it the book she wanted in the first place. To move beyond slave population counts and an editorial stance that didn’t want her to treat slavery much differently than a cholera epidemic. Grillis wanted to address the morality of slavery. She wanted to explore how (quote) “good” decent people who ran gamblers out of town could countenance such an evil.

GRILLIS: I couldn’t republish this book and just let it stand the way it was. I had to put the difference and the change because I think it is an important thing, particularly in the climate we live in today.

Grillis also wanted to deal with the issue of rights. 

GRILLIS: There were many good Christian people back then who were what  they called states’ righters. They believed that the state had stronger   governmental authority than the federal government. And this idea of rights, rights, rights, rights became a mantra to them. 

Including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But she points out a problem: The man who wrote those words owned human beings. That’s why she wrote new paragraphs, like the one she reads here:

GRILLIS: The problem with a society based on rights and not on morality and do unto others is that one person’s rights will always trample on, or at the very least step on, another person’s rights. This was the problem in 1861. This is the problem now.

Grillis’s revision emphasizes God as Creator and man as His image-bearer. It condemns evolution’s idea of a superior race. It admonishes Christians who supported slavery by ownership or by apathy.

GRILLIS: It’s not about the book. It’s not about the profit. It’s not about any of that. It was about a clear call to me to speak truth. It’s not so much that my viewpoints and my beliefs changed. It’s that they deepened. I have lived by those truths for the last 30 years, and so by doing that, it becomes imperative for me to now incorporate them into, into this book.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Copiah County, Mississippi.

(Photo/Kim Henderson)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Rewriting history

  1. Terry Reeder says:

    I laughed at the beginning of this segment when Kim said, “a terrier known as Knox…scoots across a hardwood floor.” I’m guessing that Kim is not a dog owner; dogs “scooting” is a very specific term that refers to them using their front legs to drag their bottoms across the floor because of a variety of irritations. Unless she really did mean that, and then that might have been TMI! “)

    Keep up the great work, WNG!

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