â€śThe finest picture of the Sea Island Negroes even written; Simple, vivid, and taut...raw and outspoken,â€ť reads the Library Journalâ€™s back cover blurb for the novel Here Come Joe Mungin, written by Chalmers S. Murray. The novel was published by G. P. Putnamâ€™s Sons in 1942 and reissued by Bantam Books in 1954.
I am a descendant of those Sea Island Mungins. In 1999, when I became aware of Murrayâ€™s novel making our name a part of the folk history of the South, a natural curiosity welled up in me to find out more about Chalmers S. Murray and more about the Mungin people and the name.
Murray, a native of Edisto Island, South Carolina grew up amongst the descendants of the slaves of the Sea Islands, so he knew them well â€“ so well in fact â€“ that his parents carefully â€śscreenedâ€ť the black boys he played with. His father made two thousand dollars a year operating a general merchandise store â€śThat catered largely to the Negroes,â€ť Murray recalls in â€śTurn Backward O Time In Your Flight,â€ť his 1960 reminiscence of growing up on Edisto Island, where he was born in 1894.
The North and South Edisto River separate Edisto Island from the mainland of South Carolina. The fifty-five square mile island is one of the oldest settlements in the state. This is also the island where General Sherman left 10,000 sick and starving freedmen who had joined him on his march to Georgia, because he was unable to provide for them.
Murray and his sister grew up on their fatherâ€™s farm in an area populated by blacks and isolated from the other white people on the island. The young boy found his sister and a female cousin, who visited sometimes, unsuitable as playmates. â€śMy parents did, however, approve of the children of a Negro family nearby, the Baileys. They were respectable people, my father said and, when time came for me to attend school, he hired Joseph Bailey (who was a few years older than I) as a yard boy.â€ť
One of the yard boyâ€™s duties was to drive his young white charge to school in the Murray familyâ€™s buggy hauled by their mare Nellie. The two boys became constant companions, Murray recollects without any sign of recognition of the following irony, â€śMy mother thought so highly of him that she gave him lessons in the afternoon, since his job prevented him from attending school. This was during the first years of the twentieth century when, in South Carolina, the black children went to school six months of the year and the white students attended school for nine months of the year.