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The Sea Island Mungins and Chalmers S. Murray: a Family, Cultural and Literary History

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“The finest picture of the Sea Island Negroes even written; Simple, vivid, and taut…raw and outspoken,” reads the Library Journal’s back cover blurb for the novel Here Come Joe Mungin, written by Chalmers S. Murray. The novel was published by G. P. Putnam’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 Murray’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 – so well in fact – that his parents carefully “screened” the black boys he played with. His father made two thousand dollars a year operating a general merchandise store “That catered largely to the Negroes,” Murray recalls in “Turn Backward O Time In Your Flight,” 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 father’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. “My 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.”

One of the yard boy’s duties was to drive his young white charge to school in the Murray family’s buggy hauled by their mare Nellie. The two boys became constant companions, Murray recollects without any sign of recognition of the following irony, “My 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.

“The whites thought this was fair enough. In fact, many of them did not approve of spending tax money to support Negro schools. They seem to think that the State Legislature was over-generous in giving the Negro children any kind of an education.”

The Murray family lived well from the money that came in from the general merchandise store and from the farm. They weren’t rich, not even well off, but the dire economical condition of the area’s Negro population made it possible for the family to have a servant for every chore. A woman named Maum Rachel cleaned the Murray home, tended to their chickens and cared for their vegetable garden. She was also the cook and part-time nurse, all for a well spent five dollars a month. Another servant did the laundry. The yard boy cared for the horses. The black foreman, Joe Middleton, who was the model for Murray’s protagonist in the novel, was so highly thought of that he was paid a dollar a day while the other male field hands received fifty cents and the women earned thirty cents a day. “My mother never called the place a farm however. Though the acreage was small, she referred to it as a ‘plantation.’”

Chalmers S. Murray gained his knowledge of the Negro people in his region by being raised among them. He also had an opportunity to further his study from his work as a writer on the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) documenting the work and history of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) road projects in South Carolina where blacks and whites found work during the depression. Murray’s experience working for the WPA, where he wrote several essays on the racial composition and conditions of work crews in his area of South Carolina, would later be useful to him.

The FWP had an office in every state and hired 6000 people from 1935 until 1942; its mission was to document the entire American culture and landscape. As it turned out, the FWP was more than mere temporary employment for depression time writers; it stimulated the careers of many talented writers. Chalmers S. Murray was in the distinguish company of Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Zora Neale Huston, Studs Terkel and Saul Bellow to name a few of the writers who, like Murray, emerged from the FWP.

Murray grew up around Negro spirituals and superstitions, he stored knowledge of Negro myth and folk sayings, and he understood the area’s Gullah speech and in his writings often seems charmed by it. He knew the ritual of the Negro churches and the difference in sophistication the black preachers from Charleston had over the rural Island black preachers. During his work with the FWP he learned Negro work songs, saw what they ate, witnesses their despair, observed their rage and gained a gauge for their temperaments. He was well suited to write “Here Come Joe Mungin,” his “raw and outspoken,” novel of the Sea Island Negroes.

Chalmers S. Murray attended the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston, but was ostracized by his fellow cadets for reporting the names of the upperclassmen who hazed him. He was picked on and singled out for demerits. Murray describes his time at the Citadel as like being in “purgatory.” Then came the First World War and Murray jumped at the chance to leave the Citadel. His application for an officer’s commission was, he believed, purposely mishandled. To avoid serving as a draftee he volunteered for the army and because of his prior training at the Citadel was appointed to the rank of sergeant in a few weeks.

After the war, Murray returned to Edisto Island where he married Faith Cornish and started his writing career. They had two daughters, Faith and Jane. In a recent interview, Jane Murray McCollum, the surviving daughter, a retired librarian who lives with her husband in Greenville, SC, remembers her father as a particular man who favored punctuality. They often took a rowboat to the ferry that took them to the mainland and Murray always fussed with his family to be on time. “He typed with two fingers and wouldn’t stand for us to make any noises while he was working,” she recalls.

Murray had published two novels before he wrote Here Come Joe Mungin, and the knowledge he gained, both in terms of craft and subject matter during his days with the FWP, would now come into fruition.

When people asked me about the origin of my unusual name (no, not Horace), Mungin, I’d tell them a story I made up about the early Mungins hiding out on the Sea Islands to avoid slavery. They were discovered in the 1880’s and told that slavery was over, thus we came through the period with our original African name in tack.

I attribute our name to Africa because of Njoroge Mungai (pronounced Moong-gi), the Kenyan medical doctor who became Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister in 1969. I think that Mungin (often mispronounced Moong-gi) may be an Americanization of Mungai because I have never known a white Mungin. Many African Americans received their surnames from their slave owners. My ancestors, without a doubt were slaves, but what explains how we maintained our identity? Where are the white Mungins of the Sea Islands?

I own a book published by Halbert’s Family Heritage that lists all the Mungins they could find in public records in Europe, North America and South Africa. In the United States, Sea Island Mungins are concentrated in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, with smaller numbers in New York, California and Washington State. There are also populations of Sea Island Mungins large enough to mention, in Great Britain, Germany and Canada. Of the nearly 600 Mungin households in the United States, the largest population (160) is in South Carolina. The town with the largest population of Mungin households in South Carolina is Hollywood (72), in Charleston County, the town of my birth.

It might have been the publisher’s Eurocentric bearing or a realization that it would be a near impossible undertaking to hunt public records, say a telephone directory, in the underdeveloped nations on Africa’s West Coast, which caused this listing to be incomplete. That there were no searches in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Ghana, where most African slaves came from, cuts both ways. It may be that there are no Mungins in these countries, but until there are attempts to research the name in these places and the questions answered one way or the other, my suspicion remains intact.

The main character in Murray’s novel is forged from the life of Joe Middleton, whom the Murrays adored and young Murray idolized. Middleton was an atheist; a celebrated married lady’s man and foreman at the Murray farm. “Joe was a tall lanky man, and had no beauty. He loved to fight and to drink, but he never got drunk. He was afraid of nobody and would tackle two or three men at a time, if his opponents made him angry enough. He like nothing so much as a sharp argument and would out-talk anyone in the neighborhood.”

Many of the traits that defined the Mungins from that period and beyond. During this period, there were also Mungins quietly getting an education at the Penn School. The Penn School was a privately funded institution that was established on nearly all black St Helena Island, prior to the Civil War, to educate Negroes. It is conceivable that Murray used the Mungin name for his titled character because the name was widely known.

Murray found the name’s association with the rowdy nature of rural Negroes, at the bottom of society in the post-reconstructed South, appropriate for the tone of his novel. The Mungin name lent authenticity to Murray’s character’s raging ambition to eat and perhaps, even to prosper, at any cost.

Many Mungin men and women have used the military as a means to better themselves. Civil War Service records that show that three Mungins received pensions for serving during the Civil War. Draft Registration Cards show that five Mungins were drafted for World War 1 and 2, but I suspect more than five served in the Second World War. There are Mungins still alive today who served in the Korean Conflict. There was one Mungin death in Vietnam, but scores of Mungins served – three brothers from one family alone. There were Mungins in Bosnia and there are Mungins serving in the US Armed Forces around the world today. The Sea Island Mungins have served their nation well.

There are still many Mungins who have not obtained the American dream, but the story of the Sea Island Mungins is the American story of hope, perseverance and achievement. Chalmers S. Murray took note of this fact more than half a century ago.

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About Horace Mungin

  • E.M. “Bud” Skidmore

    excellent article. I grew up on Edisto and remember Chalmers Murray and his wife Faith from childhood. I did not know them well but a number who did are still alive. I never knew any Mungins but had contact with many of the other island African American families (I’m white) , the Bligens, Browns, Morrisons, Campbells, Washingtons, etc. etc. The community is a unique one and today we work together to try and preserve our heritage both black and white.

  • Eric Cohen

    I really enjoyed this well-written article on a fascinating subject. I’ve been visiting Edisto Beach for several years now (I’m from New York) and am glad to get some insight into the history of the people who live in the area. Mr. Mungin, I’m going to seek out your books!

  • http://centreofpesantren.blogspot.com M Sholehchudin

    i love this page

  • Catherine Fairbanks

    Thanks for this article! Chalmers Murray was my grandfather, and I have spent a lot of time on Edisto. Actually, I have a copy of the book, “Here Come Joe Mungin.”

  • Horace Mungin

    Hello Catherine, it was great to hear from a Murray family member. I’m glad that you approve of the article. It would ne nice to meet. I’m going to be at the Charleston Book Fest on Saturday Noverber 6th. 10:00 to 6:00.

  • Horace Mungin

    This is an abbreviated version – a complete version of the article is at my web site http://www.hmunginbooks.com

  • David mungins

    In ENGLAND MUNGINS ARE WHITE.BUT STILL NO HISTORY OF NAME?
    Or country origin

  • http://www.charlottehutson.wordpress.com Charlotte Hutson Wrenn

    This is full of delightful detail, and is a rich story to add to Edisto Island’s fascinating cultural history. I live on Edingsville Beach Road on Edisto and there is a Mungin family on Legare Road near me. White Pages lists several on the island. Will you be coming back to Charleston any time soon? Visit my blog, Charleston Through an Artist’s Eye? I am going to your web site next! Cheers, Charlotte

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