Renowned historian Charles Joyner died September 13, 2016, at the age of 81. Joyner’s career is not easy to summarize because, to employ one of his own phrases, it “stubbornly resists synthesis.” Charles Joyner has lived in the South most of his life—writing, teaching, and lecturing on southern history from slavery and the Civil War to segregation and the Civil Rights movement, from politicians and generals to rebels and reporters; Southern literature from William Faulkner to William Styron, Julia Peterkin to Natasha Trethewey; Southern folk culture from tales and legends to music and material culture; and Southern music from ballads to blues, spirituals to classical, country and bluegrass to rock and jazz. Much of his work has explored what he has described as “pursuing large questions in small places.” He has pursued some of the most important questions close to his home, such as the influence of folk culture on the civil rights movement on Johns Island, the influence of assimilation on identity in the Jewish community of Georgetown, and the emergence of Gullah culture in the slave communities along the Waccamaw River.
Born in 1935, Joyner grew up mainly in the Pee Dee region of northeast South Carolina. Joyner studied at Presbyterian College and earned two Ph.D.’s at the University of South Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania. He taught at multiple universities before serving for 27 years as a history professor at Coastal Carolina in Conway, where he was the Burroughs Distinguished Professor of Southern History and Culture.
Joyner came of age in the segregationist South. Yet, his belief in justice and his empathy for others led him to join the Civil Rights crusade in early adulthood. Those experiences of a white southern liberal who was active in the Civil Rights Movement motivated and inspired Joyner in his exploration of the intersections of African American and white cultures. Because he appreciated the value of all people and their stories, he weaved their stories together as they flowed through Southern history and heritage.
Joyner is widely respected for his award-winning book Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, which chronicles slave life in the community of All Saints Parish in Georgetown County, South Carolina. Published in 1984, it is one of the finest and most intimate books ever written on slavery. Joyner’s influence extended far beyond Down by the Riverside. He authored numerous books, articles, and essays; he made documentary films, taught university classes, and lectured nationally and internationally on Southern history and culture.
Joyner was also a musician. With a historical fascination with the roots of various musical genres, he used his musical talent to inspire others in their activism, their studies, and their joy. He told folktales and sang traditional songs at local elementary schools as well as with groups of distinguished historians.
His numerous honors and awards include the Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Humanities from the South Carolina Humanities Council. He served as a president of the Southern Historical Association and of the North Carolina Folklore Society. He was an honorary life member of the British American Nineteenth-Century Historians. In 2011 Coastal Carolina University hosted a conference: “Writing the South in Fact, Fiction, and Poetry.” This group of scholars, novelists, and poets of the American South gathered together to honor Charles Joyner.
Joyner is survived by his wife Jean Dusenbury Joyner, his son Wesley, his daughter Hannah, her husband David, and Joyner’s grandson Abraham.
We have lost a truly great historian and a great humanitarian, and for me an even better friend. He made the world a better place, and the world is less because of our loss. We shall not see the likes of a Chaz Joyner again.
Orville Vernon Burton