Beth Macy '86 explores racism in 'Truevine'

Award-winning journalist's second book debuted on New York Times' best-seller list

By Bob Cunningham

Beth Macy ’86 is sure she couldn’t have written “Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South” if she hadn’t been a reporter at the same newspaper, The Roanoke (Va.) Times, for a quarter century.

Macy, who lives in Roanoke, was an award-winning reporter at the Times from 1989-2014, and it took her that long to convince Nancy Saunders, the main source for “Truevine,” to let her write about her great-uncles, George and Willie Muse.

“I basically don’t think anyone else could have gotten this story,” said Macy, who majored in journalism at Bowling Green State University. “There isn’t anybody who does that anymore in journalism; no one stays at the same place. I think the key was, I didn’t know I was going to be writing a book about it. I asked to write about the story shortly after I arrived here in 1989, a clueless reporter not really understanding why the family was so mistrustful of the media and how the media portrayed blacks and their family in general over many years.”

“Truevine” (Little, Brown and Company) tells the story of two determined black women who fought for and protected two brothers who were stolen from their family home in 1899 and put into unpaid servitude in the circus. When the Muse brothers were just 9 and 6 years old, they were lured from their family’s sharecropping farm in Truevine, Va., by a white man offering a piece of candy. The young brothers, who were endlessly devoted to their mother, Harriet, and each other, were budding and talented musicians. They also were born albino to black parents in the Jim Crow-era South.

The book is an account of greed combatted by a mother’s love and persistence, and the emotional, political and financial effects of racism on a single family. It creates an important and unusual window into understanding racism in contemporary America.

“The main contemporary character, Nancy Saunders, was the caretaker and the niece of the brothers, and she ran this really incredible soul food restaurant called the Goody Shop,” Macy said. “I really liked her and it was a really cool place. As a reporter, you’re looking for those places. One of my professors at Bowling Green, Dr. Ray Laakaniemi, would say, ‘You know you’ve arrived when you can go into a bar and hang out and you can extract a couple of story ideas by the time you leave.’ It was one of those places where I would go and find stories.”

That’s what Macy did. Sometimes, she’d just go for the ribs on Fridays because the food was so wonderful. There was no menu — customers were just supposed to know what she was fixing that day because it was always the same. Eventually, Macy talked Saunders, although reluctantly, into letting her write a little feature on her restaurant.

It was the first attempt at building trust with the source. It would take 25 years — and many collaborations — for that confidence to be solid enough for Saunders to allow Macy to tell the Muse brothers’ story.

“She was really feisty yet somehow warm,” said Macy, who grew up in Urbana, Ohio. “I know she’s warm now because I know her pretty well. But somehow even then I knew there was a gooey middle to her. Willie Muse died in 2001 at the age of 108 — she had never let me meet him because she felt he had been exploited his whole life — but she had said somewhere along the way that she would let me write about them after he died.”

Macy kept hanging out at the restaurant and Saunders would help her with stories, one of which turned into a 10-part series on caregiving for the elderly for which she received the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard.

“It was one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve done, and it won a bunch of awards and it all started with a phone call to her,” Macy said. “She always read everything I wrote so carefully. She’d ask a really good question about a story that had been in the paper five days earlier, and it was almost like she was constantly judging me to see if I was a good person or not. She didn’t say that but it was the sense I got.”

Macy, who wanted to become a full-time book writer, called Saunders in late 2013 right before her best-selling first book, “Factory Man,” was published, and asked if she could write the story of Saunders’ great-uncles.

“She made we wait about six weeks before she said I could do it,” Macy said. “I think the fact that I hadn’t been saying ‘I’m going to write a book about this!” all those years helped my case. I had just been hanging out getting to know her as a person, also she was helping me too with various stories — that made a big difference. She knew who I was because she had read all my stuff carefully, and I think that helped.”

“Truevine” helps reveal the dual consciousness demanded of African-Americans to navigate life in the United States as they faced dehumanization daily, but thanks to Saunders, simultaneously revealed is the Muse family’s ability to persevere through an unfathomable situation. For the first time, their story is told from the point of view of those who suffered most at the hands of institutional racism and were previously silenced. Readers see firsthand the love and tenderness that drove Harriet, the boys’ mother, to stop at nothing until she saved her children and won them the compensation and respect they deserved.

Macy said learning about the circus, especially how popular it was as the biggest form of entertainment in the United States. between 1840 and 1940, was fascinating.

“It was what you did instead of going on vacation,” she said. “You waited for the circus to come to town and you saved your pennies to do that. There were no movies, and radio was in its infancy toward the end; there was no television and professional sports weren’t big — the circuses were like these traveling cities that moved by railcar at night.

“It was a more naïve time. People didn’t know as much about the world, they didn’t know as much about science, and we didn’t care as much about how people were treated — whether they were disabled people or people of color. There were a lot of things to try to explain to the average reader so they can understand the story in context – it was really interesting to try to do that.”

Researching for and writing the book gave Macy insight to why even now the United States continues to struggle with racism.

“I think in America neighborhoods are still pretty segregated, especially where I live,” she said. “The main problem is, we don’t know each other, not just racially, but across income divides.

“I was much more interested in the race relations part of the book rather than the circus because it’s much more relevant to today. I saw this pretty exciting and unusual story to illuminate what has happened in race relations since slavery’s end. I hope readers learn about conditions not only in the circus, but, more importantly, what was going on back with the family when nobody would help them find their missing sons.”

Macy credits her BGSU education and her championing the causes of outsiders and underdogs for her successful journalism career.

“That’s just something that’s always been in my heart to show because I grew up really poor myself,” she said. “I was the first person in my family to go to college. I went to Bowling Green State University with full financial aid. We were so poor that they actually gave me money at the end to buy my books with, and that was at a time when the Pell Grant would cover a whole tuition.

“I just think of how lucky I was and how having that education has changed my life totally. It’s probably the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, to go to college.”