Greenville author explores city’s past racial injustice with new novel, The Empty Cell
Paulette Alden was born the same month in the same year in the same city that the Willie Earle trial took place. But it would be more than 70 years before the Greenville native would fully examine her hometown’s most infamous case to better understand the present with her new novel of historical fiction, The Empty Cell.
“When I was growing up in Greenville, it was very much the Jim Crow era,” Alden said. “I graduated from Wade Hampton High School in 1965 and things were beginning to get hot in terms of some civil rights activity with integration of the library and the lunch counter demonstrations.”
But with no desire to stay in Greenville, Alden took off for college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and stayed away for more than 50 years. She moved back to Greenville four years ago with her husband, Jeff.
“It’s been a wonderful experience to come back to Greenville,” said the former writer-in-residence at the University of Minnesota and the author of five books. “The thing that’s most striking to me, especially in terms of the book, is how integrated things are now. That’s not to say that progress is over, but it is a really important and significant change that has taken place over these years since I was in high school and living in Greenville.”
South Carolina’s last lynching drew national attention
From articles in The Greenville News, Life Magazine and The New Yorker, written by reporters covering the trial in 1947, to comprehensive non-fiction books such as William Gravely’s They Stole Him Out of Jail, the case of South Carolina’s last lynching is well documented.
Before dawn on February 17, 1947, 24-year-old Willie Earle, an African American man arrested for murdering Greenville cab driver T. W. Brown, was taken from his jail cell by a mob who beat him, stabbed him, then shot him to death. An investigation produced 31 suspects, most of them taxi drivers seeking revenge. The police and the FBI obtained 26 confessions, but after a nine-day trial, the defendants were acquitted by an all-white jury.
Alden never knew the story of Willie Earle while growing up in Greenville, then around 2011 she happened upon Opera in Greenville, Reporter-At-Large Rebecca West’s 1947 account of the trial that appeared in The New Yorker.
“It was a complete shock to me that a lynching had taken place in Greenville and that 28 cab drivers were acquitted at a trial right here at the courthouse,” she said, gesturing toward the old Greenville County Courthouse on South Main Street which today houses M. Judson Booksellers. The triad of the old courthouse, the Poinsett Hotel next door and the old Chamber of Commerce Building across Main Street all play important roles in her story, Alden adds.
“I was fascinated by that and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I began to think of writing a novel about how four ordinary people on the periphery of Willie Earle’s life were changed by what happened to him. The Empty Cell became that story.”
A work of historical fiction
A historical-literary novel, The Empty Cell follows four characters whose lives are upended by the lynching and subsequent trial as they search for their own forms of freedom during the Jim Crow 50s up to the early days of the civil rights movement.
“For me, it was important to write about Jim Crow because I think you have to understand the past to understand the present and go forward,” Alden said. “It was interesting and important for me to write about that era and to educate myself about it. I lived through it, but what did I know, really? I knew that they were putting sea lions in the pool down at Cleveland Park rather than integrating it, but I had no way of processing that or anybody to talk to about that. The book has been a way for me to educate myself and know Greenville in a way that I didn’t when I was living here.”
So, what does Alden most want readers of The Empty Cell to come away with?
“I want people to live through that era along with the characters and experience the changes that came about,” she said.
And while Willie Earle’s cell was empty after he was abducted by the angry mob, Alden doesn’t believe the takeaway is that literal.
“All the characters are searching for their own forms of freedom. Everybody has certain bonds that they want to break,” she said. “The empty cell is more people have left behind some of their sense of being locked up themselves.”
For more information about Paulette Alden and her books, visit PauletteAlden.com.
The Empty Cell is available for purchase a M. Judson Booksellers and Fiction Addiction in Greenville and at Amazon.com.