Tobe: Tracking down the storybook family

Tobe, by Stella Gentry Sharpe

Tobe, by Stella Gentry Sharpe, with photos by Charles Farrell.
Originally published by UNC Press in 1939.

Originally published by UNC Press in 1939, Tobe is the story of a little boy and his family who were African American tenant farmers in North Carolina. It was written by Stella Gentry Sharpe after Clay McCauley Jr. asked her why the people in his children’s books didn’t look like him. Historian Benjamin Filene (author of Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music) recently discovered Tobe in Wilson Library on the campus of UNC and decided to try to find the family that was photographed for the book. Chapel Hill News writes:

“I saw these photographs and was struck by them. . . . It led to questions: Who are these people? What did they think was going on when these photos were being taken? What happened next, which is always one of my questions.

“It was all very tantalizing,” he said. “When I left Wilson I had more questions than answers.”

The photos Filene had discovered were some of the 50 photographs used to illustrate Hillsborough schoolteacher Stella Sharpe’s children’s book “Tobe.” The 128-page was book was published by UNC Press in 1939 and explores the life of an African-American family who live on a working farm. Filene will give a talk about the book at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Orange County Historical Museum, 201 N. Churton St. in Hillsborough.

“I’ve learned a lot, but I think there will be people out there who know more than I do about parts of it already,” he said. “I am looking forward to hearing from them.”

What Filene has been able to figure out is that Sharpe and her husband Luther owned a farm on Mountain Creek Road off of Old N.C. 86.

A black family of tenant farmers, the McCauleys, lived on the farm. One day Clay McCauley Jr. asked Sharpe why no one in his children’s books looked like him. She responded by writing her first children’s book.

“She was not a civil rights pioneer,” Filene said. “But I think it is a way of reminding us that sometimes change happens in other ways, not always through the front lines of a fight. So I don’t know if she saw this as a story or as a cause.”

“I think one of the interesting things about this book is how rare it was to see a positive depiction of ordinary African American daily lives,” he said.

Delving into UNC’s Southern Historical Collection, Filene learned that Charles Farrell had been hired to illustrate Sharpe’s text. For reasons unknown, Farrell went to Goshen, an African American enclave near Greensboro, and photographed two families there, the Garners and the Herbins. So though the text tells of the McCauley family, the photographs are not of them.

“One of the really complicated things is that this book is such a mix of documentary, fact, and fiction,” Filene said.

If Filene gathers enough material, Brandie Fields, the Orange County Historical Museum’s executive director, would love to exhibit it.

“It opens up the door to that history that has not really been explored in the past here,” she said. “We want to be a community institution, so any effort to get involved and uncover these stories is great.”

The niece of the main character Tobe has learned about Filene’s quest. Read the full article at The Chapel Hill News.

If you’re curious to learn more, don’t miss Filene’s talk this Sunday at the Orange County Historical Museum.

Originally published in 1939, Tobe is now available as a UNC Press Enduring Edition. UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.