Between the end of the Civil War and the start of the Civil Rights Movement, African-Americans in the South lived under restrictive laws known as Jim Crow. Journalist Beth Macy has written about that era as it shaped the lives of two black men who were taken from their home near Roanoke as kids and forced to work in the circus.
In the late 1800’s, when George and Willie Muse were born, the circus was a place of fascination for many Americans. There you could see exotic animals and people in colorful costumes doing mind boggling things like swallowing fire or swinging from a high trapeze.
The circus also featured something called a side show where people with unusual physical traits were displayed. That’s where George and Willie Muse found themselves as kids.
“And their initial names are Barnum’s Monkey Men, Darwin’s Missing Links. They would change their name from one season to the next to give people the idea that they were going to see a new act, and in the mid 20’s they became Eco and Iko, the ambassadors from Mars.”
In fact, author Beth Macy reports the boys were from a small town near Roanoke – a place called Truevine – where they worked in the fields with their mother. They were African-American albinos with fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair styled in a way not seen at that time.
“They were just trying to make them look as exotic as possible, so they shaped their dreadlocks, and then sort of gathered them up at the top so they came out like sparklers from their head.”
Macy first heard about the Muse brothers from a photographer at the Roanoke Times. He said it was a great story that no one had been able to tell. George had died, and Willie lived with his great niece, a protective woman named Nancy Saunders. She ran a restaurant, and Macy was hungry.
“So I waltz into this incredible soul food restaurant that she ran with an iron fist, and I kind of flounce in and say, ‘Hey, I’m Beth Macy from the Roanoke Times. I’d love to interview your famous great uncle,’ and she pointed to a sign that a customer had made for her. It was a stenciled sign, and the sign said, ‘Sit Down and Shut Up.’”
So Macy stuck around, getting to know Nancy, writing about the restaurant and – eventually – about the strange story of her exotic uncles.
They had, she said, been kidnapped and made to play music as part of a side show act for 13 years. Their manager told them their mother had died, but when they played Roanoke, Harriet Muse – who had spent years searching for them – decided to get her boys back.
She went down to the fairgrounds, which had hosted a roaring KKK rally not long before, and she risked her life to get them back. Somehow she was able to get up to the front of the audience, where the brothers – who didn’t have very good vision – actually spotted her in the audience, and George – the older brother – elbowed Willie and said, ‘Look Willie! There is our dear mother. She is not dead.’ And the family has handed down that language for five generations now.”
The Muse Brothers would stay with their mother for a year. During that time, with the help of a young lawyer, she sued the circus and won back pay for her sons. With a promise that they would get paid for future work, the two then returned to the Big Top.
Macy talked with many people who knew the Muse Brothers and vouched for their intelligence, but because they looked strange, some people assumed they were mentally challenged. When the circus tried to swindle them – failing to send paychecks home – Harriet Muse added to the myth by having the men declared incompetent, so a court would oversee their business affairs.
“Every paycheck that came back, the lawyer of course got a piece of it, because lawyers always get a piece. The mother got a little piece, and the rest of it was put in a fund or their retirement, so that when they retired they had a house bought and paid for waiting for them, and relatives to take care of them.”
Willie Muse would live more than 100 years, not long enough to hear his story told by Beth Macy, and she isn’t sure how his great niece Nancy felt about the book.
“Nancy has not said she liked the book, but she came to my book launch party, and she was actually signing copies of it in the corner. You remember the Sit Down and Shut Up Sign? I had asked her about a year ago – I said, ‘Nancy, maybe you should will me that sign,’ and she said, ‘You can have the sign right after you deliver my eulogy,’ which was I think her way of telling me, ‘You did okay.’”
That was best-selling author Beth Macy, talking about her new book, Truevine.