July 29, 2008

S.C. author Carrie Allen McCray Nickens, 94, dies

COLUMBIA -- By the time she was in her 70s, Carrie Allen McCray Nickens had already had a long and productive life. She had taught school and been a social worker, earned a master's degree and was active in the civil rights moment.

But she still had another career in her.

At 73, she began writing seriously, and during the final two decades of her life published poetry and a book exploring the lives of her grandmother, a freed slave; her grandfather, a Confederate general; and their child, her mother.

Nickens died Friday. She was 94.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. today at Second Calvary Baptist Church, 1110 Mason Road.

Nickens' last name may come as a surprise to many people. Though she was long known as Carrie Allen McCray, last November she married John Nickens, whom she had known for 80 years.

"She was a wonderful combination of toughness and grace," said Thomas Johnson, a retired University of South Carolina librarian who worked with the writer in the S.C. Academy of Authors. "Her judgment was always sound; she knew what the score was, but was gracious and warm.

"I loved her poetry, and I had a great admiration and deep affection for her."

Nickens began having poems published in the 1980s. Her first collection, "Piece of Time," came out in 1993 when she was 79. She gained more widespread attention in 1998 when Algonquin Books published "Freedom's Child: The Life of a Confederate General's Black Daughter," about her mother and grandparents. As an adult, she discovered her mother was the child of Malinda Rice, a freed slave, and John Robert Jones, a Confederate general.

"(On) the mantelpiece over the fireplace was a picture of a white man in a uniform," she wrote. "I don't ever remember asking who he was. I don't ever remember being told. In later years, my brother Hunter told me it was a picture of Mama's father, a Confederate general named Jones. Somehow, I could never think of him as anything except my mother's father, as if he had no connection to us children, nor to all the future generations of children yet unborn."

Later she discovered Jones fully acknowledged his child and had been ostracized for it.

"He had been written out of history," she said.

She worked on the book with Shannon Ravenel, a longtime editor with Algonquin.

"She had read the chapter I sent in, and she said, `Carrie, why are you writing this as a novel?'" Nickens said. "She said `Just tell the story.'"

When contacted Monday, Ravenel had not yet heard of Nickens' death.

"She was a truly lovely and wonderful person," Ravenel said by e-mail.

The two met at a writers conference in Charleston, where Nickens was reading from what would become "Freedom's Child."

"Working with her was as pleasant and easy as any editing I have done before or since," Ravenel said. "After the book came out, we continued to see one another as friends, usually in Columbia. "

Nickens was one of 10 children; her father was a lawyer and her mother was a college teacher. She was born in Virginia, but the family moved to New Jersey when she was seven. She earned a bachelor of arts degree from Talladega College in 1935 and a master's in social work from New York University in 1955. She moved to Columbia in 1986.

Her second husband was John McCray, a journalist and civil rights activist in South Carolina. After his death in 1987, she donated his papers to USC and had been working on a biography of him.

Her last major work was a narrative poem about an African pygmy who was displayed in the Bronx Zoo. The man, Ota Benga, lived with her family in Virginia for a time after he was rescued from the zoo. Longing to return to Africa, he shot and killed himself in 1916.

The poem ends with this reflection on Ota Benga's death:

If I could have gone into some quiet corner of your Forest,

waited for the soft dulcet sound of wagtails,

Would I have found your spirit there, the embers of a once bright fire still burning?

Would I have sensed a gathering of your ancestors

surrounding you, welcoming you home?

Would I have heard the trumpeting of elephants, or

seen you dancing once again with your moon?

... I pray your soul is at peace.

Good night, Ota.

Related content