The story behind the children’s book Tobe

Page 2 of children's book Tobe

Benjamin Filene’s curiosity about a children’s book in the North Carolina Collection led him in search of the story behind its creation and the individuals portrayed in it. And this weekend Filene, an historian at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, will share his discoveries during a presentation at the Orange County Public Library in Hillsborough.

The 121-page book,Tobe, was written by Stella Gentry Sharpe and published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1939. According to Filene, Sharpe, a longtime teacher in the Hillsborough schools who lived with her husband on a farm just north of Chapel Hill, wrote the book in response to a question from an African-American boy who lived near her. The boy, Clay McCauley Jr., wanted to know why there were no children’s books with boys that looked like him. Sharpe set out to prove McCauley wrong.

In crafting her story of a young African-American farm boy and his family, Sharpe consulted noted UNC sociologist Guy Johnson and Marion Rex Trabue, a former head of the School of Education at UNC. While the name of her main character, Tobe, was made up, other names in the book are those of McCauley’s siblings–Raeford, Rufus and twin boys Alvis and Alton.

The photographs that accompanied Sharpe’s stories were taken by Charles Farrell, the first professional photographer for the Greensboro Daily News. When Farrell was ready to shoot photographs for Sharpe’s book, the McCauley children had grown too old to serve as subjects. Instead, Farrell turned to children and adults in Goshen, an African-American township south of Greensboro. Tobe was portrayed by Charles Garner, who was known to family and friend as “Windy.” Garner, now 81 and living in Georgia, was seven-years-old when he posed for Farrell. Garner’s siblings, parents and cousin’s family were enlisted to portray other characters in Tobe.

Now Filene is trying to find out more about the McCauley family. He has spoken with Charles McCauley Jr’s niece, who was a child when the book was published. But Filene is hoping others can add to the story of Tobe. Meanwhile, the book lives on. In 1993, it was republished by a small press specializing in multi-cultural literature.

9 thoughts on “The story behind the children’s book Tobe”

  1. Enjoyed this book as a child growing up on my fathers farm
    in Franklin CO. N.C.

    One of the few positive books about Black Americans .

    I enjoyed growing up on our farm . We were very fortunate.

  2. I live in Brooklyn, NY but was born and raised in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I grew up hearing my older siblings talk about the book Tobe which was written about people they knew well-the McCauley family.

    One year I was visiting Hillsborough and just happened to see the book in an antique store there. I purchased the book-an original copy. I want to sale the book but need some information on how to do so. If anyone has knowledge how I can go about selling the book, please contact me at the email address listed.

    Thank you.
    Eliza Whitted Whidbee

  3. I received my copy of this some odd number of years ago, and was reminded of it because we are having a long overdue family reunion this year. I’m hoping I can get a copy before our event happens to share with our family.

  4. Hi. I’m the nephew and namesake of Charles “Windy” Garner (I’m Charles Wendell Watkins), and my uncle, mother, aunt and grandparents were the photographic images used for the landmark book. Just as there is an appropriate spotlight on the McCauley family, I’d like there to be illumination on the important contributions (and sacrifice) that the Garner family made. Aside from opening up their family to this project, my grandfather initiated litigation against Charles Farrelll, the photographer, regarding lack of full compensation for the use of the images. As you might suspect, a black man suing a white man in 1940’s North Carolina was not without several risks. That story and the making of TOBE can be found in great detail in Charles Farrell’s papers which were donated to, and reside in the UNC Chapel Hill Library Collections.

    Thanks for you work on keeping tge memory of TOBE and my family images alive.

  5. I grew up knowing Stella and Luther Sharpe. Into her eighties she tutored children, helping us with math, reading and homework. She taught me fractions between second and third grade.
    She told me that Tobe and Tilde were children close to where she grew up. She grew up in the North Carolina Mountains. She had Alzhiemers and died in Mrs. Yancy’s nursing home on main street in Hillsborough.
    I loved her dearly and still miss her.

    Sue Dodson

  6. I found this book a few weeks ago at a flea market. I paid 50 cents for it. It’s in good condition considering it was a library book originally from Central Public School in St Louis County.

  7. I was raised in Central South Dakota on a farm. When my sister and I were young we found this book in the attic of our farmhouse. We read Tobe everyday and were tickled by his antics and curious about his upbringing and his life in the South. The book was destroyed after we had left home and started our own lives. I searched endlessly for this book and thanks for the folks at “Reddit” they helped me find it!!
    I ordered a copy off Amazon that I will present to my sister on her 65th birthday in June of this year!!
    Thank you to all that helped to mold my childhood and to help me understand the uniqueness’ of our country!!

    Sandra Holt

    PS: I even emailed Ophra Winfrey, hoping that she would be able to help me find this book, not knowing the history of how this book came about. I would think she would be delighted to know about this book!!

  8. I still have a copy that is nearly worn out with use by four generations of my family. My mother, a Russian Jewish immigrant from the Far East bought it. She strongly believed in equality and my first baby doll was Black. I was lucky that she insisted that I go to an integrated nursery school, probably the only one in San Francisco.

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