Whose name is that on my headstone?
Updated: Jun 20
Hi. My neighbors call me Darky Charley; this is my story as close as I recall. There is likely and most definitely a few embellishments. But again, it is my tale to tell. No, my parents did not name me Darky Charley it was my white neighbors in Reinbeck, Iowa. Yes, I am Black.
The beginning is the end
The year is 1923, and I am about 70 years old.[i] I have been in Iowa for over 50 years. I did not marry, but I did have a free life. I can see my life is coming to an end. Those pearly gates seem very close. The doctor is asking something about my father's name. As I sit here looking out the hospital window. I think of my Mississippi home. Dad, "they have got me up." Oh, "hello, Jimmie." Is Jimmie my brother, or was he a friend? Why can't I recall my father's name? I can see my dad. I consistently think about my family long gone from me. The doctor is commenting to the nurse that I may be having "delusions and hallucinations." I don't like it here. I need to get out of this hospital in Independence and back to my home in Reinbeck. Yes, I know the date. It is November 15, 1922.[ii]
What is my name? It is complicated. Long ago, I had a different name. Since I moved to Iowa, I have used the name of Charles J. Merrill mostly without the J. However, people in town call me Darky Charley. I followed a white union soldier home from the war between the states. The residents of Reinbeck say his name was Charles Merrill.[iii] Because we were using the same name and he was white, I became Darky Charley. That may have been his name, but I thought it was Charles Miller.[iv]
Start of my new life
As I think back over these past fifty-plus years, my life has not been lonely. I have had the appreciation you can even call it the love of the people in my new home. They look after me, so I have no regrets of not marrying and having a family of my own. Yes, I have no one to tell my story, my family history. It is a history I do not care to remember. The account I wish to tell started once I moved to Iowa about 1869.[v]
It's been so long, and some details have escaped me. I believe I was born in Mississippi around June 1848[vi], and maybe my parents were also born there. The white people in my new home estimated my age at about 12 when I arrived underfeed and not having reached my full height of 5' 7".[vii] I think I was closer to 17. Either way, I was living with Mr. Miller and his family when I was 22 in 1870.[viii] I worked on his farm in Lincoln for a few years. It was about 9 miles west of Rienbeck.[ix] While I was there, I learned to read and write before Mr. Miller moved to Waterloo.[x] After Mr. Miller moved, I started working for Mr. W. H. Stevens as a laborer on his farm.
Settling in Rienbeck
By 1880 I had moved to Reinbeck. I was even there before there was a town. [xi] Reinbeck was settled in 1866 and incorporated ten years late in 1876.[xii] I do not recall how long I worked and lived on Mr. Stevens's farm. I think I move to Mr. French's hotel in 1885 or was it earlier?[xiii] Was I working for Mr. French or Mr. Stevens at the time? I recall working for the Royal Hotel as a bus driver in 1899 just before the turn of the century.[xiv] Who owned the hotel? I don't remember. I knew this town was a place I could make a life. I also worked for Mr. Ohrt and others doing odd jobs throughout the years.[xv] By now, I had come to feel at home in Reinbeck.
Did you know my home burned down? Yes, Charley. You came to stay with us soon after the fire.[xvi] Remember, you are in Independence at the State Hospital. You have been with us for about three years now.[xvii]
You know I think that the union solider was Captian Smith.[xviii]
Tombstone name not my own
Charles J. Merrill died at the State Hospital for the Insane in Independence, Iowa, on January 4, 1923.[xix] In the fifty-plus years he lived in Reinbeck, he was the only black person. He was single, but he had a family in the white townspeople of Reinbeck. The day Charles died, the physician was asked to "procure an undertaker and body would be transferred to the County Poor Farm for burial."[xx] Yet, Charley was not buried in the poor farm.
His friends and neighbors from Rienbeck took care of him. Long before his death, the town took up a "subscription" to raise funds for his needs. They worried he had died at the county farm before he was transferred to the State Hospital. They telephoned to find he was still in his "usual health" months before he died.[xxi]
When Charles J. Merrill did die; the town held his funeral at the masonic temple where a large group attended.[xxii] There was money left from the funds raised earlier. The balance was used to buy him a small monument with the inscription "Charley Darkey, Born in Slavery, Died 1923."[xxiii] The town changed the order of the name. They called him Darkey Charley and made Darkey his last name. When you are in Cedar Rapids or Waterloo, Iowa take a short 10-15 minute drive over to the Reinbeck cemetery and pay your respects to Charles J. "Darkey Charley" Merrill. Almost a hundred years after his death, Charles is still the only African-American buried in the cemetery. Who knows if another African-American has ever lived in Reinbeck?
The history of Charles J. "Charley Darky" Merrill's life is fiction, with some facts sprinkled among the details. I am not able to tell Charley's family history without some make-believe. Because Charley had no family that we know of that came to Iowa, and he never married. The facts do provide a genealogy of Charley's life of sorts. The newspaper stories show the love of his neighbors to the one black guy in their community. I like to think they provided him with the family he did not have. Why else would he stay in a town for over 50 years? He could have moved about 10 miles to Cedar Rapids or Waterloo. There were many more blacks to socialize and possibly marry. There is a timeline of Charles's life at the end of this story.
My Thoughts and Thank you
We can all be grateful to Charley's friends and neighbors for the kindness they gave him. Remember, he lived among them as the only black person in town from about 1869 to 1923. They did not have to take care of him or worry about him. My only wish is that they had put his name Charles Merrill on his headstone. Yet, I can only say thank you and be grateful to an unknown genealogist. I assume it was someone doing genealogy work who took the time to copy funeral home records. The unidentified person was kind enough to record the name Charles Merrill on the copy of the funeral card listing the name Charley Darky.[xxiv] If not for this person, I may never have been able to determine Charley Darky, Darky Charlie, and Charles J. Merrill was all the same person.
In 2017, ninety-four years after Charles' death, he spoke to me. I believe he wanted his story told. You see, I do not live anywhere near Reinbeck, nor had I heard of the town. Just one day, I decided I would randomly research blacks in Iowa. I picked 1885 as my starting point. Previous research showed there were Iowa counties that did not have a lot of blacks in them. Grundy county and a few others only had one black person. I manually checked the microfilmed census so as not to miss anyone. I started researching a few to their death. Charley has been the only one to haunt me.
In 2017, I contacted the Find A Grave person who held the memorial and asked her to add the name Charles Merrill to his page. I included my proof of his name in the request. Ms. Lynn Schneider was kind enough to make the change. I had asked about the photograph showing on the page in 2017. By 2020 I had forgotten what information I received and lost my notes about it. I contacted Ms. Schneider again this year about the picture and mentioned I would be going to visit Charley. She was helpful and gave me directions on how to find his tombstone.
So, ninety-seven years after Charley's death, I went to visit him on February 28, 2020. As I said, he has haunted me these past three years since I met him. After my visit, I got his medical records hoping there would be a mention of his family. I wanted to let them know what happened to their family member. I also did a new newspaper search. Ms. Schneider, who posted the photograph of him, did not know where the original was and thought she got it was a calendar some years ago. Well, Charley was there to help me. More newspapers have been digitalized in the preceding three years since I started researching Charles. I found a newspaper story that contained the photograph. The photograph in the paper was the same, except it had the full image of Charley hold his violin.
So, again thank you, unknown genealogists or family historian. Thank you, Ms. Lynn Schneider, for all the help you provided. Thank you, Charles Merrill, for helping me find a different kind of family history. Charles, you are not forgotten, your story is being told, and you can rest in peace. You are the cornerstone of my belief that everyone has a story to tell.
Timeline of Charles" Charley Darky" Merrill's life in Iowa
Contact me if you would like full source citations.