As I started working on Next Train Out, I knew that racial conflict had to be a theme of the novel. It seemed clear to me that the trajectory of Lyons Board’s life had to be predicated in part on his role, as an eight-year-old boy, in having a Black man lynched in his hometown, Paris, Ky., in 1901.
As I researched the various cities and towns where my grandfather eventually lived, I found plenty of instances of racial unrest in their histories: mob violence, riots, lynchings, the obliteration of sections of towns where Blacks lived and prospered. Soon I began to better grasp the bigger picture, that the whole country was awash in deadly racial conflict just after World War I, when Black soldiers returned home expecting opportunities and respect in return for serving their country in the trenches in Europe.
Instead, they found resentment and violence stoked by the belief among some white citizens that these returning veterans threatened their jobs and their status in the community. I learned about the Red Summer of 1919, which made me realize how widespread these race problems were. These confrontations were not isolated to the Deep South. They erupted in our nation’s capital, in Chicago, in New York and Omaha—in at least 60 locations from Arizona to Connecticut.
How this anger and suspicion manifested itself in towns like Corbin, Ky., and Springfield, Ohio, are part of Lyons’ story.
As we all now know, an area referred to as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Okla., waited until 1921 for its turn at center stage. On June 1, after 16 hours of horror, more than a thousand homes and scores of businesses had been incinerated. Somewhere between 100 and 300 people had been murdered. Thousands of Black survivors were then corralled into a detention camp of sorts and assigned forced labor cleaning up the mess the violent white mob had created.
Before June 2020, when President Trump landed in Tulsa for a campaign rally originally scheduled to take place on Juneteenth, few Americans knew the lurid history of Black Wall Street. The facts had been suppressed, kept out of classrooms, out of the news, out of polite conversation. Black families in Tulsa passed down stories of violence and terror and escape—or stories of family members never seen again, their fates unknown. Few public officials dared recognize what had happened to all those people and their livelihoods and their property and their wealth.
This year, on its 100th anniversary, the entire nation has been awakened to Tulsa’s tragic history. LeBron James produced a documentary—one of many. Tom Hanks wrote an op-ed. HBO made its Watchmen series accessible to more viewers. News forums of all types reported on the anniversary. Survivors of the massacre—all more than 100 years old--testified before Congress and met with President Biden. Under the leadership of Tulsa’s young white Republican mayor, G. T. Bynum, archaeologists have resumed the search for mass graves that had finally begun last summer.
How a community like Tulsa now, finally, begins to reckon with its history is significant for all of us. We as a nation, as a collection of human beings, must break the silence we have permitted ourselves for generations and acknowledge how gravely we have wronged indigenous peoples, Blacks, and other minorities. How we blithely destroyed their culture, their history, their identities, and their lives.
Acknowledging the truth is a start. Reporting historical facts is essential. Engaging in respectful, compassionate, and sensible discussion can prompt healing. Some communities—and even the U.S. Congress—are now beginning to discuss what reparations might look like. Other communities first need to simply acknowledge both the shame and the pain that have churned for decades among their citizens.
When I first met with Jim Bannister, the great-nephew of the man lynched because of an alleged incident with my great-grandmother, he made it clear that it was the silence that weighed most heavily on him. He had tried to learn more about the lynching of George Carter, but no one would talk about it. His elders wouldn’t talk about it. The Black community wouldn’t talk about it. Fear and shame and ongoing oppression had kept everyone close-mouthed for generations.
The emotional damage accrued. The human damage. The not knowing. The not understanding.
With her book In the Courthouse’s Shadow, Tessa Bishop Hoggard provided the key that Jim needed to open the door to his family’s history. She pulled his story out of the shadows. Jim has told me repeatedly that he feels an extra spring in his step now that he knows the facts. He has found a peace that had eluded him all of his eighty years.
In her interview with Tom Martin on WEKU’s Eastern Standard program this week, Tessa said, “As we peer into our history, hate crimes were a common daily occurrence….Accountability and consequences were absent. There was only silence. This silence is a form of complicity….Today is the time for acknowledgment and healing. Let the healing begin.”
(Listen to the 10-minute interview.)
We have to acknowledge our difficult history. We have to face what happened. And then we have to consider the steps, both small and large, that we can take to heal the wounds that will only continue to fester if we stubbornly ignore them.
This year, on the morning of Juneteenth (Saturday, June 19), I’ll have copies of Tessa’s book and my novel available for sale at the Lexington Farmers Market at Tandy Centennial Park and Pavilion in downtown Lexington, Ky. In August 2020, the citizens of Lexington agreed to rename Cheapside Park, the city’s nineteenth-century slave auction block and one of the largest slave markets in the South, the Henry A. Tandy Centennial Park, honoring the freed slave who did masonry work for many of Lexington’s landmarks, including laying the brick for the nearby historic Fayette County courthouse, built in 1899.
One of the organizers of the “Take Back Cheapside” campaign, DeBraun Thomas, said at the time: “Henry A. Tandy Centennial Park is one of the first of many steps towards healing and reconciliation.”
Fittingly, I’ll be at the Farmers Market as part of the Carnegie Center’s Homegrown Authors program. Tandy had a hand in the construction of Lexington’s beautiful neoclassical Carnegie Library on West Second Street in 1906, now the home of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.
If you’re in Lexington that morning, stop by and we can continue this conversation.
I tend to ignore Mother’s Day. My mother has been gone 30 years. My mother-in-law has been gone just shy of 10. I’m not a mother. For me, Mother’s Day has become a nearly guaranteed quiet day with no obligations, because everyone else is engaged with family and special tributes to the mothers in their lives. And I have come to enjoy it for just that reason.
This morning, however, historian Heather Cox Richardson, in her Letters from an American, wrote:
“Those of us who are truly lucky have more than one mother. They are the cool aunts, the elderly ladies, the family friends, even the mentors who whip us into shape.”
I, too, had “mothers” other than the one who birthed me. I considered my Aunt Charleen my second mother. My mother’s cousin, Ann McWilliams, always included us in family gatherings during the holidays and made us feel special. When I was in college, one of my piano teachers, Mimi McClellan, invited me to stay in her home one summer while I worked nearby. Each of these women, and many others, offered different perspectives on how to live life, how to embrace family, and what is truly important. I don’t remember having conversations about any of these things. I just watched them. And I pocketed the treasures offered by their examples.
All of these ladies are now gone, too. I have to look to my own generation—or the ones that have followed—for role models. I imagine I can still learn a thing or two from my friends and my neighbors and my relatives who demonstrate compassion and generosity and the sort of joie de vivre that makes life worth living. I’m still trying to learn patience and acceptance and forgiveness—traits critical for all mothers, and the very traits I lack, probably in part because I never took on a maternal role. From the time my mother pulled me onto her lap when I was an out-of-control five-year-old and said, somewhat sarcastically, "I hope you have six just like you," I knew I never wanted to be a mother. And I never had any ambivalence about that.
In her letter, Richardson claimed she “had at least eight mothers.” She goes on to describe one, Sally Adams Bascom Augenstern, a strong-willed widow who had lived near Richardson in her youth. Being the eldest of six siblings, Augenstern had already done her share of child-rearing by the time she was an adult. Said Richardson, “I've never met a woman more determined never to be a mother, but I'm pretty sure that plan was one of the few things at which she failed.”
Today, for all you mothers who wittingly—or unwittingly—took on that important job, thank you. Those of us who lacked the courage are grateful for the burdens you bore with such grace. We are still watching, and we are still learning.
Only two children appear in The Last Resort, my dad’s 1943 Salt River journal: Sweetpea and Sluggo. The affectionate nicknames Pud had for his first two nephews tell you everything.
In March 2018, I memorialized Sluggo, aka Dave Fallis, the elder son of my dad’s sister Virginia Fallis, when he died after a long illness. Today, I honor Sweetpea, aka Robert Dudley “Sandy” Goodlett, the first son of my dad’s brother Billy Goodlett, who died unexpectedly Monday after a brief illness.
When David Hoefer, the co-editor of The Last Resort, suggested that we annotate many of the personal and historical references in the journal to provide a more fulsome picture of Pud’s world, I knew we had some work to do. David researched most of the historical and technical details. I started digging up information about Pud’s family circumstances and his Lawrenceburg friends.
The first person I called was Sandy. He was the Goodlett family historian, and he had sustained ties to Lawrenceburg longer than the rest of us. David and I met with Sandy in his office in the building I still think of as the old post office, and we peppered him with questions. He was able to answer most of them, and I think he reveled in being a critical informant for our project.
Soon I realized I wanted to make a trip to the Atlanta area to talk to a couple of the “boys” who used to join my dad at his Salt River camp: my cousin John Allen Moore and Lawrenceburg native Bill “Rinky” Routt. Sandy said, “Let’s go.” We picked a date and Sandy drove me and our cousin Bob Goodlett to Atlanta and back. During that trip, we were also fortunate to spend some time with John Allen’s younger brother, Joe Moore, and with Lawrenceburg natives Eugene Waterfill and Mary Dowling Byrne.
It was a magical trip. And Sandy made it happen. Today, of all my dad's family and friends we visited, only Joe Moore survives.
Sandy was always unselfish with his time and his wisdom. If I planned a family gathering, I knew he’d be there. In his van, we discovered we could talk for eight straight hours and still learn something new.
When Sandy died, I lost not only a beloved cousin and my go-to guy for all Goodlett family questions. I lost one more connection to the father I never really knew.
I’ve laughed this week with some family about Sandy’s rare equanimity and quietude in times of crisis and distress. That is not a typical Goodlett trait. Most of us are hard-headed and opinionated and high-tempered. We are intense and hard driving. Sandy kept his intelligence and his passion quietly under wraps. And when he offered us a glimpse, it was usually accompanied by that inimitable grin.
If we want to honor Sandy, we should all strive to approach life’s vicissitudes with his calmness and acceptance. We should strive to be as kind and caring as he was. And we should strive to love our family half as much as he did.
Read Sandy's obituary.
Bob Patrick, of Berea, Ky., a retired attorney of unquestionable probity, reveals a little skulduggery that shaped his family history. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
My father grew up in far northwest Iowa, where the family had moved after the Civil War. Apparently Indiana was simply too crowded. During the Depression, my Dad and his older brother would hunt rabbits and other game for food.
My grandfather was a bookkeeper in a local business and about the time my Dad started high school, my grandfather was arrested for embezzlement. I'm not certain of the amount, but it earned my grandfather several years in the Iowa Penitentiary in Ft. Madison.
So the entire family—my grandmother, three sons, and one daughter—moved to Ft. Madison, in the southeastern corner of the state. My grandfather, in addition to his peculiar accounting skills, had experience in farming. He became a trustee, taking care of chickens and living on the prison farm, making family visits easier. It was during this period that my father met my mother, both attending the Ft. Madison High School.
My father and his older brother went on to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, ultimately to dental school and medical school, respectively. When my grandfather was released from prison, he and the rest of his family also moved to Iowa City, where my grandfather took a job at a local savings and loan.
During my uncle's final year in medical school, my grandfather was caught stealing money from the savings and loan where he was employed. The bank president said he would not press charges if: (a) my grandfather left the state, and (b) the money was repaid. My uncle had just gotten a position with a medical practice in Taft, Calif., and my grandfather and grandmother joined him there. At the beginning of WW II, Taft, a desert community, was about as barren as northwest Iowa, so there was a fit. My Dad and his brother were able to repay the money.
Almost 30 years later, I married the granddaughter of the president of that savings and loan. He and his wife were at several Christmas dinners I attended at my wife's parents. No one but he and I knew of this connection.
To read about the family skulduggery that prompted this post, click here.
On May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer in his mid-40s, evidently decided that 46-year-old George Floyd’s alleged infraction of passing a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill should cost him his life. Three other officers watched as Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds—even longer than we had originally understood.
Despite exhortations from the other officers and the citizens standing nearby, despite Floyd’s pleas to let him breathe and his invocation of his recently deceased mother, Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck until he was no longer breathing. And then he kept his knee on his neck for another three and a half minutes.
Chauvin’s defense attorneys have posed a number of counterarguments during the initial days of the trial, including that Floyd had illicit drugs in his system, that he had a heart condition that contributed to his death, and that his physical size made him a threat to the officers even after he was handcuffed and lying face down on the ground.
Over the past 10 months we have learned a bit more about George Floyd and his family. We know he was a college athlete who struggled to stay in school and struggled with addiction. He spent some time in prison. We know he had moved from Houston to Minneapolis to try to turn his life around. During the trial, we saw his fiancée describe his kindness when he had first approached her at the Salvation Army where he was working security. For months we have witnessed the courage and the oratory and the passion of Floyd’s siblings and his cousins. We’ve seen the confusion of his bright-eyed young daughter whose father is now famous.
He has come to feel like someone we knew, like someone we might encounter joking around at a corner market just like Cup Foods.
That’s what Tessa Bishop Hoggard has accomplished in her book In the Courthouse’s Shadow. Through diligent research, she has fleshed out the story of one heretofore anonymous young Black man who was lynched in Paris, Ky., in 1901 after being accused of a minor crime. Like George Floyd, George Carter had previously run afoul of the law but was trying to settle down with his young family and build a good life. Like Floyd, Carter never had a chance to claim his innocence or plead his case. A group of white men with power in his community decided that he should pay with his life for a crime that we have no evidence ever even occurred.
We also learn that others who endured a fate similar to Carter’s were described in the press the same way, whether accurate or not: “burly negroes over 200 pounds.” As in Floyd’s case, physical size—or perceived physical size—justified illegal actions.
In Hoggard’s book, we learn about Carter’s family, their hopes and their dreams, and what happened to them after he was killed. We learn the fate of his two young daughters. We also learn about the family of the white woman who identified him as the man who had assaulted her, a crime that was originally reported as an attempted purse snatching. We learn about the fate of her eight-year-old son, who witnessed the assault and helped the sheriff identify Carter as the assailant.
We learn that George Carter, like George Floyd, was a father, a son, a brother—a human being. He was not just a statistic of early 20th-century racial injustice. Just as George Floyd was not merely another victim of 21st-century police brutality.
This is a problem our nation obviously has not solved. On March 18, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on anti-Asian American violence and discrimination, Republican Congressman Chip Roy of Texas said, “We believe in justice. There are old sayings in Texas about find all the rope in Texas and get a tall oak tree. We take justice very seriously. And we ought to do that. Round up the bad guys. That's what we believe." Afterwards Roy refused to apologize for his choice of words and doubled down on the language.
As columnist Charles Blow recently wrote in the New York Times: “It is hard not to draw the through-line from a noose on the neck to a knee on the neck. And it is also hard not to recall that few people were ever punished for lynchings. Motionless Black bodies have been the tableau upon which the American story has unfolded…”
Those who witnessed George Floyd’s murder have testified about their sense of helplessness at the time and the enormous guilt they still carry. Some videotaped the crime and shared it with the world in horror. Those who discovered George Carter’s body hanging in front of the courthouse on that cold February morning tarried at the scene and took photos, seemingly proud of the town’s latest trophy and the message it sent.
Is that a sign of some progress in the last 120 years? Are we finally beginning to push back on these unforgivable acts of oppression and subjugation? What would we do if we found ourselves witnesses to such a crime? Would we simply stand by and watch, as the two doormen in New York recently chose to do as a 65-year-old Asian American woman was being assaulted on the sidewalk in front of their building? Or would we find the power to act?
In 1901, George Carter was only 21 years old when he was lynched. I wonder if he, in his final moments, silently called for his mother.
Murky Press is proud to offer In the Courthouse’s Shadow: The Lynching of George Carter in Paris, Kentucky through Amazon or by contacting Murky Press directly here. We encourage you to recommend the book to others or post a brief review on Amazon to help spread the word.
Cathy Eads, of Atlanta, Ga., reflects on her experience raising a family in a multi-cultural community. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
Daoyou Feng was 44 when she was shot and killed in the Asian hate crime spree in Atlanta on March 16. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she had only been working in the spa a few weeks when she was murdered. She was a Chinese citizen with no known family in the United States and no family able to travel to the U.S. to bury her. She was one of six Asian American women out of a total of eight victims shot to death during the multi-site killings.
For 17 years I lived in a suburb of Atlanta that has a very large Asian and Indian population. My children had friends, classmates, and neighbors from Pakistan, India, South Korea, and Japan. Their elementary school displayed the flags from the countries of students’ families. The technicolor array of banners encircled the entire cafeteria. The PTA staged an international night each spring that included a smorgasbord of delicious authentic dishes lovingly prepared by many of these families. Warm friendly smiles animated their faces as they proudly served up, and showed off, the delicacies of their home lands. The high school had a similar event that featured native dress, dances, and other performing and cultural arts.
When my son entered college at the University of Kentucky, he said, “Mom, it just feels a little weird being around so many white people all the time.”
When my daughter was young, I co-led a 12-member Girl Scout Troop with a mix of Asian, Indian, and Caucasian girls. They were as varied in personality and temperament as any group of girls could be—because they were all individuals, of course, not just because they had ancestry from different continents.
Moving to Georgia from Kentucky, I’m glad fate drew us to our particular neighborhood so my family got to know, and appreciate, the richness of many cultures, and to work, learn, and socialize with people from so many different backgrounds. Whether they were from Houston or Hyderabad, Seoul or South Carolina, we are better humans for knowing them.
Just like I’m sure there are people who are better humans for knowing Daoyou Feng.
Can we stop hate that’s planted and nurtured in dehumanizing otherness? Can we find a way to instill in every heart and mind that human beings are all, first and foremost, fellow human beings—all valuable, all equally entitled to live life with respect and dignity?
I haven’t given up hope that we can cultivate compassion for all of humanity. Impossible as it may seem, I also believe that we must. I guess the most important question is, how?
My name is Sallie, and I am a basketball fanatic.
I blame my mother. About the time I was entering my early teens, I recall how surprised I was to find my serious, book-reading mother occasionally watching University of Kentucky basketball games on TV. I don’t remember her talking about basketball much, but she had taken me to a few high school games, where my cousins starred. Up until that point, though, I hadn’t thought of her as someone who watched sports on television. At the time, I was devoted to Wide World of Sports and broadcasts of the Olympic games, but no one in my household was a fan of professional sports. I couldn’t imagine how my mother had the patience for such a tedious, and to me at the time boring, pursuit.
But I took notice. Basketball was not frivolous. Her interest had given it a certain heft.
When I was in college, UK won a national championship. Shortly afterward, so did the University of Louisville. My interest was piqued again. When home for the holidays, I watched what games were available. I started developing loyalties and interest in the players.
By the time I went to graduate school in Chapel Hill, N.C., I was hooked. While there, UNC and N.C. State won championships. I adored Jim Valvano. Some guy with an unpronounceable name had just started coaching at nearby Duke, trying to pull that team up from the bottom of the heap. Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Matt Doherty, and Brad Daugherty wandered in and out of the foreign languages building where I taught. I was mesmerized.
Settling back in Kentucky after school, there was almost no way to avoid full basketball fanaticism. It was all around me. It was what I had in common with the majority of people I encountered. Some were suspicious of me because I rooted for both UK and UofL. But I was a pure college basketball fan. If a team was on TV and the players had signs of talent, I was interested. I was awed by their athleticism. By their tenacity. By their skill.
If you know me at all, you’ve probably heard me say, “God gave Kentuckians basketball to help us through our dark, dreary winters.” Why else would the typical college basketball season begin when the time changes in November and end in April, just as we’re all busting to get back outside?
Some of my friends still have trouble reconciling that someone who loves a good book and a classical music concert also loves college basketball. Thankfully, I have a handful of cousins who are just as diverse in their interests as I am. During this strange basketball season and the unexpectedly exciting men’s NCAA tournament, my cousins and I have connected from our homes in two different (rival) states. It’s been sheer delight watching their take on the games: the scientist who’s crunching the stats in real-time; the former player who’s questioning the coach’s call or the offensive set; the UofL and IU grad who’s trying to remain loyal to his alma maters and the Big Ten while honoring his Kentucky roots; and me, the simple-minded humanist who’s interested in the characters and the drama that’s playing out on the floor. While my cousins are breaking down plays, I’m texting “Woohoo! What a pass.” I don’t see the intricacies of the game; but I do see effort, determination, teamwork, and joy.
Another basketball season is about to end. I have a favorite team in the Final Four whose players unexpectedly earned my love and devotion only a month ago. The two teams I followed all season never even made it into the tournament. Initially I thought that meant I’d have a March free to do other things, but I surprised even myself. I adapted. I watched the games because I find beauty in the athletes’ ability. It makes me happy. And these days, that’s the only reason I need to invest some time in front of the TV.
P.S. Before you ask, of course I’m an equally avid fan of the women’s game! I’ll pull for our SEC arch-rival South Carolina in the Final Four, even though it hurts just a bit.
Vince Fallis, of Rabbit Hash, Ky., recalls a previous nationwide vaccination effort. If you would like to submit a post to Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
On March 9, I received my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at a well-organized assembly line managed by St. Elizabeth Medical Center, also known as The Empire around these parts. I was in the old folks group because I am one. Everyone seemed eager, yet somewhat reserved, as we went through the process. I profusely thanked the vaccinator, since I understand most are volunteers. I think we should have a parade for them when this is over (if it is ever over).
I felt somewhat elated as I drove away. Barbara and I will now be able to see the granddaughters. That has not happened since last fall. Excruciating.
The whole experience also brought back the memory of a day in 1955 when I stood with my parents, Leonard and Virginia, and my brother, Dave, in a long line outside Beechwood School to receive the Salk vaccine. I knew very little about polio but remember seeing on our black-and-white TV the images of dreary, hopeless hospital wards filled with iron lungs with only the heads of the pitiful victims visible.
In our minds the polio vaccine was a miracle that would keep us from the fate of those we saw in those terrifying hospital scenes. However, as an 8-year-old standing in that line, I was experiencing what I would now recognize as an approach-avoidance conflict. Some years before I had undergone the painful series of rabies shots after a dog bite, and I wasn’t sure how closely this vaccination would match up to that somewhat traumatic memory. But I survived, and we were thrilled to do our part to eliminate the dreaded virus. Drs. Salk and later Sabin became national heroes.
Fast forward to the present day. With over 550,000 of our fellow Americans already struck down by the novel coronavirus, many of my surviving fellow citizens have now made shunning the vaccine an emblem of personal freedom, tribal politics, or general disbelief in science. Substantial numbers of adults—many with higher education and, I must assume, a reasonable level of intelligence—have chosen to decline the vaccine.
Barbara recently said that if polio threatened us today, it would not be eradicated. I agree. Perhaps more disturbing is our total inability to come together for the common good. We see other acts of humanity: volunteers handing out boxes of food to long lines of people who have lost their livelihood during the pandemic; donors generously opening their wallets to help those in areas stricken by natural disasters; yellow-vested volunteers walking through Chinatown to deter criminals who are attacking people of Asian descent. Many choose to participate in these acts of compassion, but protecting each other from a deadly virus is, for some, a bridge too far.
I’m coming close to going off the rails, but I must say one more thing. We should all be outraged when we see white males wearing clothing displaying Nazi images. My uncle, John C. Goodlett, the father of my dear cousin, Sallie Showalter, walked through one of the death camps during World War II. We have a handwritten letter in which he describes the experience. I often wonder how he did not see those images every night when he was trying to sleep.
This country yearns for a new call to the real meaning of Patriotism, not one based in hate and exclusion, but one that lifts us up by working for the common good of everyone in this country. Will this happen? You may be skeptical. But I remain the eternal optimist. Peace be with you.
I am a descendant of thieves.
One grandfather—while a partner in an automobile dealership—stole a friend’s 1920 Oakland Sedan and then wrecked it, resulting in damages to the tune of $1,000. During the Great Depression, my other grandfather evidently mismanaged some county funds, perhaps to his benefit. About the same time, my maternal grandmother’s half-brother, while working in the Kentucky Auditor’s office, pocketed more than $20,000 in state money in an elaborate six-year scheme. In 1885, my great-great uncle was charged with embezzlement in Kentucky—a great embarrassment, evidently, to his many benefactors, including U.S. Senator Joseph Clay Stiles Blackburn. In 1897, the same uncle was charged with forgery in California.
Embezzlers. Grifters. Hucksters. Glory be.
Before their alleged malfeasance was exposed, each man had by all accounts been a well-respected government functionary or businessman, a churchgoer from a locally recognized family. There had been not a whiff of impropriety, as far as I’m aware.
But something compelled each of them to make a bad decision, or a series of them—to take risks that may have been uncharacteristic of their normal dealings. The temptation was too great. Human frailty prevailed.
When the repercussions became apparent, two ran away, leaving Kentucky behind. Two didn’t live to see the matter resolved. Family paid the price of their perfidy.
We are more than our misdeeds, of course. We are all complex: good and bad, wise and foolish, brave and cowardly, generous and selfish. None of us can predict how we might have responded to their particular circumstances. As I chew on another juicy tidbit about my mysterious ancestors, I have to remind myself not to let that one savory crumb define them.
I have learned that families don’t tend to share this information with each other. Why not just sweep it under that very lumpy rug? Nothing good could come from talking about the family troubles. After all, these problems were all in the past, safely locked away in faltering memory. That is, until some nosy granddaughter starts picking through yellowed newspaper articles.
On the one hand, I am happy that my ancestors were “colorful.” I would have lost interest long ago if they had only been Sunday School superintendents and hard-working family providers. In small towns like Lawrenceburg and Paris and Harrodsburg, some of that probity would have gotten them mentions in the local newspapers. As it was, the society pages detailed their comings and goings. But, as always, I imagine the scandals sold more papers.
What this teaches us, of course, is that our ancestors were just as complicated as we are. Each of us has had moments when we filled with pride and moments we hope will never be known to any other living soul. Unfortunately for my ancestors, these particular moments of weakness, these missteps were captured by the press—or the courts.
If we’re lucky, no yet-to-be-born great-granddaughter will stumble across accounts of our failings. Perhaps the public persona we’ve all so carefully crafted for our friends and families—and ourselves—will hold.
But our moral failings partially define us, whether we want to admit it or not. We’re not just the sum of the good things. It’s never that simple.
Some of my ancestors were thieves. And loving husbands and fathers. And hard-working citizens. And human beings, as inscrutable as we all are. Sometimes even to ourselves.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my good friend Tessa Bishop Hoggard, who provided many of the newspaper clippings related to these incidents. Lord knows why she has found my family so interesting, but I am indebted to her research prowess and the gift of her time.
It’s Black History Month, so it’s time for more reckoning.
I have written freely in this blog about my family’s role in the lynching of a Black man, George Carter, in Paris, Ky., in 1901. I have written about my horror in learning about that incident. I wrote last summer about my rising fury at the unending injustice in this country that has led to the unconscionable loss of Black lives, tragedies that have been ongoing for generations but which have become more public with the advent of cell phone videos. I remain angry and disgusted with the lack of progress on the underlying issues that allow this to continue. I hope to write more about that before February comes to an end, and we give ourselves permission to stop thinking about these things until next February.
Right now, however, I need to talk about the family Bible.
I remember this Bible being displayed on a dropleaf cherry table in front of the picture window in our living room in Lawrenceburg, Ky., when I was a child. It was an enormous, handsome, heavy book, in good condition for a book of its age. I remember flipping through it; I remember noticing handwriting on some of the pages. But I don’t believe I could have told you what branch of my family it represented or anything about the people whose births and deaths and marriages had been noted.
Recently a family member shared some photos she had taken of those pages. I immediately recognized that the Bible was yet another relic of my missing grandfather’s family, the grandfather who abandoned my mother shortly after her birth. The Bible was published in 1848, so the Bible first belonged to my grandfather Lyons Board’s grandparents, Dr. L. D. Barnes and his wife, Mary Parker Roseberry Barnes, of Paris, Ky.
After all the research I—and others—have done into that family over the past ten years or so, I now recognize the names. Those of you who have read Next Train Out might, too. There’s the marriage of Dr. Barnes’ daughter, Mary Lake Barnes, to William Ellery Board, originally of Harrodsburg, in 1888. There’s the marriage of their only surviving son, William Lyons Board, to Nell Hardeman Marrs of Lawrenceburg, in 1920. There are the births—and the deaths—of all the children who didn’t live to adulthood, or didn’t even survive infancy.
And there are the births of the “servants.”
The servants are identified only by first names: Mary Jane, John, Harriett, Alice, Bell, George, Dan, and Maria. The listing is separate from the “Family Record” listed in a fine hand on decorative pages. The handwriting on the servants page is less careful and difficult to read. It grieves me that I may not have all of the names correct. Another thing we have learned this year is how important it is to say their names.
All of the servants were born between 1828 and 1860. All were born, I have to assume, into slavery.
I don’t know that for certain, of course, And it’s possible they had been freed by the time they were listed in the family Bible. But any other scenario is hard to imagine in central Kentucky before the Civil War in a family of some status living in a county with a large population of slaves working expansive agricultural land. The fact that they are included in the Bible makes me want to believe that they were indeed considered members of the household and were treated gently and respectfully and were well loved by the Barnes family.
None of that excuses the fact that some or all of them were at some point the property of the Barneses.
I had already discovered some time ago that at least three of the four branches of my family once owned a small number of slaves, probably all doing domestic household work. I had already reckoned with that in some small way. It was not a surprise to discover this listing of the Barnes family servants. But it remains painful to see the evidence handwritten in such a personal way in the family Bible.
Many of us from the South share a similar family history. It’s remote to us now. We’re talking about more than 150 years ago, after all. Nonetheless, I feel it’s important not to deny our intimate connections—no matter how tenuous, no matter how seemingly innocent—to the national shame our country has to bear, and bear witness to. My family played a role. The Bible tells me so.