Tuesday, May 26, 2015
I am embarrassed that some of my ancestors owned slaves. But they did.
When I was young twice a year we “cleaned” the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. We removed all of the old flowers and hoed all of the grass and weeds so that only South Georgia sand and graves remained.
Just outside the fence on the backside of the graveyard were a few graves with weather-worn wooden markers. I was told they were the graves of former slaves. Each time I visit my parents and grand parents’ graves I grieve a little for those long parted neglected souls; some callous jerk, or set of jerks, plowed over those graves many years ago to make it easier to put up a new fence; no indication of their meek existence on earth remains.
My great grandfather, George Washington Johns, was a slave owner. That cemetery began as a Johns’ family cemetery. He is the one who deeded the plot of land to the community and I suspect he is the one who buried slaves and former slaves next to his parents and grand parents.
As the story goes, when George returned home from the Civil War he gathered his slaves and said, “Well boys, they won. You’ll are free to go.”
One replied, “Captain, I ain’t got no place to go. Do you recon’ I could just stay here with you the same as before?” And so he stayed and worked for George. I asked, but no one knew how long he lived or if he stayed until he died. My father had the impression he lived his entire life there. I suspect his was one of the graves on the other side of the fence.
I have no knowledge of how my ancestor treated his slaves before the war or his former slave after the war. I want to believe he was honorable and just. If my father is any indicator, the Johns men were guided by a strong sense of truth and honor. They had an inbred commitment to do the right thing regardless of cost.
Sometime after the war, there was a crime in the community and the Klan went looking for a “nigger” to blame. George and the former slave heard the posse of vigilantes riding toward their home. George told the old slave to “go hide in the corn crib. They might get you, but they’ll have to get me first.”
And so he sat on his front porch with his loaded gun in his lap as they rode up on their horses demanding the “nigger” be given to them. After a brief exchange he told them, “You boys is going to have to kill me first and all I want to know is which two of you want to die with me, cause I’m going to get at least two of you before I’m done.”
After a few moments of silence, they turned their horses and rode off in the dark never to return. I have often wondered if I would have that kind of courage. My father did; I know that for a fact.
Monday, May 25, 2015
You’d Better be Prepared to Use It
I never saw my father drunk. When I was young he would keep some beer in the refrigerator; he gave me a sip once and I have never wanted another. For medicinal purposes, he kept a fifth of whiskey hidden above the door inside the pantry closet. The same bottle was there for a decade taken out only when he had the croup. But when he was young he was known to go out on week-ends with his brother Woodrow and get drunk and get into fights. Apparently it was the thing to do in southern Georgia in the first half of the twentieth century.
I asked my father about his reputation in these matters. He said it was true but he usually didn’t get too drunk. Woodrow liked to fight and somebody had to get him out of them.
One Friday night he found Woodrow at Cebe Mixon’s joint in Hickox. The very drunk Woodrow had been in a fight and broken up some of the furniture. Somebody had called the police from nearby Nahunta and a deputy arrived as my Dad was helping Woodrow out the door. The local Barney Fife told my Dad to put his brother in the squad car because he had come to arrest him.
Dad responded, “No you ain’t. I’m taking him home. You don’t have any jurisdiction here.”
At that point the deputy pulled his revolver and said, “I told you to put him in my car and I meant it.”
Dad looked at him and said, “You had better put that thing away. And the next time you pull it on me you had better be prepared to use it, because one of us won’t leave there alive.”
He put Woodrow in his old car and drove him home.
I know this story sounds a little hyperbolic, but I believe it is true because I witnessed first hand a similar situation. I won’t share the details but I was with my father one time when he was told that a drunk man with a gun was near by threatening to kill him when he saw him. My father and the inebriated man had had a minor altercation a few years earlier; Dad had stopped him from striking an elderly man. On that later day we had my Dad’s single-shot Remington 22 rifle in the car because we were on our way to butcher some hogs.
My Dad responded “Tell him I have my gun with me so he had better shoot straight cause one of us won’t leave here alive if he shoots at all.” Some family members escorted the man off in a different direction before we arrived. I never saw my Dad fight anyone, but I never doubted he was willing to do so. Apparently most people had the same opinion.