Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Who Wants to Die With Me?

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.

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