The Noose and the Fiery Stake

In paranormal sequences, part of my novel Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD) takes place in the colonial South, where slaves worked plantations under brutal conditions.

Historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown wrote, in the introduction to The Mind of the South:…few planters wrung their hands about ownership of chattel slaves. By the ethical standards of their region, they had no reason to feel guilty. Racial barriers and rules to demarcate one race from the other were an integral part of white understanding of how God had supposedly ordered human governance.

Bible passages used to justify slavery: In the Bible, Abraham begets Ishmael on his slave Hagar (Genesis 21: 9-10). In the confusing story of Canaan, (Genesis 9: 24-27) his father Ham disrespects old drunken Noah, and so Noah curses Canaan and his descendants, making them slaves forevermore. In Ephesians 6: 5-8, Paul says, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters, according to the flesh, with fear and trembling in singleness of your heart as unto Christ.” (The explanation states: Such regulations did not encourage or condone such situations but were divinely given, practical ways of dealing with realities of the day.) Then there’s the little Book of Philemon in which Paul persuades Philemon to take back a runaway slave.

Planter Peter Creighton in WTRRD owned slaves because he needed unpaid labor to work his land to turn profits. In the mid-1600s, he built a plantation on a barrier island on the coast of North Carolina. Like his Celtic forbears, he ran his plantation as a mini-kingdom. He owned the Africans who worked his land, just as he owned the horses, cattle, and hogs that munched on grass in the meadow. There was no law, other than his.

Slaves hated their captors. Creighton knew his slaves would kill him and his family if it meant they could achieve the freedom so dear to their souls. In the Caribbean, slaves had successfully overthrown white masters. In 1731, a slave revolt on the island of St. John resulted in the ouster of Danish planters. The Haitian Rebellion of 1791, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, resulted in the deaths of thousands of whites and the destruction of plantations. In South Carolina, the Stono Rebellion was crushed in 1739. Over forty whites and forty-four blacks were killed. The Slave Insurrection of 1741 in New York ended with seventeen blacks and four whites (poor whites had joined in) hanged and thirteen blacks burned at the stake.

Slave revolt was always a possibility. In my novel, Creighton has to make his slaves fear him, and he did that by meting out punishments, which included the noose and the fiery stake.

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The Lash, the Chain, and the Baying of Hounds

The black man occupied the position of mere domestic animal, without will or right of his own. The lash lurked always in the background. Its open crackle could often be heard where field hands were quartered. Into the gentlest houses drifted now and then the sound of dragging chains and shackles, the bay of hounds, the report of pistols on the trail of the runaway. And as the advertisements of the time incontestably prove, mutilation and the mark of the branding iron were pretty common. (W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South)

I’d planned to write about southern plantation life today, but White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s comment that the Civil War was caused by “lack of the ability to compromise” needs to be addressed for its historical inaccuracy, as well as the rest of his comment that “…men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.” The institution of slavery, which plays an important part in Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD), is at the center of the compromises he references, and of course, it also figures tragically in what passes for the nineteenth-century southern conscience.  

Let’s take the subject of compromise first. Starting with the Constitution, the slavery issue was addressed a number of times with compromise. Some of the founding fathers were profoundly anti-slavery, but knew they could not press their cause without alienating southern states; hence, for the purpose of representation and taxation, each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person. In the north as the abolitionist movement grew stronger, states began outlawing slavery, and slaves escaped to northern states. The 1820 Missouri Compromise permitted Missouri to enter the union as a slave state, but made slavery unlawful only above the 36th parallel. The Compromise of 1850 tried to balance the number of slave and free states as they entered the union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) allowed new states to determine their slavery status by “popular sovereignty.”

So Kelly, whose word according to Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, should not be disputed because he is a four-star general, is flat out wrong. There were several successful compromises, although dubious to modern minds before the American Civil War erupted.

To address the second issue, that people of good faith obeyed their consciences in the matter of fighting the Civil War, most historians agree that slavery was the primary issue dividing North and South. The North was against slavery. The South was for slavery. It is incredulous that honorable people (even in the 1850s and 1860s) would think the enslavement of fellow human beings was a noble position.

In Kelly’s world, is there no right and wrong?

Cash’s quotation above is revealing for many reasons: he does not sweeten slavery. In writing of “the gentlest houses,” he gives no squirming room for people hiding behind what he calls The Great Southern Heart—gallantry, Christian benevolence for savages, female virtue, etc. The gentle folk heard the brutal sounds of enslavement. The problem then was to sugarcoat the debasement of a race of people to appease Southern consciences.

Trump sought to resurrect The Great Southern Heart when he sugarcoated the protest in Charlottesville, VA, claiming the behavior of white supremacists, and supporters of Black Lives Matter and Antifa were equally “bad.” Until then, white supremacists, regarded as hate groups, had no endorsement from US presidents. They kept in the shadows. In his slick campaign to polarize and twist American minds, Trump slides hate groups to the forefront on a smear of horse dung to legitimize their message. Kelly’s respect for the consciences of slaveowners tries to do the same thing.

I’ll write more on slavery in the next blog.

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Small Towns and their Secrets

I’m tunneling back through time to tell how I arrived at the claustrophobic culture of Cherapee, North Carolina in Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD). Though I grew up on a farm, I spent much of my time in the hamlet of Freeland Park, Indiana. My grandparents lived there: Grandpa and Grandma Handy lived in a 12-room house, once owned by the founder, Antoine Freeland. My maternal grandmother lived a block away in a smaller house, surrounded by flower gardens.

The town once had aspirations because people thought the railroad would pass through. Buildings were constructed: grain elevators, a brick school building for grades 1-12, a bank, hotel, barber shop, grocery store, gas station, post office, Presbyterian church. The telephone office was in someone’s home. A town block was set aside out for a park, which had a swing set, barbecue pit, and baseball diamond.

But the railroad went through Fowler, Indiana, ten miles east, crushing the dreams of Freeland Park promoters. By the time I was born, the hotel and bank had become private residences. Soon after, the grocery store, barber shop, and gas station closed.

Town inhabitants were white, mostly of English, Scottish, and German heritage. Four Roman Catholic families lived on the east side of town. The rest were Protestant—some went to church in the Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, where I was baptized; some spent their Sunday mornings reading the funny papers.

Family connections were everything. Strangers, as you might guess, were not welcomed—unless they were preachers, come to save souls. Strangers were suspect. What was their intent? Were they planning to take something? If their skin was a different color, if their lipstick was too red, if they spoke too fast and were not auctioneers, they were strangers. Sometimes a farm boy would go away to college and come back to visit his parents. He’d bring his wife or girlfriend to church and we would stare at her, keep each article of her clothing in memory, not knowing when we would see the likes of her again.

Our public education was basic; no frills like higher mathematics or foreign languages. The library in our school was five long rows of old brown books encased in glass and a 5’x 8’ wooden bookcase that was filled at intervals by Fowler public library staff. We had no discussion groups. New ideas had to slide in and set awhile to make sure they weren’t some malevolent force that would permanently disrupt our lives.

There was a dark side to our community—evil-doers lived among us. Criminal acts, like the attempted rape of young girls and the savage beating of disobedient children, rarely reached the ears of the sheriff. Things were hushed up. Instead of calling the sheriff, some people called my father. He was an ombudsman of sorts. I learned people’s darkest secrets because somebody would be parked in our barn lot, asking Daddy for help. Or I would hear my parents talking in hushed tones, afterward.

My father believed in protecting his neighbors. No reason to destroy a man’s good name if he planted his rows straight or put his machinery in a shed when it rained. Why did the young boy, whose cognition would never be the same after repeated blows to his head, not do what he was told and what was the girl thinking of, tempting men? Daddy would shake his head. “So-and-so has a hell of a temper” or “So-and-so just got drunk and that’s why he did what he did.”

Secrets. Everyone had secrets. In Cherapee, North Carolina, the mists and fog are metaphors for concealment. I grew up with fields of corn and people surrounding me like a fortress, which presents a different metaphor: something oversized that keeps you in and others out. Both settings can result in claustrophobia.

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Klan Menace

In Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD), the Ku Klux Klan hovers in the background, making folks uneasy. The story doesn’t center on the Klan, but it is there, like the burning cross in my mother’s memory, seen from a car window when she was a child. She was born in 1915.  

Riding across the Indiana terrain with her parents in the family Model T Ford, Mother roused from sleep in the back seat, and there in the black of night, appeared a flaming cross in somebody’s yard. She was horrified. “The Klan,” explained her father. “Whose yard is it in?” she asked.” “Probably a Catholic’s,” said her mother.

This would have been during the time of the Klan uprising in Indiana.

The Second Klan rose in the 1920s. In The History of Hate in Indiana, Jordan Fischer writes: There was a time in the 1920s when being seen as a good, upstanding Hoosier meant joining the Ku Klux Klan. Citing author James H. Madison, Fischer says that during the Twenties, Klan membership in the Hoosier state swelled to more than 250,000. Even the governor was a Klansman. More than half the Legislature was. Preachers joined up. If you didn’t join the Klan, people might not shop at your store, support your church, use your services, or be your friend.

A new chant, “100% American,” sounded in the barbershops and taverns. By that, the Klan meant 100% native born, 100% Protestant, 100% white, and 100% English-speaking. The 1920s enemy was the Roman Catholic Church. The Grand Dragon was a man named D.C. Stephenson. Raised Roman Catholic, he’d been a socialist, a Democrat, and when he wished to be active in the Klan, a Republican. He was a showman: he would hover above the crowd in a white airplane, land, exhort the crowd to hate, and ride off in a limousine. As Klan membership grew, so did his wealth. Eventually, he owned a mansion, a summer house, and a yacht on Lake Erie. His intimates knew he lusted after women. In 1925, he was tried for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a young schoolteacher named Madge Oberholtzer, and sent to prison. He had called himself a defender of Protestant womanhood. A large number of Hoosiers withdrew from the Klan.

I was born and grew up in western Indiana in two farmhouses houses that had been hammered into one. We got the Chicago Tribune and the Lafayette Journal and Courier a day late in our mailbox. The Benton Review came out on Thursdays. We rarely spoke of the Klan, except when an article about their activities appeared in the newspapers.

There was an occasion when I had reached the age of reason, in which my mother showed me a tract, reputedly put out by the Knights of Columbus, exhorting Roman Catholic men to rise up, slay Protestant men, cut babies from their wives’ wombs, and take their children to raise in the true faith. Though Mother regarded the tract as a real threat, my young mind darted to thoughts of the kindly Roman Catholic farmer who lived across the highway, and I didn’t believe her or the document. Later, it was revealed that the Ku Klux Klan had put out the tract.

If she had not been frightened by that burning cross when she was a child, would Mother have been so quick to believe Klan propaganda?  

In WTRRD, protagonist Maria Pell is from Indiana. I’ve not written her full backstory yet, but The Untold Story of Edwina revealed she lives in Fennville (Prophet County), a university town on the Wabash River. She grew up south of Fennville in a hilly part of the state. She teaches Poetics at the university and publishes her own poetry. When she encounters the Klan in WTRRD, she fails to regard it as the menace it actually is.  

A tragic mistake.

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The Curse of Slavery

Yesterday morning, men installed a gas log in my fireplace. I lit it and sat for a while with my rescue dogs, Schatzi and BoPeep, watching the leaping flames. The fire lent warmth, both physically and aesthetically, to the room. I felt cozy; the pups felt cozy. I pictured long-ago grandparents, having survived perilous ocean voyages from northern Europe to live out their lives in the New World, warming themselves in front of stone fireplaces.

It’s easy for me to slide back into history. I’m the family genealogist and my idea of heaven is finding a panoply of kinfolk assembled to greet me when I die: Quakers, Presbyterians, unbelievers, Huguenots, Papists, knights, farmers, kings, sea captains, peasants, preachers, etc. Saints and sinners they would be, with some, middling-good. For nearly all my life, I’ve gathered their stories and ache to speak with them.

My southern ancestors were slave-owners. Unlike actor Ben Affleck, who sought to hide his family’s slave-owning past, I admit it. It shames me, but it happened, and I can’t undo it. My planter ancestor, Peter Poyner, secured a land grant from the English Crown in 1680 and sailed to the New World. He paid his way, and the transportation costs for six others, who became indentured to him. He acquired 360 acres in Virginia. Subsequently, he bought land in North Carolina and moved there. When he died in 1715, he left several plantations to his sons.  

One of my great-great grandmothers was Keziah Ann Poyner, a direct descendant of Peter Poyner. She came with her family to Indiana in 1832, where she met Illinoisan James Blaine Handy and married him. Keziah and her brother had been left one slave to share in their father’s will, but they did not bring him or her with them when they came north. I’m guessing they sold the slave.

Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD) is, in part, written as an apology for my ancestors. Years ago when researching family at the Dallas Public Library, I found reference to a court record revealing slave punishments carried out by my Poyner ancestors on the North Carolina barrier islands. The barbarism of my people stunned me.

WTRRD is a work of fiction, focusing on slavery and its snarly reach into the present. In the book, the slave-owning family is the Creightons, founded by Old Peter, who lived to be one hundred years old. Like my ancestor Peter Poyner, Creighton secured a land grant from the Crown and arrived in the New World sometime in the late 1600s.  The excesses of the Creightons are imagined, but from the court record concerning my own people, not implausible.

Present-day characters, who live in fictitious Cherapee County, try to explain slavery to protagonist Maria Pell. June Whitehall informs Maria that slaves ran away from their plantation homes (Note: homes, not prisons). Later when she speaks of slave uprisings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, June lapses into present tense: “We can’t sit around and let the darkies kill us!” In Chapter Twelve, Maria deplores slave executions. Her friend, writer Phoebe Burns says,” Don’t be judgmental, Maria. It was the times. A lot of people owned slaves. Those that rebelled posed a danger to society. Examples had to be set.

In WTRRD, set in 2014, characters have not left slavery issues behind. In a plea to wake people up, lawyer Seth Creighton laments the bad practices that have brought the community to ruin: “I mean our curse, slavery,” he cries, “and its after effects.” Does the plea move the community to positive action? How quickly can one change wrongheaded minds?

Read my book and see.

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