A Fascinating Resource

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s trip through the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks, which resulted in the earliest systematic recorded documentation of the people and places of the region. Schoolcraft’s journal has been used by historians and scholars to understand the early landscape and culture of the Ozarks, although his attitude toward the inhabitants was condescending and his understanding of nature was limited.

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The exact route of Schoolcraft’s travels has also been a subject of interest. Milton Rafferty, the dean of Ozarks geographers, devoted years to the subject, and his efforts culminated in a map published in Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaksthe reprint of Schoolcraft’s journal he annotated and edited.

Now, thanks to the amazing work of Curtis Copeland, the GIS/Mapping Coordinator for the city of Branson, Rafferty’s map has been refined and improved. Using a complicated layering of digital information, Copeland has produced a scalable, multiple-level interactive map of Schoolcraft’s route. He previewed this map at the recent meeting of the Missouri Archaeological Society that occurred this weekend, and as an attendee of the concurrent Ozarks Studies Conference I got to see it in action. It’s a wonderful piece of work!

The map is free and available to the public at this site. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find it endlessly fascinating. With the enthusiastic reception his presentation received at the conference, I have no doubt that this resource will continue to be refined and added to as the years go by. Take a look . . . but be prepared to lose a few hours.

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Making Poetry Matter

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I’ve been meditating for the past couple of weeks on a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “How Poetry Came to Matter Again.” If you didn’t see it yet, that’s ok. The article is a breezy lope through a half dozen contemporary poets, and it quotes only tiny snatches of their poetry, so it’s really quite impossible to tell from the piece whether their work is any good. From the slender supporting evidence of the article, the way a poet “matters” is by obtaining grants, being appointed to university positions, getting on award lists, and developing a large YouTube following.

Of course, those grants, positions, and awards have been with us for quite some time. These poets “matter,” in contrast to the poets of previous generations, the author tells us approvingly, because “They are immigrants and refugees from China, El Salvador, Haiti, Iran, Jamaica, Korea, Vietnam. They are black men and an Oglala Sioux woman. They are queer as well as straight and choose their personal pronouns with care.” In other words, they are poets who matter because of their identity.

I don’t feel any need to critique the nonsensical assertions of the article (I’ve been choosing my personal pronouns with care for years!), and I don’t know the work of the poets mentioned in it; for all I know, some of them could be quite fine, although the tidbits quoted in the article are uneven. It does trouble me, though, that a magazine which purports to be a champion of culture would give itself over to such shallow assertions. Even The Atlantic feels a need to prove its cutting-edge bona fides, I suppose.

The way that a poem matters – a poet matters – a school of poetry matters – is by actually mattering, across generations and across cultures, by being repeated and quoted in new contexts, spoken by others and taken to heart. Do these poets and poems matter? I don’t know, and no one else does yet, either. For now, I’m going to try to keep my eye on the page and not on the CV entries. Emily Dickinson didn’t have much of a resume, as I recall.

Thoreau

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Thoreau cover

Henry David Thoreau was my first literary hero. We had a hammock in our yard, and in summers I would lie in the hammock and read my ninety-five-cent copy of Walden and Other Writings (yes, that’s an image of it, now some forty-plus years old, complete with duct tape holding it together). In the winters I would move inside and read it while I perched over the furnace grate, the waves of superheated air wafting up around me as I readied myself for the inevitable farmhouse chill once we had shut our bedroom doors.

I only got about half of it, of course. A kid of fifteen will miss most of the dry humor, skip through much of the close and precise description, and fail to appreciate the vast range of references that are dropped into every paragraph with such ease. But I did get Thoreau’s immense and uncompromising individualism and his insistence on the primacy of his own conscience. Over the years, I’ve returned to Thoreau again and again, understanding him a little bit more each time, appreciating his formidable intellect and powers of observation. People look at me in disbelief when I say Thoreau is a funny author, but honestly, I always get a laugh when I read Walden.

So I was eager to read Laura Dassow Walls’ new biography of Thoreau, and it did not disappoint. Walls’ biography is subtitled “A Life,” and it does indeed focus on the life of Thoreau, rather than his philosophy or literary work, although those intellectual matters do figure into the book since they were central to Thoreau’s life. But we are constantly reminded of Thoreau as a living person, an individual with friends, detractors, passions, and faults, and reminded that far from being the solitary hermit of Walden Pond familiar from popular myth, Thoreau lived a vibrant and engaged life, full of aspiration and struggle. He loved many people and was loved by many.

Thoreau

Thoreau remains one of my literary heroes. The bicentennial of his birth was last month, and it’s hard to think of many other American writers who remain so essential and relevant, or who will remain so two hundred years after their birth.

The Film Version

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I recently re-posted an article from The Daily Beast on my Facebook page, and it ended up generating a lot of discussion. Essentially, the article is the latest in a series of pieces by authors with Missouri ties, lamenting the portrayal of the state in movies and TV. I’ve contributed my own bit to this discussion, and in my Facebook post I was likewise sympathetic to the author’s complaint.

But my friend Scott Miller, himself a St. Louis-based author with a series of novels set in that city, took a different view. He commented on my post that Missouri as a setting, like all settings, gets exaggerated and simplified for effect, and we should (basically) quit whining about that. He’s got a point: Works of fiction are, after all, works of fiction, and most people get that. We don’t expect to encounter a thousand-year-old vampire when we visit New Orleans or louche murderers when we visit Miami, even though prominent fictional works might suggest such. Still, I can’t avoid wondering what kind of image is being presented of my home state and whether the accumulation of rednecks and meth-heads has an eventual impact.

Still, it would help if my fellow Missourians would quit living into that stereotype, especially those in the limelight. I rant occasionally about our legislature, which seems determined to out-idiot the other idiotic legislatures around the country from time to time, passing laws that allow people to carry guns basically anywhere they please without a minute’s training and protecting us from mythical United Nations interference. I suspect that such actions in the news contribute as much or more to people’s perceptions as the occasional movie or TV show, which tend to be set in fictional towns like Ebbing or Wind Gap and are typically not even filmed in the state.

But here’s an interesting thought experiment: If you could wave your hand and create a movie or TV show set in Missouri, one that conveyed an authentic sense of the state, what would it involve? I have a few ideas. I’d love to see a show that engages with present-day St. Louis – the way that King of the Hill and White Palace did for the time periods they dealt with. There’s such drama in the present condition of the city. And I think of all the Missourians who would make interesting biopics, like Scott Joplin, Walt Disney, or Kate Chopin. But to get the “authentic” Missouri, I think you’d have to mix city and country, past and present. The contradictions of the state can’t be captured in a simple story.

What do you imagine the ideal “Missouri” show to be?

Branson

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Say “Ozarks” to someone from another part of the country, and a likely response will be. “Oh, sure, I’ve heard of it. Branson.”

Whether you love it or hate it, Branson is the face of the Ozarks to much of the rest of the world, and it has been so pretty much ever since The Shepherd of the Hills.

Branson is mourning right now, after the appalling tragedy on Table Rock Lake in which seventeen people died. The investigation into the cause of the sinking is just beginning, but the inevitable procession of recriminations, lawsuits, settlements, and pain stretches clearly before us.

Branson’s mourning is for the drowning victims, of course, but it is also mourning for itself; an accident like this breaks the veneer of Branson. The religiosity, the patriotism, the ensemble entertainment, all combine to assure tourists that Branson is, above all things, safe. Nothing upsetting or untoward will ever happen to you in Branson. And now this has happened. Nervous statements by residents in news stories combine grief toward the victims with apprehension about the incident’s effect on future bookings.

The Branson economic ecosystem has always been fragile, as illustrated by this recent NPR story about the troubles of those who perform the many necessary services required by this tourist town, the hotel housekeepers, lawn maintenance workers, restaurant servers, and such. A town that depends on large numbers of visitors from distant cities, who come in search of a bucolic myth, is always one incident away from a crippling blow. Let’s just hope that Branson finds its feet again before this accident brings a disastrous ripple effect of shutdowns and layoffs onto those least able to weather them.

Patriotic Songs – 5

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I’ll admit to being an unabashed fan of “America the Beautiful” and a proponent of the idea that it should replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem.

It’s singable, for one thing. Ordinary people can carry the tune without having to strain, or resort to the kind of godawful screeching we sometimes hear nonmusical people engage in when they attempt the national anthem. For this we have to thank Samuel Ward, the composer, an experienced musician and organist for the Grace Episcopal Church in Newark, who clearly knew how to build a tune that could be managed by ordinary folks while still building drama. Sadly, Ward never got to experience the success of “America the Beautiful”; the tune he wrote in 1882 was not matched with the lyrics until 1910, seven years after his death.

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Samuel A. Ward

The poem that was to become known as “America the Beautiful” was written by Katharine Lee Bates, and it first appeared in The Congregationalist, a denominational magazine, in 1895 under the title “Pikes Peak.” It was written in the summer of 1893, after Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, had traveled by train to Colorado Springs for a summer teaching job and then ridden with friends to the top of Pikes Peak. On her train trip, Bates had stopped at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago (thus the “alabaster cities”) and had, of course, seen amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty, among other things. The poem was reprinted in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, a music publisher matched it with Ward’s tune in 1910, and the rest is history.

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Katharine Lee Bates

Bates kept reworking the poem after its initial publication, smoothing out lines and looking for better images (that fruited plain was initially an “enameled” plain, a line that truly goes “clunk” with that extra syllable squished in). But the essential structure of the four verses remained the same.

The first verse celebrates America’s beauty, and that’s the one we sing most often. But I think most of us are aware of the other verses, even if we can’t quite remember them. The second verse celebrates its founding ideals, the third verse honors its military heroes, and the fourth verse looks forward to the future. But what I especially like about this song is that none of those verses is unthinking or simply self-glorifying. Each of those ideals is presented in a moral framework. For example, in the second verse, the “pilgrim feet” that “a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness” are celebrated, but then Bates reminds us that freedom shouldn’t be unlimited: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law.” And the military victories of the third verse are good as long as “all success be nobleness / And ev’ry gain divine” – in other words, for liberation and self-defense, not for glory or conquest.

“America the Beautiful” is a great patriotic song, proud but not boastful, celebratory but not unquestioning. There are a lot of great versions out there; many people like Ray Charles’ soul rendition, and although I’ve never been a huge Ray Charles fan, who am I to say they’re wrong? That’s America for you.

 

 

Films!

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The Tivoli Theatre in St. Louis recently hosted an Ozark Streams Film Festival! I was unable to attend, but was impressed by the list of films.

Luckily for us non-attendees, the festival organizers have posted links to all the films on their website. I plan to watch all of them, one by one, whenever I feel the need for some Scenic Rivers relaxation but can’t get away for a float trip.

 

Father’s Day 2018

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“It might come in handy one day” was my father’s motto. A child of the Depression, he abhorred wastefulness of every sort. One of his favorite recreations was to go to a farm auction on a Saturday and buy the boxes of junk that sell at the end for a quarter or fifty cents, then root through them at home to see what kind of useful tidbits could be uncovered. Our barn and basement were troves of odd and interesting things, picked up somewhere, salvaged from someone else’s castoff. He routinely brought home discarded dynamite wire after a blast at the quarry, and I can’t enumerate how many projects I’ve done that were held together by those brightly-colored strands.

I have inherited, to some extent, his fondness for accumulating the potentially practical. I can’t pass a lost bolt in the road without picking it up. So when I was commissioned to build a screen for our gas meter a while back, I went to my dad’s playbook: scrap lumber, leftover paint, and a piece of latticework inherited from the previous owner that had been leaning against the shed for at least eight years.

Meter screen

Tipping my metaphorical hat to my dad on this Father’s Day, 2018.

Another Remarkable Bit of History I Just Learned

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I like to think of myself as a curious guy. I even take pride in it, and in feeling that I actually know a few things. Thus when I discover an episode of history right in my backyard that I didn’t know the least bit about, I am humbled at how much I don’t know, and how much is yet to be learned.

That’s what happened to me when, entirely by accident, I stumbled across this article in a journal called Southern Spaces. Even more humbling to me as a Missouri history aficionado, it was written by someone from the University of Sussex. You should really read the whole article; it’s long but fascinating. But here’s a short summary.

The Great Depression hit everyone hard, but one group hit hardest was the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the South. Falling prices, increased mechanization, government policies, and environmental disasters all combined to make these most marginal citizens even more marginal than ever. In southeast Missouri, this tenuous existence had been worsened in a January 1937 flood when the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited the levee on the Mississippi River to relieve pressure on Cairo, Illinois, across the river; they gave the 12,000 tenants and sharecroppers on the Missouri side three days to pack their belongings and get out.

Flood refugees

Russell Lee, Negro flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

These refugees, moved by the federal Resettlement Administration to camps in and around Charleston, were fed and housed by the government, but only a few received permanent resettlement. A cooperative farm known as LaForge Farms was created, but only 100 homes were built, with 60 of those homes reserved for white people (the tenant farmers and sharecroppers were overwhelmingly African-American). In response, many of the displaced farmers joined the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which had been established in northeast Arkansas a few years earlier.

Now jump ahead two years, to January 1939. The forces at work in the lives of the tenant farmers were still at work, most notably the federal government’s attempt to prop up commodity prices by paying landowners to take acreage out of production – which meant that those landowners had even less need for tenants or sharecroppers. So when the turn of the new year came, the traditional time for the renewal of agreements between landowners and their tenants, many of those folks received eviction notices instead.

In the past, a farmer receiving an eviction notice would have mourned, regretted the news, maybe tried to convince the landowner to let him stay another year, and eventually moved on in search of a new tenancy. But these farmers, pressed to the extreme by circumstances and awakened by their organizing, chose a different path.

They demonstrated.

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Arthur Rothstein, Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002926-M3.

The farmers, the union, and other groups like the NAACP and the St. Louis chapter of the Urban League, knowing that large-scale evictions were probably coming, had alerted the news media, and on January 10, some 1,500 people (including about 200 white tenant farmers and sharecroppers) gathered their belongings and created roadside encampments alongside Highway 61 and Highway 60, the two great artery highways of Southeast Missouri. As Jarod Roll, the author of the Southern Spaces article, puts it, “In over a dozen camps, large and small, they erected makeshift tents by draping blankets and sheets over stick frames. Into these tents they moved whatever clothing, food and belongings they had brought. They unloaded straw ticks and corn shuck mattresses from old cars and trucks, parking the vehicles close to their camps to provide shelter for children and the elderly. With this work finished, they sat down among kin, friends and neighbors to wait for the nation to wake up and respond to their collective statement of discontent.”

And respond it did. The Associated Press, major area newspapers, and the Farm Security Administration (the new name for the Resettlement Administration) all sent photographers. It is our good fortune that the FSA photographer who happened to be in the area, and who was sent to document the demonstration, was the great Arthur Rothstein, creator of the iconic “Dust Bowl” photograph of a farmer and his two sons. Thus we have these unforgettable images of the Bootheel roadside encampments – and their subsequent dismantling.

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Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

The initial outcry over the photographs and news stories reached all the way to the White House, with both Roosevelts responding to the farmers’ plight. Federal officials hurried to the Bootheel to talk to the farmers and their representatives.

But state and local officials, stung by the bad publicity, had other ideas. The local papers portrayed the farmers as the unwitting tools of social agitators, and the state health commissioners declared the camps to be a menace to public health because they lacked clean water and sanitary toilets. (Did the typical sharecropper’s cabin have clean water and sanitary toilets? You guess.) So the state highway patrol and local law enforcement officers were instructed to remove the demonstrators from the roadside.

Evicted Sharecropper 4

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving evicted sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939, FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002932-M2.

By a sad coincidence, many of the evicted farmers were relocated to camps on the same ground that had been flooded by the Corps of Engineers two years earlier. The primary advantage of this location, from the authorities’ viewpoint, was that it was many miles off the highway and thus out of sight, and could be guarded by local officers to keep the press away. The state health commissioner actually referred to these sites as “concentration camps.” And when word arrived that President Roosevelt had authorized the sending of tents, food, and most alarmingly cash grants and relocation loans to the farmers, the local authorities moved again, breaking up the farmers into even smaller groups and dumping some of them on back roads.

Finally, in 1940 and 1941, the FSA built more than 600 homes for the displaced farmers at sites scattered around the Bootheel, although again with a racial disparity of two homes for white families for every one home for an African-American one. It even tried out an experiment in providing low-cost medical care to the poor families, and more than 1,200 families signed up for the plan. But continued opposition from local politicians, who saw the FSA settlements as hotbeds for union activism, led to the eventual privatization of the homes and subcontracting of the health service to Blue Cross. Fortunately, a last burst of activism and fund-raising allowed most of the residents to buy the homes that they had been renting from the FSA.

Evicted Sharecropper 1

Rothstein, Arthur, Evicted sharecropper and child, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002945-M2

It’s a remarkable story of struggle, collective action, and the disenfranchisement of the poor that echoes to us today. And doggone, why had I not heard it until now? I’m chagrined at the many things I haven’t learned.

(P.S. There’s a nice article about the LaForge homes here.)

 

 

Our Original Sin

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The circumstances of the original incident between Henry Caldwell and a Mrs. Peck on July 27, 1882, are unclear. An account of the incident can be found on Larry Wood’s admirable Ozarks history blog. Mrs. Peck, according to the original newspaper report, was more than sixty years old and Caldwell was thirty-seven; but we’re left to guess who Mrs. Peck might be, since her first name is not given in the Iron County Register story. But since the incident took place in Ironton, my guess would be Adaline Peck, who would have been 64 that year according to census records.

In any event, according to the Register story, on that Thursday morning cries for help were heard. Neighbors rushed to the scene and found Mrs. Peck and Henry Caldwell in the front yard of her home, struggling. Henry was subdued, taken to the jail, and charged with assault and attempted rape.

The next chapter in this grim story is dispiritingly familiar. Thursday night passed, Friday night passed, with Caldwell still in jail. Then late Saturday night, a mob of thirty to forty men assembled, broke into the jail, and dragged Caldwell to the railroad bridge over Stouts Creek a few blocks away, a noose around his neck. The other end of the rope was tied to a bridge beam and Caldwell was thrown off, but desperate to live, he clung to the bridge timbers until someone took a knife to his arm. When he fell, another gruesome miscalculation; his feet touched the ground. The mob ended his life with a fusillade of bullets.

In his book Witnesses to History: Stories from Park View Cemetery, which is available from the Iron County Historical Society, John M. Abney quotes a different version. The letter from which this quotation is taken is in the possession of the Historical Society.

Henry did something that frightened old lady Peck and it was construed by some as an intended attack on his part.  I [the letter writer, Cora Chase Charlton, daughter of the prosecuting attorney at the time] – who have heard her minute account of what really happened more than once, did not think so.  But a bunch of men who spent their time in the Schultz saloon inflamed themselves with liquor to the point of taking poor Henry out, hanging him on the railroad bridge, and riddling his body with bullits.

Thus occurred the only documented lynching in Iron County, Missouri.

I first became aware of this event many years ago, when I read the diary of a little boy growing up in Arcadia during that time. The boy’s name was Stephen Hinchey, and the diary entry (which I carefully copied down and filed away – this was in the days before computers) read as follows:

Sat July 29

I studied most of the day.

In evening father heard, while in Ironton, that a negro was to be hung by a mob when night came. Father and I went to home of Judge Emerson to warn him of the mob’s plan.

Sunday 30th of July

This morning we heard that the mob hanged the negro on the Ironton railroad bridge. About 60 shots were fired into his body.

A later entry reads:

Sat. August 12th 1882

Today is my 9th birthday.

A few thoughts:

Stephen Hinchey’s father was William Hinchey, an artist and teacher at Arcadia College, and a prodigious diarist himself. William Hinchey’s diaries, written in shorthand and transcribed by Stephen years later, described his travels to the West, his observations during the Civil War, and his life in Arcadia and elsewhere. The Arcadia Valley has drawn many fine artists over the years, and Hinchey was but the first.

William Hinchey

William Hinchey

Henry Caldwell, thirty-seven at the time of his death, was identified in the Register article as married with four children. Census records from 1880 confirm that his wife was Millie, and their children Stella, Peter, Edia, and Nettie. A man who was that age in 1882 would most likely have been born into slavery and lived in that condition until his late teens, nearly twenty. The Register describes him as a bit daft “and at times out-and-out crazy.” Whether there was truth to this description, or a connection to having lived half his life as a slave, cannot be determined, as news accounts of lynchings are notorious for their retrospective portrayals of victims as dangerous and mobs as honor-bound. But Cora Chase Carlton also believed something to be aberrant about Caldwell. The editor of the Register, Eli Ake, went so far to say in his article, “We are not an advocate of lynch-law, but if there ever can be a case calling justly for its intervention, this was one.” The entire account can be found in the Library of Congress’ records. I have been unable to learn what became of Mrs. Caldwell and the children.

The “Judge Emerson” to whom Stephen refers was another significant character in the history of that era: J. W. Emerson, Civil War colonel, war hero, circuit judge, and founding investor in the Emerson Electric Company, a name we still see on consumer products although the ownership of the company has long since passed into the stock exchange.

JW_Emerson

J. W. Emerson

This lynching predates the horrific spate of lynchings across the Ozarks chronicled in Kimberly Harper’s book White Man’s Heaven by about twenty years. But the pattern is certainly familiar. I am left with a few unanswered questions. The newspaper account depicts the county sheriff, William Fletcher, as surprised and overwhelmed by the mob; but was he? According to the article he had made preparations for mob law the two previous nights, but was caught unprepared on the fatal night. How likely is that? The “colored servant” who usually slept in the jail overnight was conveniently absent. If he sensed something amiss, how did the sheriff not? As Harper’s book observes, a common tactic for law enforcement officials seeking to prevent a lynching was to move the prisoner to the next town or county, making it more difficult for a mob to form and disperse inconspicuously. Why that didn’t happen in this case is impossible to know at this late date.

It’s worth remembering, moreover, that Iron County was firmly Democratic by then, and as Aaron Astor points out in Rebels on the Borderone of the tenets of border-state Democrats of that era was the restoration of the prewar social order, which would include the firm subjugation of African-Americans. The racist language of the Register article and the perception of Caldwell as “dangerous” and “a brute” fit into this mindset. (It’s also worth remembering that Eli Ake, the editor, was a complicated figure who doesn’t pigeonhole easily; John Abney reminded me in correspondence that Ake opened the pages of the Register to African-American correspondents for many years and repeatedly took some risky stands against the Ku Klux Klan in the ’20s and ’30s.)

On a TV show the other night, I heard a historian refer to slavery as “our original sin,” with our meaning “white Americans,” of course. Americans tend not to believe in original sin, a stark doctrine that robs us of individual agency and casts us as largely helpless in deciding our own fate. I’m not a believer in it either, at least not in the religious sense, but it’s surely a powerful metaphor for the unseen forces that shape our lives and our thoughts. To avoid the theological implications, I think of it as “stain” more than “sin.” Some stains simply don’t wash out, no matter how much we scrub.

Caldwell was buried in Park View Cemetery in Ironton, a cemetery also known variously as “potters’ field,” “City Cemetery,” or “the colored cemetery.” It is obscure enough today that it doesn’t even appear on Google Maps. Of the estimated 300 graves in that cemetery, only about thirty have markers. Stephen Hinchey, William Fletcher, J. W. Emerson, and Eli Ake are all buried in Ironton’s Masonic Cemetery. May they all rest in peace, and may we all eventually find some way to fully include that stain in our understanding of the social fabric of our lives. Because more than 130 years have passed and it still hasn’t washed out.

Park View Cemetery

Park View Cemetery