Tag: Elberton

A Lost Chapter: The Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy

I delight in finding lost chapters. These are the stories from the past that for one reason or another have been shoved into the dark, dusty corners of history where important pieces of the truth often lie. There to await the search for a related piece of the past to perhaps shed a little light their way. So it is with the story of the Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy.


The reverend emerged as a supporting character in the story of the eccentric political maverick William Patrick “Binks” Henry published on this website a couple of weeks ago, but he has a story in his own right that’s worth the telling. As in the case of Henry, the reverend isn’t mentioned in John McIntosh’s Official History of Elbert County published in 1940, and likely both omissions stem from the same two key reasons. For one, as valuable as his book is in some respects, McIntosh generally − not always, but generally − either glossed over or ignored entirely happenings that might not reflect well on the county. The stories of Henry and Kennedy wouldn’t, to be sure. Second, as is the case with myself, McIntosh was related by both blood and marriage to the then politically powerful Mattox-Allen-Heard family web that had opposed both Henry and Kennedy at various times. His telling the stories wouldn’t have reflected well on kinfolk. For better or worse, I have no such reservations. The facts are what they are, each a brushstroke that helps paint the true portrait of the past, warts and all.


Details about Kennedy’s past, particularly his exact age and place of birth, have defied ready discovery. We know, however, that he was still an active minister and educator in the late 1920s, so a year of birth possibly as far back as the mid to late 1860s or maybe the very early 1870s seems a good guess. He first emerges like a bombshell in the news in Elbert County in August 1895.


“T.L. Kennedy, a negro school teacher who had figured prominently in the affairs of the colored people of Elbert County for a year or so past, had his license revoked by Commissioner Wall last for immoral conduct,” related the August 8, 1895 edition of the Elberton Star.


The school commissioner, James Nunnellee Wall, who was also a farmer and Methodist minister, based his decision on a finding that Kennedy had “made a speech at Hull’s [Hulme’s] Chapel, a negro church near Ruckersville, which the commissioner claims was incendiary in character and calculated to engender strife and bad feeling between the races, and that will, if its injunctions are heeded, cause trouble and bring incalculable injury to the negroes of Elbert county [sic].”


The newspaper didn’t elaborate on the specifics of what Kennedy reportedly said, but according to the paper he denied his remarks fit Wall’s description. Wall held that he had solid evidence to back his claim, and according to the Star’s account when the substance of Kennedy’s alleged comments became generally known “a body of representative men from the city and county” gathered at the courthouse and endorsed Wall’s action and affirmed that the schools should not be used to foment racial discord.


It’s worth noting here as well as anywhere that James Wall belonged to a branch of the Mattox-Allen-Heard family and was a cousin by marriage to William Henry Mattox. A former state senator, Mattox in these years had seen his political power wane in proportion to his declining economic fortunes. His investing heavily in a textile mill on Beaverdam Creek in eastern Elbert County in 1888 and 1889, and the subsequent loss of the uninsured mill in a fire, was the beginning of the end his empire that had included four grist mills and nearly 4,000 acres of cultivated land where a great deal of the physical labor was done by convicts leased from the state. But enough of his kinsmen remained in various positions that the remnants of his political machine still had some juice to jolt local affairs, sometimes, as with “Binks” Henry, resorting to physical intimidation.


Following his firing, Thomas Kennedy didn’t simply pack up and leave town looking for a new teaching position. He continued to preach, and he founded a weekly newspaper, the Progress, aimed at the county’s black community. Elbert County’s black community was already served by one newspaper, the Golden Age, edited by another minister, E.J. Bell, but Kennedy’s Progress staked out a more radical and confrontational course. It evidently developed a readership, at least enough to give Kennedy a base of support for his causes. His first major cause involved an attack on segregation in the county courthouse.


In 1893-94, Elbert County built a new courthouse, the courthouse still standing now on the west side of the town square. Included was a balcony in the rear of the large courtroom where blacks were to sit. In March 1896, Kennedy launched in the editorial page of the Progress his campaign for free access to seating on the courtroom’s main floor. A petition addressing the issue was presented to the county commissioners, who passed it on to the presiding state court judge −who passed it back to the commissioners. Kennedy then trumpeted the editorial call that redress of this grievance would be sought at the ballot box.


This was no idle threat, as it turns out, given the times. Almost without fail since the days of Reconstruction, southern blacks had been inclined to vote Republican when there were Republican candidates to vote for. But “Binks” Henry’s painful (literally) experience voting Republican in the presidential election of 1888, elaborated in the previous column, illustrates how weak and hollow such a threat might have been under the same conditions, but conditions had changed since 1888. As noted in the earlier column, the rise of the Populist Party to become a force by the election of 1892, with the Populists initially courting a voter base of both rural whites and blacks (mostly small farmers), now actually meant that the Democratic Party’s grip on county and state politics was not as firm as in times past. In Elbert County, as in nearly all southern counties, the courthouse was both the totem and the temple of the political party that held local political power, housing the actual offices of the local overlords and the figurative coffers of the patronage by which they kept their minions happy. With the white vote now divided, enough black votes for Populists might indeed cast local Democrats out of their temple. That was especially true since the elections of 1892 and 1894 when the state Republican Party, which generally had no chance of winning elections in rural counties, in a move to weaken the Democrats had quietly thrown support behind the Populists.


The Star, firmly a Democratic organ (and few papers in those days even claimed to be nonpartisan), lost no time in denouncing Kennedy’s editorial. Any desire to change the seating arrangements in the courthouse was “impudent,” read the Star’s editorial page. “[The blacks] should remember,” the editorial continued, “that and [sic] appeal to the ballot box is sometimes followed by an appeal to the cartridge box.” But as the Democratic primary played out in succeeding months, the Star softened its tone. Because even though Kennedy was a longtime Republican Party organizer, it was the dynamics of the Democratic primary that gave him some real leverage.


The Democratic primary for state representative was a close race between Thomas Swift and Ira VanDuzer. VanDuzer was a local attorney, viewed as something of an upstart, whereas Swift was as about as close to local aristocracy as one could be. With roots deep in the county, Swift was a cotton gin and cottonseed oil mill owner who had made hay of William Mattox’s misfortune, obtaining in a bankruptcy sale the site of Mattox’s and his partners’ destroyed cotton mill on Beaverdam Creek and building the three-story Pearl Mill (which itself would burn in 1929).


Swift was an old-school Democrat. VanDuzer, though running as a Democrat, had been endorsed by the Populists. Kennedy seems to have had little trust in the Populists despite the party’s reaching out to Southern blacks, so when Swift’s supporters looked to bring Kennedy into their camp, he parlayed his influence to advantage. Over a week before the election, Kennedy spoke at the White’s Chapel church and he had asked that both Swift and VanDuzer be invited to attend. Five days before the election, the Star ballyhooed the result: “Kennedy made the first speech, and it was a good one. He put forth his reasons why the colored people should support Col. Swift, and he was cheered by both the white and colored people.”


Swift won the primary handily, but the comity with Kennedy didn’t last. As we saw in the story of “Binks” Henry, came the November general election voting day, it was business as usual all way round.
Kennedy’s later claim on the editorial page of the Progress that the “standing army of democratic ruffians” led by William Parks Clark, a member of the extended Mattox-Allen-Heard family, had kept 1,000 to 1,500 Republican votes from being cast in Elberton is probably a bit of hyperbole (as there were only about 3,100 registered voters in the county in 1896), but there is little doubt as to the rest of his claim. He had been “roughly handled by a crowd of rowdies led by W. Parks Clark and Bob Almond,” Kennedy wrote, “and had it not been for the timely intervention of Policeman Irvin and several other white men, no doubt [I] would have been murdered outright. This fellow Parks Clark is characterized by his rowdyism and seldom, if ever, a fuss occurs that he is not the leader. … We hope and sincerely do we ask that the better class of white people in this county will rebuke such devilish work as was done here Tuesday. …”


“Roughly handled” may be a politic understatement by Kennedy, as from later statements and his later actions one can infer that he was beaten. In the next edition, the editor of the Star took issue with the whole of range of Kennedy’s claims. “Not a single voter of any party was hindered or intimidated in any way from casting a ballot for any candidate he chose,” went the editorial. As for Parks Clark, “there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he.” The Star in the same issue also reported that Kennedy had been confronted by a “committee” that had laid 200 lashes on his back and ordered him to leave town. There is some reason to doubt this, and not only because Kennedy struck back with a letter to the editor of the Star, denying the report and also telegraphing his effort apparently then already underway to carry the fight to higher jurisdictions.


“Elberton, Georgia November 14, 1896
TO THE EDITOR OF THE STAR
DEAR SIR
Your editorial of the last issue is false to the core. I have not been interviewed and neither have I received a lick from any man or set of men since election day. I did not leave Elberton under fear of being whipped for my editorial, as not a single white man has said anything to me contrary to its publication. I went to South Carolina on business Friday night and returned on the 4 o’clock train Saturday evening and kept on through to Atlanta. I was in Elberton again Monday and went to Atlanta on the same train that Parks Clark left on for Mexico, and when he got to Atlanta I had an officer waiting to arrest him. …”


Kennedy went on to say that Parks Clark had avoided arrest and further threatened to have the Star’s editor “indicted for perjury” if word of his being beaten and threatened continued to be circulated. “Libel” was of course the word that eluded Kennedy in his account, not “perjury.” The claims of trying to have Parks Clark arrested can’t be verified, but that may explain Kennedy’s frequent trips to Atlanta following the election. In any case, Parks Clark was never arrested. Kennedy posted his letter on November 14. Two days later, Monday November 16, he was again on the train bound for Atlanta when his life took a hard turn for the worse.


The Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railroad train from Elberton to Atlanta was pulling into Carlton, in Madison County, when Presh Mattox entered the car where Kennedy sat. Henry Presh Mattox, twenty-two, was a kinsman of the now bankrupt William Henry Mattox (but not his son, as some later accounts held; William Mattox had only two sons, Clark and Singleton). What happened next depends on whom one believes. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. The next week the Star carried Presh Mattox’s version: Kennedy had “cursed one of our citizens, Mr. Presh Mattox, and when the insult was resented with a blow, drew a pistol and followed him off the train at Carlton with a drawn pistol, cursing and abusing him in a manner intolerable to Anglo-Saxon pride and patience.”


For his part, Kennedy never denied pulling a gun on Presh Mattox, but he claimed that Mattox entered the car and struck him, further threatening to have a crowd of men pull him off the train in Carlton. He had pulled the pistol, he said, when he felt his life was in danger. Mattox swore out a warrant for Kennedy on the relatively minor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Kennedy was arrested and carried to the Madison County jail. His bond was soon posted by Monroe B. “Pink” Morton, the wealthy mulatto businessman and Republican political organizer in Athens (and eventually Athens’ first black postmaster). Morton found Kennedy a place to stay in Athens, but within a matter of days Madison County issued another warrant for Kennedy, this time for the attempted murder of Presh Mattox. Kennedy was arrested in Winder, but was eventually lodged in the Clarke County jail after his benefactor Morton petitioned the governor. Morton feared for Kennedy’s safety if he were held in Madison County. He remained in jail until his trial in Danielsville the first week in March of 1897. Morton had retained two attorneys for him, Samuel Tribble and former Athens mayor, H.C. Tuck.


Kennedy had been indicted on both charges, carrying a concealed weapon and attempted murder. The defense’s strategy rested on establishing self-defense, and for that the attorneys would rely on the testimony of a white woman, Lula Watson, who was supposedly in the railroad car at the time of the incident. She did not appear in court, however, and when bailiffs visited her home they found her in bed, apparently ill, and according to her husband, unable even to rise from the bed much less leave the house. Judge Seaborn Reese accepted her husband’s secondhand testimony that his wife had told him nothing of witnessing any incident involving Kennedy and Mattox. Kennedy was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labor. Tribble and Huck immediately requested a new trial on several grounds, but mainly on the inability of getting Lula Watson to court and that Reese had not instructed the jury to consider any of Presh Mattox’s alleged actions as justifying self-defense. Reese denied a new trial but stayed the sentence while the attorneys took the appeal to the state supreme court.


In early June, the supreme court agreed that Kennedy should have a new trial, agreeing that the hearsay testimony of Lula Watson’s husband was no substitute for her own, and was in fact contrary to the law. The new trial was set for September. Neither Kennedy nor Morton could post Kennedy’s appeal bond, however, and he remained in the Madison County jail until his new trial with the exception of a few weeks in the summer when he was rented out as a laborer to James Smith of “Smithsonia,” Smith’s plantation of several thousand acres in Oglethorpe County that, like William H. Mattox in Elbert County, he worked with convict labor. (Much of the old Smith plantation would eventually become the Arabian horse ranch of country and pop music star Kenny Rogers.)


On September 9, 1897, Kennedy was tried again. Again the jury returned a verdict of guilty of attempted murder, but this time with a recommendation for mercy. He had already pleaded guilty to the charge of carrying a concealed weapon and been sentenced to a year of hard labor or a $50 fine. He had managed to pay the fine. The recommendation for mercy handed down meant that he had the chance to escape the two years of hard labor Reese imposed if he could pay a $300 fine. Neither he nor Monroe Morton could raise the money for the fine, however, and in October he was sent to the chain gang of the Fulton County public works department.


There is no record indicating that Thomas Kennedy ever came back to Elbert County after his release. Later years found him a minister in Jackson County, noted once in the local newspaper in 1908 when a young man requested that Kennedy accompany him on his walk to the gallows. He evidently spent his last years in Rockdale County. A February 1929 edition of the Rockdale Record notes that Kennedy had in years past been principal of the city’s black school and at the time of the writing he had been for six years principal of Bethany Academy, a black school associated with the Presbyterian church.


As for Kennedy’s adversaries, they faced their own trials after a fashion. Presh Mattox’s venture at establishing a cotton brokerage business failed, and in early 1901 he went to Texas to try to reestablish himself. He died in Texas in September 1901, allegedly of an overdose of laudanum (a tincture of opium in alcohol) to which it’s said he was addicted. He is buried in Elberton’s Elmhurst Cemetery. Even though he was in his forties, Parks Clark joined a volunteer military company at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of captain and serving in the Philippines. He returned to Elberton and lived there the rest of his life as a civic leader, Masonic brother and man about town.


So there it is, the story of the trials of the Reverend Thomas Kennedy, a lost chapter no more.

Politicking As a Blood Sport: The Legacy of William Patrick “Binks” Henry

The town square of Elberton, Georgia, circa 1898. Except for the statue in the center ground it would have looked similarly in November 1894 when a crowd estimated at about 2,000 hanged William Patrick “Binks” Henry in effigy.

The talk from many idle chatterers these days is that politics is more vicious and cutthroat than it’s ever been.

I always chuckle on hearing this, because anyone having anything more than a passing acquaintance with the history of this revered republic knows it isn’t true. Nor does one have to delve into the intriguing and slandering that went on in the 1800 presidential election between once and future friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first real down and dirty presidential election, or into any of the of the national elections since, to find exculpatory evidence for our age. It lies closer to home.

Not in my own memory, nor in any recollection of any older relative or anyone else that I recall, has an election day in Elbert County seen any rioting, beatings or shootings related to politics and the voting, but such used to be commonplace. In fact, rare was the election day in Elbert County between the end of the Civil War and 1900 that didn’t see someone shot or beaten or, in at least one case, hanged in effigy by a mob. I was reminded of this recently while researching material for an article that will appear some months hence in Georgia Backroads magazine. It all also reminded me how often in times past members of my extended family have played their parts in the little drama of our local history, in this case both as givers and recipients of beatings and in other acts of unconventional politicking. I have often said the actual history of the Heard-Allen-Mattox-McIntosh-Harris family tree from which the Chandlers are a main branch stomps into the dust William Faulkner’s best efforts to invent a back story for his fictional characters. Most of the people mentioned in the tale I’m about to tell are relatives of mine at some distance, either by blood or marriage, and I offer them as further evidence to back my claim.

On Tuesday November 6, 1888, William Patrick “Binks” Henry walked into the Elbert County courthouse and cast his ballot for Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate for president. It was the first time the 22-year-old Henry had ever voted and his was the sole Republican vote cast in the county that day (black voters who in those days often wanted to vote Republican were discouraged from voting at all, and what would happen to Binks Henry is a study in how). There was no secret balloting in those days; everyone knew how everyone else voted.

Henry was scarcely a block away from the courthouse when he was accosted by three men whom he had theretofore had no reason to consider enemies, William Parks Clark, Joseph Mattox and P.H. Ham. Hot words followed over Henry’s heresy of voting Republican. The altercation ended with Henry lying in the street, felled under repeated blows of Clark’s buggy whip.

What possessed Binks Henry to cast his first vote ever for Benjamin Harrison, we don’t know. He recorded no reason in his surviving papers and if he ever confided his thinking on the matter to anyone, no record they made has ever been found. He was an eccentric man among a family of eccentrics. From his story it’s not hard to infer that he enjoyed sticking his thumb in the eye of convention, and absent hard evidence that offers as good an explanation as any for his vote. Family accounts hold that he was a medical doctor by education, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced medicine. He and his sister Mary Ellen “Ella,” older by three years, lived in what had been the Allen plantation house overlooking Beaverdam Creek, near where the Pearl Mill textile manufactory would rise in a few years. (In 1888, William H. Mattox, a Henry relative by marriage, and his partners were already building a mill on the site.) The Henrys had inherited the Allen home and lands through their great aunt being the wife of Beverly Allen (my own great-great-great uncle, as it happens), son of original settler William Allen and nephew of the notorious Beverly Allen, the defrocked Methodist minister who had killed a U.S. marshal in Augusta in 1794 and fled to the wilds of Kentucky. By all indications the Henrys were satisfied to live on inherited money and the landowner’s share of the fruits of their sharecroppers’ toil. Binks Henry’s refuge, not to say delight, was evidently in his books, of which he had a large collection.

The Allen plantation house, near Beaverdam Creek in the Middleton?Longstreet community. The oldest part of the house dated from the early 1800s and for years was a stronghold of the Allen family and extended family, which included the Heard, McIntosh, Mattox and Henry families. The house burned in 2000.

After his beating, Henry swore out warrants for Clark, Mattox and Ham, and all were later indicted for assault and battery by an Elbert County grand jury that, oddly enough, included Clark as a member. The incident was to some degree a family affair [and, as it happens, my family affair as well]. Clark, then 40 years old, was distantly connected by marriage to the Heard, Allen, Mattox and Henry families, his mother’s first husband being Gerrard Allen, a son of Singleton Allen, the brother of Binks’s and Ella’s great uncle Beverly (making Gerrard Beverly’s nephew, of course), and a grandson of local Revolutionary War hero Stephen Heard [my great-great-great-great grandfather who, as I wrote in an earlier column, almost certainly was not saved from a British hangman’s noose by his slave woman “Mammy Kate,” as local legend holds]. Joseph Mattox was a nephew of local planter, mill owner, entrepreneur and Democratic political boss the aforementioned William H. Mattox (my great-great grandfather), whose wife was the daughter of Singleton Allen, thus Gerrard Allen’s sister and granddaughter of Stephen Heard. (I never promised you the family tree would be simple to follow.) When the case came to trial, Clark was found guilty of the charge and fined. His compatriots were acquitted.

Owing to its political overtones, the case had gained national notoriety, attracting the attention even of the new administration. President Harrison rewarded Binks Henry for all his troubles and suffering by giving him the privilege of naming the new postmaster for Elberton. Binks selected the person apparently closest to him in the world, his sister Ella. In late 1889 she replaced John. M. Heard, another distant cousin, and became the first postmistress in Elberton’s history (and is believed to be the first postmistress in Georgia).

Binks Henry wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of his case. He took the then novel step of bringing federal charges against his assailants for violating his civil rights. A federal grand jury in Atlanta, however, dismissed the charges in October 1889. Henry again brought federal charges and that time a second federal grand jury indicted the men. The case again gained Binks Henry national acclaim in Republican circles, and Elbert County national notoriety, but it was ultimately dismissed on a legal fine point. Federal law in those days protected a person attacked or threatened before voting, or if they were attacked or threatened by anyone wearing masks. An attack made after a person had cast their vote, though, and by assailants not wearing masks, did not fall under federal purview.

The Republican Party in Georgia largely sat out the election of 1892. That year saw the first significant rise of the Populist Party, a coming that threw the already turbulent world of state politics into even more disarray. The Populist Party sprang out the Farmers’ Alliance that had swept across the South in the late 1880s and early 1890s, gaining more than 100,000 members. In those years cotton prices had plummeted at the same time that farmers saw their debts and a number of other problems of rural folk increase, notably stiff increases in railroad freight rates. Mirroring similar movements by farmers in the West, the southern Populists urged the nationalization of railroads, more government control of banking, and a bimetallist monetary system, specifically the free coinage of silver at a rate 16:1 with gold. “Free silver” is an historical footnote now, but in these times it was an issue that excited passions. The basic idea of its supporters, among whom farmers were heavily represented, was simply to put more money into circulation, creating a form of inflation that would drive up the prices of farm commodities. And also, allow them to pay down or pay off their debts with inflated dollars. This latter is exactly why free silver was opposed by the industrial and financial interests. Like other coeval organizations such as the Knights of Labor that would now be considered left-leaning (the right-left description then not being in general use), the Populists also supported a graduated income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators. The rise of the Populists in Georgia pitted the interests of the largely rural folk against those of more urban areas and posed a serious challenge for the Democrats.

That wasn’t just because the Populists co-opted some of the Democrats’ positions that appealed to farmers (nationally, such prominent Democrats as William Jennings Bryan championed free silver and more regulation of the railroads). The Democrats had never been especially popular in large swaths of middle Georgia west of Augusta that had voted mostly Whig before the Civil War, but postwar the Democrats had captured the votes in those areas by default, being the only choice other than voting Republican. Now the voters had a choice. Even more infuriating to the Democrats, the Populists under the leadership of the brilliant orator and political maverick Tom Watson set out to cross racial lines and appeal to both rural and urban blacks who, when they managed to vote at all, were inclined to vote for any Republican running. Black delegates were invited to the Populist’s state convention in 1892, the first of several such acts nearly unheard of at the time. (That would change in the years near the end of the Georgia Populist Party’s relevance, as Watson took stances virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.) Even though their aims and platforms were almost diametrically opposed, Georgia Republicans saw a chance to make a devil’s bargain with the Populists. Given the futility (usually) of running a Republican candidate, many Republicans threw in with the Populists in an attempt to thumb-gouge the Democrats in the eye. That led Binks Henry back into the political game.

The Republican Party sent out sample ballots for Elbert County with the name of the Populist candidate for Congress, J.R. Robins, along with the names of the Republican presidential electors. Henry had other thoughts and surmised that instead of bringing Populists to vote for the Republicans this stratagem-cum-trick would actually push them toward the Democrats. He had other local sample ballots printed with the Republican electors listed along with the Democratic candidate for Congress. The Democratic Party bosses in Elbert County were incensed, and threatened Henry and the local Republican chairman with prosecution for fraud. Nothing came of the threats but when, as expected, the Democrats won easily in Elbert County, and nationally the Democrat Grover Cleveland reclaimed the White House he had lost four years before to Benjamin Harrison, the celebratory crowd in Elberton’s town square, estimated by the local newspaper at a couple of thousand, hanged Binks Henry in effigy − and then the effigy was burned. For Ella Henry the election has more concrete consequences. Early in the new administration she lost her position as postmistress − to the former postmaster, her cousin John. M. Heard.

In late 1893, Binks Henry left Elbert County and took an extensive tour of the north, but exactly where he went and what he did isn’t known. He played no part in the midterm elections of 1894, when Republicans in Georgia again discreetly supported the Populists as a dig at the Democrats. By 1896, however, Binks was back in Elbert County just in time to set out on his most ambitious political play yet. When the Republican organizers of Georgia’s Eighth Congressional District met in Athens in the later summer of 1896, they chose him as their candidate. Between then and November he crisscrossed the district campaigning to mostly black voters.

Tuesday, November 3, 1896 was a cold, rainy day in Elberton, according to the Elberton Star, but the newspaper’s editor found some sunny notes. “There was not near so much drinking and debauchery in this election as there was in the last,” went his editorial. “The town was quiet all day and there were only one or two election scraps.” It was something of a change from the primary election held in Elberton the month before. That day, a quarrel at the polls had led to two Democrats shooting two Populists (they survived). It seems, however, that the Star’s editor had a gift for understatement, and also chose to ignore quite a bit.

The editorial continued that “‘Cuffy’ [blacks] did not play near so prominent a role in this election as he did in the last. When left alone he voted the republican ticket, but by using a little ‘persuasion’ he could easily be induced to cast his vote for some other party.” The Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy begged to differ.

Kennedy, a black minister and former teacher, had been a thorn in the side of the local Democratic establishment for some time. In August 1895, the county school superintendent had fired him from a teaching post at one of the county’s black schools after Kennedy, speaking at a church, allegedly made political statements in favor of Republicans and deemed to be fomenting racial discord. Kennedy had then founded a black-oriented newspaper, the Progress, a more radical and confrontational paper than the county’s other black newspaper, the Golden Age, which reflected the fairly conservative stance toward black issues favored most notably by Booker T. Washington. Kennedy was also a key organizer of the black vote for the Republican Party and an associate of Binks Henry. In the pages of the Progress Kennedy painted a different portrait of the election day doings. Blacks who approached the polls in Elberton to cast Republican ballots, Kennedy wrote, had found their way blocked “by a standing army of democratic ruffians.” Had not the casting of Republican votes been blocked, Kennedy went on, he estimated that “fully 1,000 to 1,500 republican tickets would have been cast.” The man Kennedy tagged in print as the leader of the “democratic ruffians” was our old friend and Binks Henry’s tormentor William Parks Clark. (The Elberton Star responded in the next issue with an editorial defending Clark: “… there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he. …”)

(The incident and Kennedy’s writings provoked a convoluted series of events that would result in Kennedy serving a very likely unjustified sentence for attempted murder. But he went on to have a life afterward of some significance. It’s quite a tale and I’ll probably take it up in a future column.)

As for Binks Henry, he lost his bid for Congress, not garnering a single vote in his own home district of Longstreet. Nationally, however, the Republican William McKinley won the presidency over William Jennings Bryan, who was nominated by both the Democrats and the Populists. Once again Binks Henry was rewarded by being given the choice of naming Elberton’s new postmaster. Once again his sister Ella replaced their cousin John. M. Heard.

In June 1897, President McKinley offered Binks Henry the U.S. consular post in Switzerland. He did not accept immediately but decided to mull it over. He waited too long. That October he fell ill with meningitis and died at the Henry home on November 1. He was 31 years old. (Ella would die four years later.) Thus ended one of the oddest and most turbulent careers in politics this area has ever seen.

Now then, the next time you hear anyone say that the theater, the strife and the fang-and-claw rhetorical blood sport of politics nowadays are the worst they’ve ever been, think of Binks Henry, and tell them that just ain’t so.

 

Some Thoughts on Sunday Alcohol Sales

Georgia saw various temperance movements come and go beginning in the early years of the nineteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1885 that the state legislature enacted a statute allowing counties to vote themselves “dry.” Most did. And in 1908, the legislature voted prohibition statewide. National prohibition came and went leaving Georgia still dry; alcohol wouldn’t be legal in Georgia until 1935, two years after national prohibition was repealed.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Georgians in want of a tipple didn’t get one in the dry years. Those with access to bootleggers, which meant just about everybody, always did. For the more rascally of society, this presented no moral dilemma, but for the more piously-inclined who wanted an occasional drink there was a consensus on the Southern Protestant love-hate relationship with the neighborhood bootleggers’ wet goods. They could love a good drink but hate for most people to know that. (And those who did know wouldn’t talk about it, being mostly of the same brotherhood or sisterhood themselves.) Some unkind souls might make the claim this manifested rank hypocrisy. What it was, though, was the practical application of a utilitarian principle: The greatest happiness for the greatest many. With alcohol illegal, both the Baptists and the bootleggers could be happy.

I lay out all this as preamble. The residents of the city of Elberton, my sometimes acutely neurotic hometown, is on the verge of voting whether to join the other 251-odd cities and counties in Georgia in allowing Sunday sales of alcohol, both package sales and by the drink. The likely outcome isn’t clear. If the idle chitchat overheard in checkout lines has foundation, if the virulent brimstone-scented rhetoric in letters to the editor is taken to heart and if the similar offerings on social media that seem to channel Carry Nation aren’t just blather, the idea of Sunday alcohol sales in Elberton is still a subject that can raise ire, tempers and the odd fist slammed down on the odd Bible.

Other places around have been similarly divided. And oddly enough, the approval of one plank of the issue doesn’t necessarily mean the other is a sure thing. In 2014 the voters in Hartwell, eighteen miles north of Elberton, narrowly approved Sunday package sales by a vote of 514-507. But on the same ballot Sunday sales by the drink in restaurants was defeated with 512 No votes edging out 510 in favor. Knowing the train of thought of those three or four voters responsible for the split would be interesting, and maybe disquieting, like knowing how hotdogs are made. The unincorporated area of Hart County itself, incidentally, is still dry when it comes to distilled spirits.

Elbert County has a similar history of love and hate where legal alcohol is concerned. The county stayed dry for a long time after Georgia counties could choose to go wet and after several counties close by did so. Again, that hardly meant drinking wasn’t going on, regularly and sometimes copiously. It just meant Elbert Countians couldn’t buy legal booze close to home. Instead, they bought a lot of it just across the Savannah River in Calhoun Falls, South Carolina. Throughout my childhood in the 1960s, in fact, the Carolina mill town just a couple of miles inside the state line, and about sixteen miles from Elberton, was called little else around here but “Saloon Falls.” There were, as I recall, at least four thriving liquor stores within sight of the main thoroughfare whose carriage trade depended heavily on their clientele from across the river.

Just as in the days of state and national prohibition, bootlegging was also a going concern hereabouts, catering mostly to the less prosperous of the county, and a bootlegger who made good stuff could do a land office business on the sly and was most often very well thought of in reputable circles. Craft distilling is one of Georgia’s small but growing industries now (there are 16 such distilleries in the state at the moment) but within my own memory from the 1960s it was a cottage industry even if it wasn’t legal. Elbert County never had the reputation of, say, the Gumlog community of Franklin County for its moonshining magnates, but I’m inclined to think that’s because Elbert County’s craftsmen of the pot stills were just better at keeping their wet goods trade within acceptable bounds.

My father never operated a still, but in the 1960s he built several. Besides auto repairs, at his shop at Pearl Mill he kept most of the local farmers’ equipment operating and did custom welding. He could build just about anything out of metal. And that’s how the still-making came about.

He never went near a law school but my father was an independent-minded man who had a fine natural understanding of the distinction between the concepts of malum in se, something evil or wrong owing to its own nature, and malum prohibitum, wrong (but never really genuinely evil) simply because someone, or a group of someones, thought it should be illegal, a good part of the time the someones being uptight self-righteous busybodies. If a small farmer needed to boost his cash flow in a bad year or if a mill worker with a large family needed to eke out his wages by making and selling a little ‘shine, my father didn’t care. Most people around in our community who gave an opinion on the matter that I recollect felt the same way. From my father’s perspective, at least, making the still was just a job of work. He had the hard and fast rule, though, that he’d never assemble the still in his shop or even have all the parts in the shop at the same time.

My memories of all this are clear, as clear no doubt as the consciences of all involved. Still, I’ll mention none of the names. Some of the sons and daughters of the moonshiners are still around and there’s no need to or use in causing them any embarrassment now. They’re from good families and some of them, in fact, are church deacons and Sunday school teachers, like their fathers before them.

Living in the unincorporated county, I don’t have a vote on Elberton’s Sunday sales referendum, just an opinion.

I understand most of the overall concern of those pious souls opposing Sunday sales. Like many other things humans can choose to take in, alcohol can be abused with terrible consequences, not just for the drunkard but for his or her family and sometimes for perfect strangers. Concern for all the aforementioned should be lauded. But the argument of many is still “Should there not be one day, and the traditional Sabbath at that, when temptation to drink should not be present?”

Except that that is never the case. Those afflicted with an inability to control their drinking inevitably take pains, like those facing imposed legal prohibition at all times, to ensure their own supply. And the well-meaning are thus left fighting a fatuous battle over vacuous symbolism. I respect faithful men (and women) of the cloth even when we disagree, such as this instance, enough to make the case that they would do more good where those potentially lost souls are concerned by speaking from their pulpits and acting through outreach programs than worrying whether the average citizen can buy a six-pack on Sunday to drink that lazy afternoon or have a beer or a glass of wine with their restaurant meal after church.

I’ll take my own cue from the Book of Benjamin. From Benjamin Franklin, that is. The rascally Sage of Philadelphia never addressed the matter of Sunday alcohol sales, per se, but in a 1761 letter written from England to a friend back in Franklin’s native Boston he did address the matter of the “Sunday laws” then common in Puritan-inspired New England. These edicts prohibited doing just about anything on Sundays that might lead one to crack a smile, much less laugh. You could do little within the law except sit and contemplate Scripture and all the things you could be doing if it wasn’t Sunday, all the things you could do any other day of the week.

Franklin wrote that he had met none of the so-called “Sunday laws” in England. Instead he saw people “singing, fiddling and dancing.” (Very likely, I would venture, with some drinking involved.) He noted, too, that the cities were in good order, the fields tended, the cattle and horses fat. “All this evidence,’ Franklin wrote, “would make one suspect that the Diety is not so angry at that offense [Sunday frivolity] as a New England justice.”

So if the Elberton voters approve the referendums, on some Sunday, in some venue, I’ll raise a toast to Ben.