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Debt and Default on the Alabama Frontier: Notes on a 19th Century Justice’s Ledger

The subject of this blog post is a ledger used by Justices of the Peace in Clarkesville, Alabama during the 1820s and 1830s. Justices of the Peace used ledgers like this one to record developments in the cases they heard. This ledger specifically deals with the complaints filed between neighbors for outstanding debts. In it, we see the financial mechanisms of an early 19th century Alabama frontier society. Thanks to Hudson Cheshire, our former research assistant and newly-minted J.D. for this post.

Debt and Default on the Alabama Frontier: Notes on a 19th century Justice’s Ledger

Hudson Cheshire

The subject of this blog post is a ledger used by Justices of the Peace in Clarkesville, Alabama during the 1820s. The ledger is about 200 pages long, with cardboard panels and a badly deteriorated leather spine. It is 14 ½ inches in length, 6 ¼ inches wide, and 1 ¼ inches deep.[1]

William A. Robinson, a Justice of the Peace of Clarkesville County, Alabama, began recording cases in this ledger in June of 1824.

Image of first page of Justices' Docket.

First page of Justices’ Docket

The last case recorded is from August of 1830. During this period, the docket went into the hands of at least two successive justices: Samuel Beckham, from July of 1827 to May of 1828, and Kendrick Ford from September 1828 to July of 1830. The successive justices continued to record developments in the cases first handled by their predecessors. The contents of this book were not, in all likelihood, a matter of public record, but instead a mechanism for recording, for future reference, whether disputes had been resolved. Thus, there is little in the ledger by way of common law precedent or factual background for any of the legal disputes.  In that respect, it is closer to an accounting notebook than a legal document. Still, it sheds light on the legal lives of Alabamians in the 1820s. To best contextualize the ledger’s contents, a few words are in order regarding Clarke County circa 1825 and the Justices’ legal duties.

Clarke County is located in southwest Alabama, just below the Black Belt and west of Monroe County, the hometown of author Harper Lee and inspiration for the setting of To Kill A Mockingbird. In the novel, narrator Scout Finch credits the events of the book to Andrew Jackson: “If General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama, and where would we be if he hadn’t?”[2] If the Creek War of 1813 accounts for the origin of Lee’s fictional town of Maycomb, it also seems to have been a major catalyst for population growth in Clarke County. While Alabama historian Thomas Owen writes that by the time of the Creek War, Clarke County was populated enough to “furnish many soldiers to Gen. F.L. Claiborne’s army,” he also notes that the greatest population growth occurred in the decade after the war. According to Owen, a tannery, shoe factory, water mill, “iron screw” (for cotton packing), and a sawmill were all erected in Clarke County between the war’s end and 1821.[3]

The Justices who kept this ledger lived in Clarkesville, which, in the years the ledger covers, was the county seat (in 1831 the citizens voted for the county seat to be moved to Grove Hill, “the geographic center of said county”).[4] That in this time Clarkesville was the seat of a rapidly growing county is interesting because this particular ledger is almost exclusively devoted to cases involving debt and financial obligations. Through the ledger, we see the financial interdependence of a growing rural community. We see the Justice of the Peace, not just as a public servant, but also as a tradesman, who played the role of facilitating financial transactions between the citizens of his community. Read the rest of this entry »

Jessie Gillis Parish: A Woman Voter of Barbour County, Alabama

Jessie Parish Voter Registration Certificate

Jessie Parish Voter Registration Certificate

In response to our recent posting of D. Pierson’s 1902 “Lifetime” voter registration certificate, our friend David E. Alsobrook sent us an image of his great grandmother’s 1929 certificate. As you can see, it was issued to Jessie Gillis Parish of Barbour County, Alabama, on January 3, 1929. Jessie Parish is one of the individuals discussed in Alsobrook’s forthcoming book Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its People, 1890-1945 (Mercer University Press). Following a path blazed by Dr. Wayne Flynt and others, this work will provide “an in-depth-examination of life, loss, and work in a self-contained Southern cotton mill village.” Such studies are necessary if we are to understand the legacies—cultural, political, and religious—left to us by “ordinary” Alabamians. We asked David to give us some background on Jessie Parish, who after all was a member of Alabama’s first generation of women voters. Here is what he said:

Photograph of Jessie, Mallie, and Oma Parish

Jessie, Mallie, and Oma Parish, c. 1909

Although Jessie Parish’s voter registration certificate indicates that she was born on August 18, 1872, this date probably is incorrect.  Her tombstone in Eufaula’s Fairview Cemetery records her date of birth as 1871.  However, U.S. Census records for Barbour County reveal that she was born in 1869, in Glennville, Alabama, a few miles north of Eufaula.  Her parents were Malcolm D. Gillis and Queen Ann Stephenson, who had three other children born between 1873 and 1881.  Malcolm Gillis was a Confederate veteran and a cotton overseer in Glennville.  Jessie married Thomas Mallie Parish in Eufaula in 1898. They had a daughter, Oma Parish Alsobrook (1899-1969), my grandmother.  Jessie, Mallie, and Oma all worked at Donald Comer’s Cowikee Mills in Eufaula.  The accompanying photo of the Parishes was taken around 1909.  The Parishes were typical of the families who eked out a subsistence living in the cotton mills and lived in the village known as “Southside.”  Jessie Parish probably was the first woman in her family to cast a ballot in Alabama. 

Jessie Parish died in Eufaula on October 19, 1939. I only knew her from my grandmother’s occasional comments. However, her mother, Queen Anne Gillis, lived for many years afterward, and my grandmother remembers her well.  I suspect that Jessie probably met her future husband, Thomas Mallie Parish, on the job in old Eufaula Cotton Mill, owned by Capt. John Tullis.  

Jessie was a straight-laced Baptist her entire life, and her husband Mallie was a Methodist.  At her funeral, the ministers from the two Southside “mission” churches officiated–Washington Street Methodist and Second Baptist.  After Donald Comer acquired the “busted” Eufaula Cotton Mill in 1909 and changed its name to Cowikee Mill, Jessie and Mallie continued to work together there or possibly later at Cowikee Mill No. 3 in Eufaula.  These are the only basic details I know involving Jessie Gillis Parish.  She and Mallie were typical mill operatives–they worked hard all of their lives, and the debilitating nature of the work took a toll on their bodies, and their daughter Oma eventually joined them in the mill.

Like so many other mill families in Eufaula, the Parishes are rather invisible and anonymous in historical annals.  As you’ll see in the pages of Southside, my grandmother Oma told me a lot about her father Mallie and the other Parishes, but for whatever reason, she seldom talked about her mother.

Hannis Taylor’s Science of Jurisprudence: Book as Text, Book as Object, Book as Legacy

For the next offering in our series titled “Preserved in Amber,” we feature a post by U.A. law student Hudson Cheshire on our Hannis Taylor collection. This collection consists of a copy of Taylor’s 1908 treatise The Science of Jurisprudence with two of his letters affixed to the endsheets. The letters are addressed to Cambridge history professor J.B. Bury. They seem blatantly self-promotional, but Cheshire demonstrates that they are also poignant and suggestive documents—items that transform this copy of a long-forgotten book into a unique archival object. Taylor (1851-1922) was a politician, lawyer, and prolific author associated with Mobile and Washington, D.C. We at Litera Scripta have long regarded him as an interesting and collectible writer (the subject, also, of a well-constructed biography).

Hannis Taylor’s Science of Jurisprudence: Book as Text, Book as Object, Book as Legacy

In any physical book there are multiple stories at work.

Of course, there is the text itself: the words and sentences and paragraphs through which the author communicates his ideas. But in addition to the text, the history surrounding the text also tells a story. One might think of Harper Lee’s childhood in conjunction with her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. But every text is also influenced by other texts. Doubtless, Go Set a Watchman changed the way most readers see the stoic, justice-seeking attorney, Atticus Finch. Finally, the physical object of a book also tells a story: with time, any physical book may be dog-eared, annotated, or otherwise marked by its readers. Through these physical traces we are given glimpses of another story still. Perhaps the greatest allure of opening an old book is the chance to observe all of these different stories as they intersect and intertwine.

The subject of this blog post is a 108-year-old copy of a little-known book: The Science of Jurisprudence, by Hannis Taylor. Title page, The Science of JurisprudenceThe book is noteworthy in its own right as the work of a once important Alabama resident advancing a unique theory about American history. The library’s particular copy of the book is interesting for what are pasted onto its end sheets: two shamelessly self-promotional letters from the author to a professor overseas. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the collection, however, is what happened only months after the letters were penned.

To say the least, there are many different stories buried in this particular old book. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the book’s author: Hannis Taylor. Though nearly forgotten in contemporary scholarship, Taylor was an important figure in his own time, not only for his published writings, but also for his influence as both a lawyer and political figure. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Note: Civil War Alabama by Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.

The editors of Litera Scripta have taken pleasure, over a number of years, in talking about Alabama’s Civil War and Reconstruction with University of Alabama Law School alumnus Christopher McIlwain. Throughout many conversations and exchanges of emails, we have been impressed at the range of Chris’ knowledge and astonished at the all-inclusive scope of his research. It was clear to us that his book, when published, would be an original contribution to Alabama history. Specifically, Civil War Alabama is a long-overdue assessment of Alabama Unionists, a surprisingly numerous group whose fate has hitherto been either to be maligned or to be ignored. In this connection we are delighted to publish a second book note by G. Ward Hubbs of Birmingham-Southern College, author of Searching for Freedom after the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman.

Civil War Alabama

By Christopher Lyle McIlwain, Sr.

Generations of Alabamians have had but one account of the Civil War in Alabama: Walter Lynwood Fleming’s 1905 Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. While those steeped in the Lost Cause found it reassuring, even uplifting, modern readers and especially historians blush. Oddly enough, the war itself is but the opening act for Fleming’s real interest: Reconstruction. The first 57 pages of Fleming’s tome are devoted to the sectional crisis and secession; the war engages 186 pages; and an extraordinary 552 pages, the rest of the book, is spent painstakingly detailing the atrocities said to have been committed on white Alabamians during Reconstruction. Fleming’s topical approach—which highlights certain events while de-emphasizing, obscuring, or even omitting others—allows him to pick and choose how the former Confederates (nearly all the white population, according to him) endured those years at the hands of an oppressive occupying government. That Alabama’s citizens were overwhelmingly united in supporting the Confederacy is taken as a given. Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama may be the most emblematic example of the Dunning School (named for William A. Dunning of Columbia University, Fleming’s graduate-school professor) that held sway nationally during the first half of the twentieth century. And it held sway in Alabama for even longer as no one has published a comprehensive study challenging Fleming’s interpretation.

Civil War AlabamaUntil now.

After over two decades of careful research into primary documents, Chris McIlwain’s Civil War Alabama could not be more different from Fleming’s Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama. To begin with, McIlwain does not present the war topically but rather as a narrative—warts and all—from William Lowndes Yancey agitating in Montgomery to Mayor Robert Slough surrendering in Mobile. The result is more complex, even, than we might have expected. McIlwain, himself a lawyer, points to the crucial role that Alabama’s bar played in moving the state towards disunion. He also amasses indisputable evidence regarding the centrality of the institution of slavery in the decision to secede. McIlwain’s narrative approach becomes especially important in tracing the war itself because it allows him to integrate political, economic, social, and military events in ways that Fleming never could or would. We see repeatedly, for example, how home front morale fell with battlefield reverses and economic losses. But lukewarm support for, and even antagonism towards, the Confederacy did not begin with battlefield losses or the confiscation of crops.

This point is crucial and represents the book’s main contribution. McIlwain wisely refuses to estimate exactly how many Alabamians were committed to the new government and how many were not. Support and resistance was constantly shifting. About 40 percent of the Secession Convention were Unionists—a fact disguised by their adoption of the name “Cooperationists.” While Fleming and others insist that Cooperationists were mostly just go-slow secessionists, McIlwain reminds us that the term had been used by those who in 1850 resisted secession and that in 1861 the out-and-out secessionists saw no difference between Cooperationists and Unionists.

Confederate fervor soared after the bombs fell on Fort Sumter, yet early Confederate victories did not kill Unionism. Far more than previously acknowledged, a significant portion of the citizenry consistently opposed those who took over the state government and held power for those four years. And that opposition was not confined to isolated Winston County farmers. Dissenters were to be found throughout the state, from the Shoals to Mobile Bay, from the Tombigbee to the Chattahoochee. They were to be found in every profession, from farmers to judges. And they were to be found in every economic stratum, from poor to wealthy. At times it was as if two civil wars were being fought in Alabama. The campaigns would be led in the newspapers by the “generals of the press” as well as on the battlefields by the generals of the armies; the battles would be waged with ballots as well as with bullets. Pleas for peace were made privately as early as 1861 and became increasingly public as the death toll mounted and Union victories in Alabama’s sister states created intense fears of destructive invasions. “The war was very popular,” remembered a west Alabama minister, “until the coffins began to come back from Richmond.” After McIlwain places Alabama’s peace movement in its proper context, he explains its failure to extract Alabama from the war. And he posits the multiple lost opportunities open to Confederate leadership that might have averted destruction of the state’s industrial base and railroad infrastructure—opportunities that came even after Confederate independence had obviously become a hopeless cause.

In discussing the many factors that raised and lowered Alabamians’ morale, McIlwain deftly integrates military events, shortages, inflation, and human loss with passages from letters, diaries, and newspapers. His detailed documentation, which amounts to over a third of the book, represents only a part of what he originally included but had to edit out in order to make the book accessible. A great many of the extant sources about Alabama Unionists have never been used. These new sources generally fall into three categories: articles in out-of-state newspapers or other publications, letters written to individuals living in the North, and materials republished (in southern or northern journals) from Alabama newspapers that were not preserved.

That others have not used these sources raises a tantalizing question. Why, if Unionism was as strong as McIlwain makes it out to be, did it take this long for the evidence to emerge? Although McIlwain does not discuss it in his book, he is convinced that former Confederates intentionally eliminated materials that criticized the Confederacy, the war, or Democratic government. In-state newspapers during the war scarcely mention the Peace Party or troubles with motivation. And I myself have yet to find copies of Republican newspapers printed in Tuscaloosa during Reconstruction, although they probably enjoyed a healthy readership at the time.

If indeed the lack of in-state sources for Alabama Unionism are largely, as he believes, the result of deliberate acts of elimination, then that raises yet another question: Why? Why go to all the trouble of suppressing the record? The answer: To avoid Responsibility. Surely blame for those dead, the untold suffering, and the state’s disastrous economic downturn should not be directed at the Democratic Party and its hothead lawyers? All white Alabamians were in it together, surely? And indeed the defense of the state was a noble, if lost, cause. When all are guilty, then (in practical terms) none is to blame.

But Alabamians were divided, and not united, in leaving the Union and fighting the war. And they would reconstruct Alabama as a state no less divided. Responsibility cannot so easily be cast off. 

G. Ward Hubbs

Birmingham-Southern College

 

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians

The following post is a fine example of student research in legal history. Its author is Kaylin Oldham, a rising third-year law student and a 2013 graduate in English of the University of Kentucky. Her paper is titled “Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians: An Analysis of Women’s Rights in Anglo-Saxon England from the Perspective of a Warrior Queen.” The essay examines, from a legal standpoint, the extraordinary career of Aethelflaed (d. 918), daughter of Alfred the Great. Ms. Oldham’s paper was written for the class “From the Dark Ages to the Black Death: History of English Law.”

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians: An Analysis of Women’s Rights in Anglo-Saxon England from the Perspective of a Warrior Queen

Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of King Alfred the Great and sister of King Edward the Elder, was a heroine of Anglo-Saxon England and played a significant role in the unification of the nation. However, despite her lasting contributions to Edward’s campaigns against the Danes, the details of her life and exploits (even the year of her birth) are largely missing from the historical record.

Aethelflaed, Worcester Cathedral

Aethelflaed, Worcester Cathedral

In his twelfth-century Gesta Regum Angelorum, for example, William of Malmesbury wrote, “Aethelflaed, sister of the king and widow of Aethelred, ought not to be forgotten, as she was a powerful accession to his [Edward’s] party.”

However, the happenstance of history has ensured that her role is subject of little scholarship and review.[1] Despite this neglect, at least one modern historian has concluded that Aethelflaed “play[ed] a vital role in England during the first quarter of the tenth century.”[2] In light of her blighted reputation and the lack of historical sources concerning her, this essay examines the available record of Aethelflaed’s life in a manner that exposes the legal status of women of the time. Though Aethelflaed was royal by birth and marriage, this essay uses original sources to examine her own role in contrast to the position of the everyday Anglo-Saxon woman. Using examples from Aethelflaed’s own life, we consider how the role of one “miraculous” woman may represent the unknown achievements of less visible women.

Part I of the essay analyzes the role of family in Anglo-Saxon England and provides known biographical details about Aethelflaed’s life. Then, using those details, the essay compares Aethelflaed’s own life experiences to the laws and codes concerning women and examines the female influence on Anglo-Saxon family life. Part II scrutinizes the status of widows in Anglo-Saxon England and considers how Aethelflaed’s own widowhood acted as a catalyst for her military achievements. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Note: A Scene in the City of Oaks: Searching for Freedom after the Civil War, by G. Ward Hubbs

This post by Dr. G. Ward Hubbs is an addition to our series of Alabama book notes. Hubbs is an archivist and professor emeritus of Birmingham Southern College. He is the author of several books, including Guarding Greensboro: A Confederate Company in the Making of a Southern Community (University of Georgia Press, 2003).  In this post he sets forth the salient points of his most recent work, Searching for Freedom After the Civil War: Klansman, Carpetbagger, Scalawag, and Freedman (University of Alabama Press, 2015).

Searching for Freedom recounts the circumstances surrounding the most widely known political cartoon of the post-Civil War era, an image that is commonly found in American history textbooks today. The book presents the lives of the four individuals depicted in that cartoon as they struggled with the great issues of their times. Instead of remaining satisfied with four short biographies, however, the book reconstructs the very different notions of freedom that drove each of the characters.Searching for Freedom after the Civil War

Searching for Freedom begins with a vivid description of a hot, dusty Alabama afternoon in August 1868. That was when four individuals crossed paths in Tuscaloosa. Dr. Noah Cloud, the newly elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction, was a scalawag (a white native-born Republican) committed to establishing a public school system open to both black and white. The Reverend Arad Lakin, a Methodist minister sent to Alabama to reestablish the national Methodist Church, had recently been elected president of the University of Alabama. Raised in New York, a Union veteran, Lakin was thus a carpetbagger. The editor of the Tuskaloosa Independent Monitor, Ryland Randolph, was also the leader of the local Ku Klux Klan. And Shandy Jones, a black barber and dabbler in real estate, was the leader of the town’s freedmen. Cloud and Lakin were in the City of Oaks, as Tuscaloosa was familiarly known, to reopen the University of Alabama, which the state had been struggling to rebuild since Union cavalrymen had burned it to the ground in the last week of the Civil War. When their attempts to assume leadership of the school were rebuffed, the two turned back and returned to their homes in Montgomery and Huntsville.

Four days later Randolph’s Independent Monitor printed a brutal political cartoon. Entitled “A Prospective Scene in the ‘City of Oaks,’” the stark woodcut depicted Lakin (with the carpetbag) and Cloud hanging from the branch of an oak tree with a donkey (standing for Randolph) emblazoned with the letters “KKK” walking out from under them. Printed two months before the presidential election of 1868, “A Prospective Scene” laid out “the fate in store for those great pests of Southern society—the carpetbagger and scalawag—if found in Dixie’s land” after a Democratic president took his inaugural oath. Although not depicted in the woodcut, the extensive caption threatened Shandy Jones with lynching as well. Here in one cartoon were the four iconic characters from Reconstruction: a Klansman, carpetbagger, scalawag, and freedman.

A Prospective Scene

From the Tuskaloosa Independent Monitor

What led these four to this moment?

The Klansman Ryland Randolph (1835-1903) had an unusually disruptive upbringing, but two episodes stand out: the time he spent with his genteel agnostic uncle and the extended Caribbean tour he took with his father, a high-ranking Navy officer. The former left the young Randolph convinced that the whole idea of God was ridiculous. The latter reinforced his belief that the natural and proper station of the black race was slavery. Back in Alabama, Randolph rubbed elbows with many secessionist firebrands. His role in the Civil War was unexceptional despite serving under Nathan Bedford Forrest, who would later found the Ku Klux Klan.

The end of the fighting left Randolph without prospect or purpose. He found both when he purchased a newspaper in Tuscaloosa, which he immediately turned into a mouthpiece for opposition to social equality and the Republican Party. The newspaper’s motto, “The White Man—Right or Wrong—Still the White Man!” said it all. Every issue printed editorials urging citizens to stand up to the freed people. And Randolph did not limit his invective to print. On the streets he confronted any black man who refused to defer to a white man, and backed up his words with bullets.

Reopening the University of Alabama was a critical partisan issue, for in the hands of the university’s professors lay the state’s hopes for its future—as well as responsibility for assigning blame for the carnage of the 1860s. Cloud and Lakin embodied a nightmarish future, to Randolph’s way of thinking. Upon their arrival he summoned the Klan and published his cartoon. But Northern newspapers reprinted it by the hundreds of thousands, warning readers of what would happen if the Republicans lost the November presidential election. Democrats tried to dismiss it as a joke, but the damage had been done. The Republicans won the 1868 presidential election.

Ryland Randolph’s violent behavior in defense of former Confederates would be easy to dismiss as the unrestrained outpouring of an unprincipled racist. But Randolph’s behavior exhibited a consistency that flowed from his rejection of God and his concept of the People’s (read white people’s) freedom. Without the constraint of religious principles, he viewed the post-war as a brutal time of trials, in which freedom was the endpoint of a zero-sum game. Thus Randolph and his allies believed that they had to be ever vigilant lest their freedom be lost to usurpers. To them, that meant carpetbaggers, scalawags, and the freed people. Randolph was convinced that these opponents were trying to impose an unnatural order on the People—and he concluded that he was empowered to resist them by any means.

While Ryland Randolph was born into Southern wealth, the carpetbagger Arad Lakin (1810-1890) was born into rural poverty. And while Randolph renounced God when he came of age, Lakin embraced the Almighty. He even entered the ranks of the Methodist clergy and during the Civil War served as chaplain to an Indiana regiment.

After the war, the Bishop of Ohio (hence the “Ohio” on the carpetbag portrayed in the cartoon) sent Lakin to Alabama as a missionary for the national Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). The latter had been excluded from the state since the 1840s, when the denomination had split over slavery. He plunged into his work establishing churches all over north Alabama. His primary constituencies were the poor upland whites and the freed people—those, in other words, who had remained loyal to the Union. In the process, he became active in Republican politics.

The Ku Klux Klan targeted Lakin, not only in the political cartoon but literally. He spent months in the mountains eluding their grasp. On several occasions he barely missed being shot or captured. His long and detailed testimony before the congressional committee investigating Klan activity provides an unparalleled look at these events.

Meanwhile, Lakin’s efforts to establish a biracial MEC in Alabama met with mixed results. He did succeed in creating the Alabama Conference of the MEC in 1867. But white Methodists resisted worshipping alongside black Methodists, and the latter were increasingly drawn to all-black denominations, where they could have a stronger voice. Lakin’s funeral would be preached in a black church that he had founded

Like Randolph, Lakin was empowered by his understanding of freedom; but in this case it was Christian freedom. Protestants often trace their understanding back to Martin Luther’s 1520 essay, On the Freedom of a Christian. There Luther makes an extraordinary statement: “We are free, subject to no one; we are servants, subject to all.” Christian freedom, in other words, involves severing certain bonds—to self and material goods—and appropriating new bonds—to serve God and others. Man was born in chains—to sin—but can be freed to liberate others. Lakin’s life embodied Christian freedom.

Having earning his M.D. in Philadelphia, the scalawag Noah Cloud (1809-1875) nonetheless gave up medicine to plant cotton in east Alabama. One day he observed that his neighbor’s cotton was far superior to his own. The reason was obvious—more fertile soil—and with that, Cloud dedicated his life to promoting scientific agriculture to skeptical Southern planters.

Dr. Cloud began publishing articles and attending agricultural conventions with the fervor of a convert. He started his own journal and rose to become the South’s most renowned scientific agriculturalist. In the process, his efforts won praise from many who would become leaders in the Confederacy. Yet Cloud, a Whig, showed no signs of supporting secession. His Confederate military service consisted of being a member of a “board of examining surgeons” in Savannah.

Dr. Cloud ran for political office after Appomattox—but as a Republican. This was entirely consistent with his Whiggish background but entirely at odds with his former Democratic contemporaries. He won office as Superintendent of Public Instruction and proceeded to create a modern public school system open to all children—black as well as white. This, of course, enraged the former Confederates even more and explains why his arrival with Lakin in Tuscaloosa provoked the cartoon.

The key to understanding Dr. Cloud’s pursuit of scientific agriculture and his later entry into general education lies in his Whiggish intellectual and moral roots. Whigs believed that the educated, prepared, and self-disciplined—free individuals, in other words—could escape ignorance, hidebound habits, and the limitations of birth. Whiggish freedom is thus ordered, purposeful, and placed in our own hands. Whiggish freedom is a ceaseless task of self-creation. Whether pushing for scientific agriculture or an educational system open to all, Cloud preached freedom as liberation from the shackles of ignorance.

Born a slave but freed as a child, Shandy Jones (1816-1886) made his living as a barber, the most lucrative and prestigious profession in which free blacks in the South could engage. He did well in Tuscaloosa, not only raising a large family but amassing a great deal of wealth through real estate investments.

He remained unsatisfied. Beginning in the late 1840s, Jones became Alabama’s leading black advocate for colonization to Liberia. Liberty in Liberia: therein, he believed, lay hope. In Africa black people could create their own schools, worship in their own churches, come and go as they wished. No matter how well Jones did, he could never rest easy; for Jones represented the worst of white fears—proof that black people could, in fact, govern themselves. As such, Jones was under constant legal and social sanctions.

With the end of slavery, Jones became actively involved in founding churches and schools. He continued to support colonization, but black suffrage and the election of new Republican state officials turned his hopes to changing Alabama. He won election to the state House of Representatives from Tuscaloosa. The election of Dr. Cloud and the appointment of Lakin held special significance because the two had both the power and commitment to create biracial schools and churches, and Jones believed that his son would become the first black student at the University of Alabama—a century before that milestone would be reached. His dream quickly died as Ryland Randolph and the Klan forced Jones to flee Tuscaloosa for Mobile, where he ended his days as pastor of the Little Zion Church.

As a black man and former slave, freedom had an immediate and physical sense for Jones that the other three could only imagine. His bondage had been dictated by the color of his skin and the status of his enslaved mother; but his freedom depended on mere ink on paper. What had been given could be taken away. The possibility of its arbitrary cancellation must have hung over his head. Hence it is small wonder that Shandy Jones looked for freedom in another place, ultimately in the freedom of Hope.

The essence of Searching for Freedom can be found in the book’s last sentence: “Everyday life is saturated with ideas, values, and meaning.” Indeed, those deeply held convictions about freedom held by these everyday people, long forgotten, are with us still.

 

 

Book Note: An Appreciation of Deborah Johnson’s novel, The Secret of Magic, by Philip D. Beidler

Our readers may be aware that the University of Alabama School of Law is co-sponsor, with the American Bar Association, of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. The winner for 2015 is Deborah Johnson’s powerful and evocative novel The Secret of Magic, set in post-World War II Mississippi. The following is an appreciation of The Secret of Magic, contributed by essayist and literary critic Philip D. Beidler, who is the Margaret and William Going Professor of English at the University of Alabama.

“An Appreciation of The Secret of Magic”

Secret of Magic book cover imageAs someone whose favorite twentieth century American novelists are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zora Neale Hurston—and who themselves, to my thinking,  in The Great Gatsby and Their Eyes Were Watching God, came close to stylistic perfection—I was gripped from the first sentences onward by Deborah Johnson’s The Secret  of Magic. It was a text possessing from the outset that rare thing writers talk about—voice;  an author in command of a style; in this case not  first-person witness, as in Fitzgerald, free indirect speech, as in Hurston, or childhood  reminiscence, as in Harper Lee. Here in The Secret of Magic, we encounter the familiar omniscience of traditional realism, but with a stunning versatility—narration, description, dialogue, interior monologue, along with flashback, jump cut, interweavings of parallel texts. Altogether it makes for a completeness of what Henry James called “density of detail, solidity of specification, the air of reality”—or, to cite his fellow combatant in the realism wars, W.D. Howells, the world brought back to us “in faithful effigy.”

One more invocation, perhaps the most relevant here, might be Conrad. The task of fiction, he famously once said, was “to make you see.” Accordingly, from the beginning, for all its commingled sadness and horror, Johnson’s narrative makes a claim that the reader must not be allowed to look away.  A black, highly decorated World War II lieutenant returning in uniform to his home in the fictional town of Revere, Mississippi, is dragged off a bus at the Alabama Mississippi state line, for refusing to give up his seat to a while German prisoner from a nearby internment camp, and savagely beaten to death. A young, black, female civil rights lawyer from New York is summoned to investigate the circumstances of the crime and its quick dismissal in the local courts. The author of the invitation is an aging, eccentric, white aristocrat famous for a best-seller about the childhood adventures of white and black playmates that has made her a cult author in literary circles and a political pariah banned in her own state.

Johnson’s book, meanwhile, reveals its own literary ambitions as a classic of current stylistics and textual practice. In an old phrase from high-school English, one might begin by calling it a roman a clef—a novel with a key. Thurgood Marshall is a major character. Mary Pickett Calhoun, private, reclusive author of the original Secret of Magic, bears more than an occasional resemblance to Nelle Harper Lee. The young female attorney is modeled on the pioneering Civil Rights figure Constance Baker Motley. The murder of a decorated black veteran is based on an actual incident. As to technical sophistication, this adds up to something more like what we would now call a nonfiction novel. There are imaginary conversations, out-of-life adventures, a complex dramatic structure. Meanwhile this is all combined with what is frequently called magical realism or literary metafiction. Most important is the plot whereby the titular book The Secret of Magic, by Mary Pickett Calhoun, has set the larger novel we are reading, Deborah Johnson’s The Secret of Magic, in motion. The two books then weave in and out of each other until seamlessly converging at the conclusion.

Further, this is no trick of postmodern grandstanding. This is the work of an author of intense literary authority, and of intense moral authority. I could not help thinking, as I read of Peach, Willie Willie, Mr. Lemon, and the children of the Magnolia Forest, of Toni Morison in Song of Solomon. with Milkman, Guitar, Pilate, Hagar, and the old legends of the flying Africans. On a more direct note, I thought of the blood-chilling bus trip with which the novel opens: Tuscaloosa, Gordo, Ethelsville, westward into the Tombigbee towns of Mississippi. I have traveled that road all my adult life. But I never managed to realize as a white person from outside the South  just how god forsaken it could be for a black person in the pre-Civil Rights era—or the standard post World War II southern town, the white gentry, the ancient black retainers, the sheriff, the judge, the lawyers, the feral, knuckle-dragging courthouse idlers. I had suspicioned what it was like from Harper Lee, Scout, Jem, Dill, Calpurnia, Atticus, Tom Robinson, and the Ewells and the Cunninghams. I had tried to imagine it on many trips to Maycomb/Monroeville. I had wondered. Now I felt it. Deborah Johnson had made palpable the hatred and the silent terror—the dread undertone of what Houston Baker has called the Long Black Song.

Guest Contributor: Professor Sally E. Hadden’s “The Many Meanings of Magna Carta”

It is with great pleasure that we post an entry from a distinguished guest contributor and a good friend of Litera Scripta, Sally E. Hadden, of Western Michigan University. Magna Carta is a foundation stone of our legal culture, and to celebrate its 800th Anniversary we are proud to include the following essay.

Magna Carta

Illluminated initial ‘H'(enricus) at the beginning of the Magna Carta confirmed by Henry III. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Although jewelry is not something we immediately associate with law or history, the older a legal document like the Magna Carta becomes, the more it seems to resemble a pearl. Pearls begin as insignificant sand on an ocean floor, then quite by accident (or in the case of cultured pearls, quite on purpose) a grain of sand will become lodged inside a living animal—an oyster. Sand is an irritant, even for an oyster, and to rid itself of the rough edges and uneven edges found on a grain of sand, an oyster will secrete fluid that engulfs the grain of sand, gradually making it round with softened curves that the oyster then goes on living with, sometimes for decades. The pearl is an unintended by-product of what began life as an unwanted, unlooked-for irritant, thrust into the oyster, and initially, the oyster would have expelled the sand if it were at all possible. Once a fisherman finds this oyster and opens it, years or decades later, the shell and husk are no longer vital: the pearl is of greater value than the organism that once gave it birth.  Read the rest of this entry »