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.
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. 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.” 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.
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 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.
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.
This post represents the second installment in a new category that we hope will be an occasional feature of our blog. Posts in this category will feature materials that are unique in some way, perhaps through ownership, creative attachment or insertion of documents, or other unusual items. Our previous post, “Next to His Bible”: John Randolph Griffin’s copy of the Louisiana Civil Code was the inspiration for this category that we have titled, Preserved in Amber. Our current post features an interesting small collection that is described by Hudson Cheshire, a 2017 J.D. candidate at the University of Alabama School of Law.
Ephemera from an 1898 Congressional Campaign
The topic of this post is a recently acquired collection that offers a glimpse into the life of a small town politician in early 20th century Alabama. The collection includes a copy of Alabama Reports Volume XXVII (the Alabama Supreme Court cases argued in the June term of 1855), and three documents that were laid within its pages. Two of the documents are laundry receipts for one Samuel Blackwell. The third is a notice for a series of events where Blackwell would be speaking in his 1898 campaign for Congress.
Samuel Blackwell, the subject of the laundry receipts and political flyer, lived from 1848 to 1918 and is buried in the Decatur City Cemetery. While history has relegated Blackwell to obscurity, the sparse documents that remain suggest a man of relative political success in his place and time.
Blackwell began his career in public service early, enlisting in the Confederate Army at fourteen years old. By his fifteenth birthday, he was a prisoner of war in Camp Douglass, a large Union prisoner camp in Chicago. Years later, as the Morgan County delegate for the Constitutional Convention of 1901, Blackwell recounted a comrade’s sardonic description of the conditions at Camp Douglass: “We slept until after breakfast, skipped dinner, and went to bed before supper.” [Journal of the Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Alabama, 1901, 3025].
A document from 1903 indicates that Blackwell served at least one term as mayor of New Decatur in the early twentieth century and in the 1910-1912 Biennial Report of the Attorney General of Alabama, Samuel Blackwell is listed as the Solicitor for the Morgan County Law and Equity Court. Perhaps the only lasting glimpse into Blackwell’s perspective comes from his words at the 1901 Constitutional Convention, preserved in the Official Proceedings. Describing the Convention’s atmosphere of pessimism regarding the voting capacity of the general population, historian Sheldon Hackney quotes Blackwell saying, “nature has marked the weak and incompetent to be protected by Government, rather than to be the directors of the Government.” [Populism to Progressivism in Alabama, 196].
Had Blackwell been successful in his 1898 campaign for Congress, he would have been better remembered in Alabama history. Nevertheless, available records merit the assumption that Blackwell was an influential political figure at the turn of the century, if only in his own small corner of the world.
Hudson Cheshire, Research Assistant, Bounds Law Library
Born in Andalusia, Alabama, in 1930, Justice Hugh Maddox has enjoyed a remarkable career. He graduated in Journalism from the University of Alabama in 1952, having been a writer, columnist, and an associate editor of the Crimson White, after which he served two years in the Air Force before coming here to Law School. Having graduated from law school in 1957, he began a legal career which included clerkships for Judge Aubrey Cates of the Alabama Court of Appeals and Judge Frank M. Johnson of the United States Court for the Middle District of Alabama. Interestingly, he later (1964-1969) served as an advisor to Governors George C. Wallace, Lurleen B. Wallace, and Albert P. Brewer. Subsequently he served (1969-2001) as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama.
In the early 1970s, Maddox read books and told stories to his little daughter Jane. She liked his stories, so he decided to write and illustrate one for her. The subject that he chose, “crop diversification,” may not be an obvious choice for a child’s book. But Maddox was trying to dramatize a turning point of twentieth-century Alabama history, and he would do so by following the path blazed by Aesop’s talking animals. The artwork was no problem for Maddox, who had long enjoyed drawing and painting, and was known to keep India ink, a pen, and clean paper in his office.
The result, first published in 1976, was Billy Boll Weevil: A Pest Becomes a Hero. The text and drawings follow Billy in his quest to make friends with a farm family. We meet Billy’s grandfather and other creatures, including a kindly bee who tells Billy to “Do something good” for the farmer. Of course Billy and his kindred can’t very well stop feeding on cotton plants—a collective appetite which had brought the south’s economy to the verge of collapse in the early twentieth century. So instead Billy follows the bee’s suggestion and tells the farmer to start planting peanuts. The farmer takes the hint. Before long Billy is a hero, and the local people have put up a monument to him (as indeed happened in 1919 in Enterprise, Alabama).
Not many writers have made use of talking insects—apart from Lewis Carroll, who employed an articulate caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a melancholy gnat in Through the Looking Glass. Maddox pulls it off by keeping his dialogue simple, almost formulaic. “When you write children’s books,” he once said, “you’ve got to put yourself back in a child’s position.” Thus, as Montgomery Advertiser reporter Kelly Dowe observed of Billy: “He cries when he is sad. He runs when he is afraid.”
Justice Maddox has reissued Billy Boll Weevil twice (1994 and 2013), recently including information on the National Peanut Festival and on the life and work of Dr. George Washington Carver, the brilliant Tuskegee University researcher who persuasively argued for crop diversification (especially peanut cultivation) in the south.
Finally, it may not be amiss to note that the Boll Weevil is portrayed in regional folk culture in a way that echoes some of Billy’s concerns. One version of “The Boll Weevil Song” has the singer state that “The first time I saw the boll weevil/He was sitting on a square./The next time I saw the boll weevil/He had all his family there./ They were lookin’ for a home,/Just lookin’ for a home.”
Starting with this post, Litera Scripta will occasionally display images of some of the Bounds Law Library’s more unusual books. Several of these will be chosen for the revealing or insightful inscriptions they bear. These inscriptions may have been written to increase the book’s usefulness, or to complete some thought called forth, or in one case, to predict the inscriber’s future while playing a joke on future readers. Other posts will feature notable bindings, illustrations, interleavings, or insertions.
Certainly this post displays unusual elements of binding. The book is Thomas Gibbes Morgan, editor and compiler, Civil Code of the State of Louisiana: With the Statutory Amendments, from 1825 to 1853, Inclusive. . . (New Orleans: J.B. Steel, 1857). Bounds’ copy contains many annotations, some in pencil and some in an ink that has turned brown and in some instances has deteriorated on the page. The rear pastedown contains the following inscription: “John Randolph Griffin-Esq. Bellevue, La. He carried this through the war with him. Claimed this to be next to his Bible.”
According to one source, Griffin was born in Georgia in 1835, graduated from the University of Alabama in 1858 (second in his class), and moved to Bossier Parish, Louisiana, in 1859. He was elected to the Louisiana State Legislature in time to serve as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs during the war. He died in San Antonio, Texas, in 1873. See Joiner, No Pardons to Ask, No Apologies to Make: The Journal of William Henry King, Gray’s 28th Louisiana Infantry Regiment (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), 262 n. 5.
Interesting as these features are, this book’s obvious point of interest is the slip cover that has been fashioned to cover the original calf boards and spine. At some point, the front board became detached, and some innovative person made a slip cover from bed ticking material, complete with ties that very much appear to have been intended as mattress straps.
The covering fabric is faded and dirty, and the stitching is crude but effective. The quality of the work may indicate some facility with sewing or upholstering, but it is impossible to say when the work was done.
The Knights Templar was a secret religious order established in 1119-1120 in the aftermath of the First Crusade and officially acknowledged by the Roman Catholic Church in 1129. The order was established to ensure the safety of Western pilgrims to the Holy Land; but its military successes, the prowess of its warriors, and eventually, the banking services it provided made it influential in Western Europe and within the Church. Over the centuries, rumors have swirled about the Templars and the great wealth that they acquired. In particular, they were thought to have discovered and protected the legendary treasures of Christianity: the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, pieces of the True Cross, and other relics. Such tales have inspired many conspiracy theories about the Order, including Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and Dan Brown’s cult phenomenon The Da Vinci Code.
What happened to the Order?
Once the Holy Land finally fell to the Muslims in the late 13th century, Papal and royal support for the Order declined. The Templars had become increasingly powerful as property owners and bankers to the kings and nobility of Europe. Likewise, rumors about the secret and possibly heretical rituals of the Order circulated throughout Europe until Pope Clement V ordered all European monarchs to arrest the Knights and seize Templar assets in 1307. Scores of Templar knights were tortured, forcing them to admit, often falsely, to heretical behavior. Pressured by King Philip of France, who was heavily in debt to the Templars, Pope Clement dissolved the Order in 1312.
How is it perceived now?
Although the Order was dissolved by the Church and vilified by all Western monarchies in the 14th century, the Knights Templar has survived to this day in other forms. Most notably, the York Rite of the Order of the Knights Templar remains an important adjunct of Freemasonry in both America and Western Europe. In the nineteenth century the Masons established Templar orders in almost every American state and held both national and local conventions. The rituals of the medieval Knights Templar are preserved as Masonic rituals and are described with great detail in Freemason ritual books. The Order continues to be a great philanthropic society in the United States.
In Great Britain, the Templar aura lives in the education of lawyers. Two of the four Inns of Court in England are the Inner Temple and Middle Temple—named for the Templar buildings in which these Inns are housed. Scores of students have and continue to study in these Inns and remain members—Templars—as they begin their law careers. Even some of the authors of the U.S. Constitution were educated in these Inns, inspiring them to form American counterparts to the British Inns of Court.
Internationally, the Sovereign Military Order of the Temple of Jerusalem (not affiliated with Masonic Templars) has recently achieved NGO status from the United Nations as a charitable organization.
In 2001, a document was found in the Vatican Secret Archives; incorrectly filed, it had lain undiscovered for centuries. It provided evidence that Pope Clement had absolved the Templars of heresy in 1308—four years before excommunicating them under French pressure. The Vatican published this discovery—known as the Chinon document—in October 2007. Thus the Church now maintains that the 14th century persecution of the Knights Templar was unjust. The Order was not heretical in any way, but was dissolved for political reasons.
The Knights Templar is represented in the Bounds Law Library’s collections mostly in the form of nineteenth and early twentieth century Masonic materials. Many rituals of the medieval order are depicted—often in great detail—in these works. Selections from our collection include manuals, bylaws, rituals, an “Authentic Account of the Imprisonment, Torture, and Martyrdom of Free Masons and Knights Templars…,” as well as an 1861 Alabama legislative act incorporating the Grand Commandery of Knights Templar. The exhibit also features an original document; a 1911 certificate of knighthood from the Grand Commandery of the state of Tennessee.
The Bounds Law Library’s Templar exhibit is located in the John C. Payne Special Collections Reading Room and we welcome visitors during regular Special Collections hours. Chainmail coif, swords, and shields must be checked at the circulation desk!
Legislative Act Incorporating Knights Templar, Acts of Alabama, 1861
Report of the Triennial Committee, Boston, 1895
Bookplate signed by Samuel Lawrence, Chairman of the Triennial Committee.
Samuel Lawrence, Chairman of the Triennial Committee
Detail, Report of the Triennial Committee, Boston, 1895
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”
As 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.
Following significant renovations this summer, the Hugo Black Study at the Bounds Law Library has reopened to visitors. The exhibit, which is a replica of Justice Black’s Alexandria Virginia study, underwent improvements including repainting, a new ceiling, and redesigned lighting. The study contains contents and furnishings donated by Mrs. Elizabeth Black and more than one thousand volumes belonging to Justice Black that were transferred to the law school by the Supreme Court Library in 1983. As United States senator and supreme court justice, Black collected the works of his favorite authors and accumulated an impressive number of volumes on law, history, philosophy, and other topics. He underlined and annotated many of his books, making them a unique source of insight into his thoughts and opinions.
The collection is located in room 211 of the Bounds Law Library and is available to scholars by appointment, and the public is invited to view the study during regular library hours.
The University of Alabama Law Library Special Collections recently received a collection of maps acquired by Special Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Cohen during and after litigation of the Alabama and Mississippi Boundary Case [470 U.S. 93 (1985)]. This case was initiated in 1979 by Alabama Attorney General Charles Graddick, who was aided by a team that included then-Assistant Attorney General Mark Brandon, now Dean of the University of Alabama School of Law. The Alabama Attorney General’s office joined with its counterparts in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Florida to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on the status of the “Mississippi Sound”—a much-navigated waterway running just off the coastline of these states. The states wanted the Sound classified as an inland waterway, thereby granting to each ownership of a share of the submerged lands. With ownership would come the right to regulate access to the petroleum and other mineral deposits under the Sound. Constitutionally, the matter fell under the original jurisdiction of the U.S. Supreme Court, and in the printed briefs it is identified as “No. 9, Original.” The Court appointed a Special Master to hear the case; he delivered his findings in 1984. The Special Master found “that the whole of Mississippi Sound qualifies as a historic bay under the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. . . and thus constitutes inland waters.” Both the states and the U.S. Government filed exceptions to the Special Master’s report; Benjamin Cohen argued the case for Alabama in November 1984. In February 1985 the Court ruled in favor of the Special Master’s report, overruling the federal government’s exceptions.
1. Jeffery’s American Atlas. London, 1800;
Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library
2. Neueste Karte von Alabama. Meyer’s-Hand Atlas of 1845
3. Alabama. New York: J.H. Colton & Co., 1853
4. Alabama. New York: J.H. Colton & Co., 1855
5. Gray’s New Map of Alabama. Philadelphia: O.W. Gray & Son, 1878
6. County Map of Florida. Philadelphia: S. Augustus Mitchell, 1878
7. Alabama. Edinburgh: A.&C. Black, 1879
8. South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas. Philadelphia: S. Augustus Mitchell, c. 1880
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.
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.