Oct82009

“Yielding to the Expressed Will of the Community”

Nestled among the freeze-fires, soggy cypress swamps, and cracker comedy of Cross Creek, chapter 16 lurks like a sociological snake in the brush. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Baskin dubbed it Black Shadows. In my Simon and Schuster edition, it announces itself with a pencil sketch of one caricatured black man shooting another in gut with a rifle. (If you ever get a chance to see it, note the lips.) A well-dressed woman, presumably Marjorie, looks on with a hand pressed against her cheek in a statement of Oh My-ness. Palm fronds form the backdrop.

Here’s how Marjorie opened the chapter:

“I am not of the race of southerners who claim to understand the Negro. There are a few platitudes dear to the hearts of these that seem reasonably accurate. The Negro is just a child. The Negro is carefree and gay. The Negro is religious in an amusing way. The Negro is a congenital liar. There is no dependence to be put in the best of them.

“Back of these superficial truths lies the mystery of the primitive African nature, subjected precipitously first to slavery and then to so-called civilization, the one as difficult and unjust as the other. The Negro today is paid instead of being rationed. He is left to shift for himself for the most part instead of being cared for. In the south his wages are a scandal and there is no hope of racial development until racial economics are adjusted. Meantime, he continues to be, ostensibly, childish, carefree, religious, untruthful and unreliable. Back of it all is a defense mechanism as ingrained as the color of his skin. He could adopt himself to the injustice of his position and to the master of the white race only by being childish, carefree, religious, untruthful, and unreliable.

“The prettier side of the picture does indeed lie in the possibility of real affection between individuals of the two races, conditioned by the fact that one is master, and the other, for all of Lincoln, still a slave. The servant has two weapons. He can make life not worth living for his employer. And he can walk out. When a southern Negro uses neither of the two, it is likely to mean, not necessarily that he is well treated, but that he is truly attached to master or mistress. And he can feel an actual love, and yet make life miserable or walk out. Therein lies his unpredictability, and beyond the half-truth of its fact is a mental and emotional turmoil past the comprehension of the most old-school southern aristocrat who ever slurred his witticisms over a mint julep.

“I have made one grave mistake in dealing with Negroes at the grove. I have expected that, given justice and kindness, a reasonable attitude toward their problems, and wages higher than the customary ones, they could carry considerable responsibility and learn o discipline themselves. I should have known better. I should have understood that only in rare instances can a Negro work for long on his own initiative. For long years since actual slavery he has been told what to do and what not to do. He has used his little time of freedom to cut loose, to escape for the moment the lowliness and the poverty and the puzzle of living. Left to himself to work toward an unseen goal without jurisdiction or direction, no matter how reliable ordinarily, he realizes suddenly, not that he has responsibilities, but that he is free, he is on his own, and he pounces without warrant on that freedom as though it were already the Saturday night he had earned. I do not blame Kate and Raymond for going wild. I blame myself for asking of them what most of us manage so painfully and so inadequately for ourselves.”

Well, that leaves us with quite a bit to unpack, doesn’t it? For now, let’s just note that Marjorie, in her way, anguished about the “Negro question” throughout her public life. She considered herself enlightened, if ultimately timid. She considered herself an ally in the pre-civil rights era effort to make daily life better for “the negro.” And she considered this passage, despite the casual brutality of phrases like “religious in an amusing way,” a sympathetic and intellectually rigorous analysis.

And it clearly was perceived as such by the guardians of the day’s intellectual discourse.

“It’s hard to see how anyone can read Cross Creek without pleasure amounting to glee,” reads a blurb on the back cover of my copy of the book. It’s from The Atlantic Monthly, the very apotheosis of American public intellectualism for more than 150 years. It’s the same magazine that now hosts – among others — blogger/reporter/commentators Andrew Sullivan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, two stars of the relatively meritocratic blogosphere. Though it unfairly limits both men to sum them up this way, Sullivan is a proudly gay, small-c conservative, and Coates is a recovering black nationalist and civil war nerd, who loves World of Warcraft and Mad Men.

Marjorie’s pop racial sociology and the Atlantic’s heft-conferring blurb highlight the radical evolution of the standards for what public intellectuals find culturally acceptable to say and write. They underscore just how long ago 1942 really was, considering it as a time only six decades removed from Barack Obama’s election.

Within the Black Shadows chapter itself, Marjorie’s voice of God introduction serves as the launching point for accounts of her ill-fated personal involvement in a pair of “negro” triangles. The first involved husband and wife Kate and Raymond, along with an unnamed sweetheart. In Marjorie’s telling, she left Kate – the maid – and Raymond – the grove man – to tend her home and property while she left for a few weeks to write in North Carolina. When she returned, the place was a disaster because Kate and Raymond had used their freedom and Marjorie’s money to party. Kate blamed it on Raymond and took on the “sweetheart” as a replacement. But after another weekend in which the quality of servitude went to squat, it all came to a head. Marjorie’s brother, rendered as a truly obnoxious, prissy martinet, decided Marjorie was in danger and led her on an armed assault of the tenant cottage. Said Marjorie’s brother: “I’ve seen what you have to put up with. We’re going over to the tenant house and run that black ape off.”

They found Kate, Raymond, and the sweetheart recovering after some revelry. Hilarity ensued.

The other triangle led to the shooting depicted in the drawing. This time the characters are: Adrenna – the maid who replaced Kate; Samson – Adrenna’s “lordly” husband, who replaced Raymond as grove man; and Henry — the popular husband to one of Adrenna’s sister Sissie. For reasons that remain unclear, Henry, whom everybody at the Creek liked, shot Samson during an installment of an ongoing feud. Marjorie speculated that Adrenna, whom she described as a hypersexual flirt, set the two men upon one another. In the end, Samson lived, and a judge dropped charges against Henry.

Why? Writes Marjorie: “Old Boss [Henry’s Cross Creek employer] had gone to the judge, a lifelong friend, and told him, simply, that Henry was his man and he wanted him released. The judge released him.”

Marjorie objected and swore out a warrant against Henry, whom she acknowledged liking better than the “lordly” Samson. “But justice was justice,” she wrote, “and whether or not we loved Henry and could not love Samson, I decided that justice should prevail.”

That abstraction could not survive trial by reality, and Marjorie caved in the face of unanimous disapproval from Creek society, black and white. During a pre-trial hearing, she testified that she had no knowledge of what happened to Henry, and the case was formally dismissed for lack of evidence. The defense attorney for Henry was none other than Sigsbee Scruggs, the flamboyant country lawyer Marjorie eventually hired to help Phil May defend her during the Cross Creek trial.

Marjorie’s full account of Henry, Samson, and Adrenna is well worth reading. It’s complex and human, the best vignette in the book, for my money. It’s the account of her acquiescence in a reverse lynching, a fact I feel certain Marjorie recognized as she wrote. When the law, in practice, recognizes one man as someone else’s man, subject to extra-legal protection, it doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the extra-legal “justice” that it might permit in the case of a less likeable and useful subject. A mob is a mob, whether it flogs a person, or frees him because he’s useful.

The same mob that freed Henry is the same mob that assured no black man or woman in 1943 Florida could think about suing Marjorie Rawlings for invading their privacy in Cross Creek, as she did repeatedly, in far more personally offensive descriptions than anything Zelma Cason endured. Indeed, J.V. Walton, while questioning Zelma during the trial, asked her pointedly if she’d heard if negroes – as opposed to white people – had gossiped and laughed about her portrayal in Cross Creek. Such a thing was humiliating to the highest degree.

Yet the legal status of blacks, and how Marjorie recognized, lamented, and yet submitted to its logical outcomes, provided for probably the most epic exchange of the trial, when J.V. read aloud to Marjorie passages from Black Shadows on cross examination and challenged her handling of the two incidents she documented – and her decision to write them at all. I’m sure history contains other incidences of a writer testifying in defense of the quality and morality of his or her own writing. But I’m not aware of any. What follows is the entire Black Shadows exchange, as recorded in the court transcript:

JV: [Reading from the Black Shadows chapter] ‘My man’ whom I was covering found his pants. I kept my head turned away from him and my revolver leveled in his general direction. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the pants ascending with the jerky motion of a broken escalator. Raymond had given up. He lay prone with closed eyes , waiting for Nemesis to descend as it willed. [Marjorie’s brother] Arthur waved the Winchester rifle under his nose and shouted, ‘Get up!’ Raymond was past getting up. I do not think he even heard him. Kate left off her whirling and begged, ‘Raymond honey, the man gwine kill you where you lay. Get up, honey!’ Raymond opened one eye, groaned, and closed it again. Arthur pranced to the bed and reached in with one of his long arms and heaved Raymond to his feet. ‘Keep your man covered! I’m taking care of this one.’ ‘My man’ was trembling against the wall. Love nor money could not have made him stir. Kate rushed to cover Raymond’s nakedness. ‘Put somethin’ over you, honey,’ she crooned. Raymond fumbled for the sheet and held it hopefully behind his back. ‘In the front,’ Kate moaned . ‘Honey – in the front.’ I made the mental note that, passing sweetheart or not, Raymond was her true love. For an instant, I planned our future together. Raymond would be back, chastened and capable, the sweetheart would slink on his way, I should never again ask of them more than they could do, and life at the Creek would go on smoothly and better than ever before. Then I knew that something was finished.”

Marjorie: You made a mistake. You said, “better than ever before.” It is “better than before”.

JV: [continuing] “Then I knew that something was finished. One’s relations with Negroes are like love affairs. When they end, they end. Kate packed their suitcase and flanked by lover and husband, set out down the road toward town in her flannel nightgown.” Now Mrs. Rawlings, why is that episode, why is that placed in this book?

Mar: Why is it placed in there?

JV: Written in there.

Mar.: Because it is a part of life at Cross Creek and sometimes quite typical, and because I think it very funny.

JV: It is typical of what, conduct of negroes, or your experiences?

Mar.: Conduct of some negroes at some times.

JV: Have you ever known any other white woman at night to break into, with a brother, or with a husband, with a man, break into a negroe’s house?

Mar.: It was my house, my castle.

JV: Don’t you think it was improper — ?

Mar.: I don’t think so, when they left my house in the mess they had.

JV: Did you realize that that was an unlawful act in going there in the nighttime with these guns and breaking into their house?

Mar.: It could not possibly be. It was my own house, and they didn’t even pay rent.

JV: They were living there?

Mar.: Yes, but it was my house. They didn’t pay rent. They had no right there longer than I chose to have them there.

JV: And the proper way, even in the middle of the night?

Mar.: I wrote later that I didn’t consider it proper, but there was no moment to explain to my brother who thought I was in peril because it had been so long since he was associated with negroes that he thought it was something that could be handled very simply.

JV: I bring this up here again to find out just what is your attitude toward law.

Mar.: I think you will find few more law abiding citizens than I am.

JV: In this particular episode –?

Mar.: May I inquire what is the law when you own the tenant house on your own property and the negroes are working for you and you pay them their weekly wages and they pay no rent on the house?

JV: And you provide them the house to live in?

Mar.: Yes. I mean what is the law?

JV: I would say the law is –.

Phil May: Your honor please, I think this has gone too far and it is obviously argument and I object.

JV: It is the witness’ question he is objecting to.

Judge Murphree: I think we have this backwards.

Mar.: May I inquire of your Honor, I ask in all sincerity what is the law in a case like this?

Judge Murphree: Maybe you would like to finish one subject.

JV: I don’t mind stopping if your Honor wants to answer that question.

Judge Murphree: Suppose you answer it.

JV: My conception of the law is that when people are furnished a house to live in that house becomes their castle.

JV: [Resuming questioning of Marjorie] Did you consider the negroes at all?

Mar.: I did, as I wrote, but my brother simply became unduly alarmed for me and was protecting what he thought was the very life of his sister.

JV: But you could have stopped your brother, couldn’t you?

Mar.: No; he was taking care of me, so he thought.

JV: Did he force you to accompany him?

Mar.: Oh, yes.

JV: On page 199, at the bottom of the page: “Henry’s trial came off as a great farce as great a farce as could come before a court of justice. I had decided what I must do, for peace at the Creek is a vital matter. In a private courtroom, the judge called us to order. Henry was represented by the lawyer [Scruggs]. There was no prosecuting attorney at all, the judge announcing that he would act in that capacity. I was the first witness called, and the entire population of Cross Creek leaned forward in its seats, and may God forgive me, I said blandly that my testimony was of no value, as I had not been present when the shooting occurred and had my evidence only from hearsay. A long breath of relief filled the courtroom. The Lawyer stared at me. He called his witnesses. The testimony was completely irrelevant. Bernie Bass, a satellite at the moment of Tom Glisson, stood up blithely to say that he had com down the road in time to hear Henry beg piteously of Samson, “Don’t you come any closer.” Tom Glisson took the occasion to express, with no bearing on the case, his low and suspicious opinion of Adrenna”

Now, when you said, “May God forgive me, I said blandly that my testimony was of no value,” was that true?

Mar.: It was true. My testimony was of no value. The point was that I could have forced the whole thing to a different type of hearing and just messed everybody up all over again. As I said, the whole thing was farce. Everybody concerned in it was being perfectly absurd. But it was perfectly true, my testimony was of no value. When I said, “May God forgive me” I felt that the trial itself did not do justice, because in the strictest ethics I should probably have forced that trial to take place in a different way.

JV: What different way?

Mar.: Any different way.

JV: You had taken out that warrant, had you not?

Mar.: Yes.

JV: Was it true that all you learned was from hearsay?

Mar.: Oh, yes, I wasn’t there; I was over, I remember definitely, at Daytona Beach.

JV: What caused the “long breath of relief” to fill the courtroom?

Mar.: Because everybody wanted to get it settled in the simplest way so that normal relations would be resumed and nobody wanted the trouble to be prolonged, as it would have done if everybody had gone to bat on it and fought back and forth and so on. I was yielding to the expressed will of the community.

Yielding to the expressed will of the community. Remember that phrase as we move forward in this project.

I mentioned in my introduction post the Battle of Palatka, J.V. Walton’s fight with the Klan and its sympathizing mobs that reached its climax in 1926. I know much more about it now than I did a few weeks ago. On Sept. 14, 1926, Florida Governor John W. Martin threatened to declare martial law in Putnam County if Sheriff R.J. Hancock did not “put down the mob rule declared to exist in his territory,” according to an account in the Gainesville Sun, which ran under the headline “Martin Threatens Drastic Measures Putnam Mob Rule.” Of course, a problem, as I’ll document, was that R.J. Hancock and his top deputies were neck deep in the mob violence themselves.

“Governor Martin,” read the Sun story, “in announcing that he had asked the sheriff and mayor to come to Tallahassee for [a] conference, stated that he had found in [State Attorney] Adkins’ records evidence that 63 floggings had been perpetuated during the last year, with one to five each Saturday night. ‘Two cold blooded murders’ had been committed, he said, and white women beaten.”

The murders occurred in mid-August. Willie Steen and Ed Chisholm had driven to a wooded area just west of Palatka, not far from where my high school girlfriend lived decades later, to find “Teetsie” Pinckney, a “notorious” negro woman, according to one Palatka paper. Pinckney apparently dealt in liquor in prohibition-era Palatka. For her sins, she was abducted by a masked mob from her home in “colored quarters,” along with some guy who just happened to be there. They were driven to remote spot and beaten severely. Pinckney’s son Steen, nephew Chisholm, and a few other companions located Pinckney and the other man and loaded them into a car, bound for the Lawson hospital for colored. On their way back into town, on one of Putnam County’s main highways, a car full of masked men stopped Steen and Chisholm, got out, and opened fire on the unarmed men and women. Steen and Chisholm were killed and several other men apparently wounded.

In one of life’s profound coincidences, Sheriff Hancock, who just happened to be driving an employee home in the middle of the night, discovered the shot up car 15 minutes after the shooting, or so the local newspapers, those great institutional checks on power run amok, informed the public.

These killings sparked the state attorney’s investigation that led to Martin’s statement.

I’m in possession of an unsigned copy of a letter, sent in 1927, by a group of Palatka businessmen, urging the governor to follow through on his strong words.

It opens like this:

“You may recall the occasion of our visit to you in Tallahassee in company with J.V. Walton about a week after Mrs. Casad, a white woman of this city, was whipped by a masked band. As we stated to you then, the purpose of our taking the time from our respective businesses was solely to try and better intolerable conditions existing in this county. To that time, there had been over 50 whippings of citizens of this county, women and men, both white and black. There had been two murders and two incendiary fires and not an arrest. We told you that it was commonly rumored on the street that W.I. Minton, Chief Deputy Sheriff, was reputed to be the whipping boss and asked you to cause his removal from the office as such Deputy.”

The letter later states: “[J.V. Walton] has been fighting this lawlessness openly and fearlessly without fee or thought of reward, as you know from his visits and statements to you.”

We’re going to delve much farther into the Battle of Palatka. In fact, it’s become more than the theme I first envisioned. I now see it as an equal historical event to the Cross Creek trial, with J.V. and Kate Walton, and their silence, as the key link between the two.

But for now, it’s important to understand that when J.V. Walton questioned Marjorie 30 years after the Battle of Palatka, the savage consequences of “yielding to the expressed will of the community” would not have been an abstraction to him.

Between 1919 and 1923, would-be lynch mobs attacked the Palatka jail three times with the intent of killing black suspects. Three times, Sheriff P.W. “Pete” Hagan and others repulsed the mobs. The last time, the mob of about 15 men from a state road crew left dozens of bullet holes in the outside of the jail, as well as one each in Hagan’s left hand and the nightgown of his wife, who had slept with him at the jail. She escaped unharmed. The mob eventually withdrew.

J.V. Walton represented at least one of the black men who would have been lynched and overturned his conviction on a Florida Supreme Court appeal by proving he shot a train conductor in self defense. I have reason to believe he helped Hagan, who was a close political ally, fight off that particular lynch mob, but I can’t confirm it yet. In any event, despite – or perhaps because of – his bravery and sheer badassness, Pete Hagan, was narrowly defeated in the 1924 sheriff’s election by R.J. Hancock.

Less than two years before, on June 9, 1922, the Ku Klux Klan had initiated 30 men into its ranks during a ceremony at the local baseball stadium, which we now call the Azalea Bowl. It still stands and is maybe the prettiest high school baseball setting in Florida. Babe Ruth once patrolled its outfield during offseason exhibition games. Less importantly, I played third base there for Palatka High School between 1987 and 1990. I had no idea that 65 years before, the “whipping boss” W.I. Minton, Hancock’s chief deputy, prowled across the same infield for a more sinister purpose. As a charter member of the Putnam Klan, he wore a slightly different uniform than I did.

Later, in February of 1924, two Gainesville men thought to belong to the Klan abducted a popular Catholic priest affiliated with the University of Florida in Gainesville, brought him to Palatka, beat him severely, castrated him, and dumped him on the steps of St. Monica’s Catholic Church, where we held the funeral for my grandmother – J.V.’s youngest daughter – just a few weeks ago.

In 1926 and early 1927, the full Klan and Klan-sympathizer violence was unleashed on Palatka and Putnam County, ostensibly in the service of promoting civic virtue and enforcing prohibition. In addition to the multi-racial floggings and the Steen/Chisholm murders, a young white man of “good family” was gunned down on a fancy Palatka street. One of his friends, a young lawyer, was found shot to death, body bound and dumped in the Oklawaha River, a few weeks later. Both had odd ties to bootlegging, according to the local papers. And one deputy shot and killed an “insane negro” inside his jail cell after the man attacked W.I. Minton, our “whipping boss” chief deputy, according to a newspaper account.

This doesn’t count the run of the mill street violence, which seemed to pervade much of Florida in 1926. Palatka’s population during this time was about 5,000. The larger county reached about 17,000, roughly split between black and white. This was Tombstone with oranges, where people could be killed or beaten at any time for racial, economic, or moral reasons, and their families had little hope of recourse. Anyone who thinks we were civilized in the good old days is delusional and intellectually lazy.

In any event, not yielding to the will of the expressed will of the community, fighting lawlessness “openly and fearlessly” in 1926 Palatka, meant something.

Compare that with Marjorie’s writings, especially her letters, collected in a pair of wonderful books edited by Illinois State University English professor Rodger L. Tarr. I think Marjorie is something of a genius letter-writer, prolific in the extreme. And she lays herself remarkably bare in many of the letters, particularly those addressed to her husband, Norton Baskin, while her served in World War II. Her frankess isn’t always flattering.

Consider this letter from Marjorie to Baskin, dated April 16, 1944, concerning the famous Florida politician Claude Pepper:

“I have been a Claude Pepper supporter, in spite of his patent demagoguery, for the reason that he has taken a courageous stand on many unpopular questions. Well, the Supreme Court of the United States, as I think I wrote you, ruled that Negroes must not only be allowed to vote, but to vote if they wished, in the Democratic primaries. It created a terrific stir in the South, and there were threats from various quarters, and Claude, who is being hard pushed for re-election to the Senate, came out with the statement that Florida would find a way “to maintain white supremacy.” Probably Claude’s opponents are as great demagogues as he, but I mean to investigate. Actually, I think that once Claude was safely in again, he would be liberal, for he always has been, and has fought the poll tax laws. He is fighting for his political life – and of course I am being just as cowardly, in holding my horses on the Negro question until the lawsuit is settled.” [Emphasis mine]

And this there’s this jewel from a Marjorie letter to Max Perkins, the Scribner’s uber-editor who handled Marjorie’s books, as well as Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. He was sort of the Harvey Weinstein of his day. Marjorie and Perkins maintained a long-running and warm correspondence. But she wrote to him exactly once about the lawsuit, shortly after she won the trial in 1946. She felt understandably triumphant. And she exulted over the exchange concerning Black Shadows, while managing not to acknowledge what it concerned.

“One of the most amusing incidents of the trial, to me, was when Zelma’s lawyer was cross-examining me. I could see the petty pit-falls he was trying to lay and could anticipate him. He had asked me an inane question, and I said, ‘Now do you mean so and so, for the answer in that case would be one thing, or do you mean thus and so, in which the answer would be quite different,’ and so on. He floundered around, and Phil May jumped up and said, ‘Mr. Walton, you don’t have to answer her question. She has no right to ask you questions.’ The courtroom and the judge all but had hysterics.”

And what was the “inane” question J.V. Walton asked, which Marjorie could mock, but not remember, when writing to her eminent mentor?

Did you realize that that was an unlawful act in going there in the nighttime with these guns and breaking into [the negroes] house?

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