Category: The Battle for Palatka

Jan192010

Chapter 1, Scene 1

This the first draft of the first section of the first chapter of my book. I envision three sections to the first chapter, which will set up the parallel narratives of the trial and Battle of Palatka. Here we go.

The drinking mob made a racket as it surged down North Third Street toward the swamp and the river. Bloodhounds bayed. Men shouted. Lanterns swayed back and forth on their metal handles, creaking and clanking as they moved past increasingly neglected carriage steps that lined the brick street in one of 1926 Palatka’s most affluent neighborhoods.

The lights were out in the Brown House, the two-story, dark-shingled Walton family home. Its silhouette commanded the large swampy lot at the northern end of Third Street, a few hundred yards from the St. Johns River.

The approaching commotion roused Judge Vertrees (J.V.) Walton from uneasy sleep. From the bay window of his second-floor bedroom, which looked south, J.V. could see the lights and the outlines of the men approaching in the dark.

So, this was it. Minton and the Ku Kluxers, or their minions, or some combination, were coming. Time to make his long-imagined stand. In truth, the moment suited the apocalyptic streak of his personality, long frustrated in its longing to go to war.

By now, his wife Sophie was up. As J.V. calmly, but quickly, opened the gun cabinet by his bed, he sent Sophie to rouse their four girls and take them at the bottom of curved staircase on the western side of the house. J.V. took one loaded shotgun and leaned it against the ledge of the window. He took another and held it across his chest, left hand under the barrel. The Brown House was, and remains, set back from the street. To get near anywhere near the house or one of its doors, the mob would need to cross at least a hundred yards of flat open yard. In doing so, some large percentage of them would die.

J.V. stood in the window and waited, his one-piece nightshirt flapping around his knees, slippers covering his feet.

“Katie.” J.V. heard his wife call out the name. And a second later, in strode his 13-year-old daughter, Kate Lee Walton, named for J.V.’s mother and the Confederate hero, who was a distant cousin, just as he was to every other white family in the south.

Katie carried the dark wooden bow she and older sister Sophie, named for her mother, had made that summer at a camp in the mountain of Vermont. Long and sleek, elegantly arched, the bow, unstrung, still exists. It sits in a closet under the same staircase in the Brown House. The twine of its grip still feels rough to the touch. From tip to tip, it’s much taller than Kate Walton would have been in 1926. If you had a string and an arrow, you could still kill a man with it.

As Kate Walton rushed to stand next to her father, the bow was strung and an arrow notched. Others were stuck in a quiver, slung across her shoulder. By now the mob was less than 100 yards from the driveway that marked the near edge of the Walton property.

“Katie, take Lois downstairs.” Lois, J.V.’s youngest daughter, had followed her other sister and stood in the doorway of the bedroom.

“No, Daddy, I want to stay with you.”

“No. Go downstairs. Now.”

Kate slumped her shoulders and looked back at 8-year old Lois, who would become my grandmother some decades later. And then she looked at J.V.

“But…”

“Now.”

Kate obeyed, reluctantly, and turned away from the window.

“Come on, Lois.” As she walked away, J.V. raised the shotgun and pointed it out of the window into the night.

Their mother met the girls in the upstairs hallway and led them back to the staircase, where Sophie and Mary, the fourth sister, waited. The elder Sophie left them all there and ran to front of the southern wall of the house, to the door that looked out on the men as they approached.

The mob spilled across the driveway, into the yard, following the bloodhounds on a path that would take them away from the street toward the eastern side of the house, and what was considered the back yard, which abutted the thickest part of the swamp and would flood with river water during hurricanes or strong Nor’easters.

Maybe J.V. asked himself why a band of unhooded Ku Kluxers would need bloodhounds to mount an assault on one the city’s most prominent residences. Or maybe he heard what Sophie heard downstairs, as the men seemed to gather and hesitate as before moving deeper into the Walton property.

“If we’re going to come on to Judge Walton’s property, then we better tell him what we’re doing here,” said one of them.

Rather than fire, J.V. shouted from the dark bedroom. “I will kill the next man who takes step in my yard.”

Heads turned to the bay window. Arms sprung upward. Pistols dropped, thudding into the ground. “Wait.” “Hold on.” The shouts for calm came in a chorus. “We’re not here for you, Judge,” one of them said. It was the Palatka Police Chief Cole Tavell. “We’re just chasing a nigger convict that got free of Cannon.”

Will Cannon, a Putnam County sheriff’s deputy, known widely as one of Minton’s Ku Klux whipping underbosses, looked at the chief and then up at J.V., but said nothing. “He got away from the jail, and Cannon got some boys together to track him. I joined them up the road a bit. It’s my town to police, after all. I apologize for not wearing a uniform.”

“That’s a good way to get killed, Chief,” said J.V., with the shotgun leveled. “You think he ran down into the swamp?”

“Yes, sir,” said the chief. “You didn’t hear anything, I suppose?”

“No, we didn’t.”

The chief gestured downward with his hands. “Judge, do you mind not pointing that at us? We’re not here to do you any harm. I’m sorry if we woke you and Mrs. Walton and the girls.”

By this time, Sophie had stepped outside with her arms crossed, watching the men silently. “Good evening, Mrs. Walton,” the chief said.

“Good night, Chief.”

Finally, Cannon spoke up, a sense formal aggravation creeping into his tone. “Judge, we need to find that prisoner. Can we follow the trail down into your swamp?”

“No, sir. You cannot.”

“Judge, this is sheriff’s office business. Law enforcement business. We have the right…”

“No, sir. You may go around my property. You will leave it now.”

The chief put up his hand to quiet Cannon before he could protest. “Will, that boy is long since gone. He came through two hours ago or more. We can’t track him down in that muck and brush anyway. He’ll resurface at some juke and get picked up. Then he’ll be all yours again.”

Cannon said nothing, but seemed to accept it. He looked up at J.V. and nodded.

“All right, boys,” said Chief Tavell. “Let’s let these good people get back to sleep.”

And with that they departed, and J.V. put away his weapons.

——–

I’ve heard some version of this story, laundered by family pride and myth, all my life: Great-granddaddy’s lonely, armed defense of his home and family from avenging Klansmen, who turned out not be, or at least not acting in that capacity at that time. The definitions blur.

In any event, what you just read is true, to a point.

I created it from the conflicting memories of old women approaching death, from touchable artifacts, from readable letters and newspapers, from inferences drawn from other people’s historical research. And from the inescapable point-of-view of proud great-grandson and loving grand-nephew grandson.

This is how narratives form and harden. I’ve just created entities called Will Cannon and Walter I. Minton, real men, with real records on census forms and court papers, with living descendents, presumably. I’ve made them Klan members and purveyors of racial, cultural, and political violence. I’ve given one of them a voice. And you’ll hear much more from the other.

I have good justification.

Ku Klan Klan historian David Chalmers identifies the outbreak of Klan and mob violence in1926 Palatka as the most severe in Florida history. We know that on Sept. 13 or 14, 1926, Florida Gov. John Martin summoned the Palatka mayor and Putnam County sheriff to Tallahassee and threatened to declare martial law if the mob violence did not stop. It was the first major anti-klan intervention by a Democratic Florida state politician. We know that the Putnam Klan’s charter named Minton as the chapter’s Kludd, or chaplain. And we know that a letter sent to Martin from Palatka businessmen named Minton the “whipping boss” and linked him and Cannon, both active sheriff’s deputies, to numerous extra-legal floggings of citizens black and white, male and female.

The same letter says this about J.V. Walton. “He has been fighting this lawlessness openly and fearlessly without fee or thought of reward, as you know from his visits and statements to you.”

But then there’s everything we don’t know, or even have accounts for. I don’t know the exact date, although the Vermont trip places it later than the summer of 1926. I don’t know that the convict escaped from Will Cannon. I don’t even suspect it. I don’t know how many men made up the mob or the types of weapons they carried. Were Cannon or the police chief there? Impossible to know. I invented the dialogue, except for “I will kill the next man who takes a step in my yard,” which my grandmother Lois recalled clearly.

“I remember that because I was so impressed. I thought it was a good thing to say,” she told me in May of 2009.

In truth, virtually that entire scene emerges from my imagination. I picked the heroes and villains, the quick-witted and the dull. I can call it history, non-fiction, fiction, even a memoir of sorts, from five decades before I was born. And you are powerless to prove me wrong.

You won’t find a detailed account of Florida’s worst outbreak of Klan violence, nor of Gov. Martin’s politically brave intervention, urged on by J.V. Walton. A thorough state attorney’s investigation – also the first of its kind in Florida – documented more than 70 extra-legal floggings and two murders. Martin refers to it in news stories from the time period. But the investigation itself has disappeared to history. And Martin’s act, the biggest story in Florida at its time, is largely forgotten. Why? Three days after a massive hurricane destroyed the port of Miami, killing hundreds, accelerating the collapse of the first Florida land boom, and essentially marking the early onset of the Great Depression in Florida.

One of my favorite modern writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote not too long ago: “The writer is a species of God–they create our world. There will always be limits on what we can experience and truly understand. We turn to writers to fill in the gaps. I trust, for instance, that India exists, but what I know of it has largely been shaped by what other writers have told me. I have never stepped on the soil of Africa (even if I had, that wouldn’t be enough) and what I think of the continent is shaped by what’s been written. Malcolm X is real, and Spiderman is not. Both are products of writing, and frankly, I’m at pains to tell you which of the two had a larger influence on my life.”

The Battle of Palatka, a multi-year economic and social struggle culminating in the 1926 eruption, doesn’t exist in history because no species of god ever created it.

Dec52009

Harassing Railroad Companies Seems To Run In The Family

I spent a not-small-enough portion of my Thanksgiving break rummaging through ancient, partially dry-rotted legal files stored in a small trailer on my aunt’s property in Palatka. Among the dregs of JV and Kate Walton’s my legal career, I was looking for files related to the Cross Creek Trial and Battle for Palatka. This was researching with accountability. I never knew which file would fall open to reveal superroaches, otherwise known as palmetto bugs, large enough to bark. I think the CDC could trace the balky throat I brought home and have carried around this week directly to the toxic air inside the trailer.

Anyway, one of the files I found both relates this blog, and, in a way, to another endlessly rewarding family project: annoying predatory railroad companies. And I want to note it today in honor of the deeply entertaining special rail session of the Florida Legislature currently underway. Here’s a bit of an explanation, from my previous career, of why rail issues interest me.

Anyway, in the summer of 1929, JV Walton sued the Florida East Coast Railway Company for $50,000 over the misconduct of a private law enforcement contractor named Walter I. Minton. (See, Blackwater is heir to a long tradition.) As one of the documents I found in the file stated stated: “Perhaps a majority of the great transportation companies have special agents or detectives whose duties include the apprehension of all persons who have committed crimes by which the property of the corporation has been embezzled, stolen, or destroyed, or its interests otherwise prejudiced…” Minton was one of them.

It turns out that Minton in 1929 wrongly arrested someone on behalf of FEC. After the charges were thrown out, that man, D.C. Jameson, hired JV Walton to sue Minton and FEC for malicious prosecution. Minton is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Between 1924 and 1928, he served as chief deputy of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. He was also one of 13 men listed with on the charter of Putnam County chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, which came into existence on Jan. 12, 1921. Minton’s title within the chapter was “Kludd,” which meant chaplain, according to David M. Chalmers, author of the magisterial Klan history, “Hooded Americanism.” For what it’s worth, Chalmers also writes that “…the major outbreak of reported Klan violence [in Florida] took place in Putnam County, west of St. Augustine.” He’s talking about the mayhem of 1926-1928, the precise period and incidents I’m researching now. A letter I have from the time fingers Minton, while actively serving as chief deputy to Sheriff R.J. Hancock, as the leader of Klan pogroms in Putnam. That makes him perhaps Florida’s most consequential Klan member, and arguably, one of the great undocumented villains of our state’s history.

Which is why it should surprise no one that a railroad hired him to do dirty work after Hancock lost the 1928 election–and that Minton quickly got the railroad in trouble by abusing his authority. I don’t know the actual outcome of the suit, which lumbered on until at least the late 30s. It looks as though FEC may have outlasted it and gotten it dismissed, but I’m not sure. The file appears incomplete. But it does include a letter referring to a separate case against FEC, in which a jury returned JV’s client a verdict of $22,500 in a 1930 wrongful death trial, “where a woman was killed while riding as a passenger on the railroad.” Not bad money in the middle of the Depression, I suspect. Man, FEC must have hated JV–and lawyers generally.

Fast forward 79 years, and the often sold FEC is still a major figure in Florida’s freight rail industrial complex. It played a significant–if somewhat forgotten–role in the grand rail plans DOT and Jeb Bush’s buddies pursued in 2005-06 and that Lindsay Peterson and I wrote about in 2007. The CSX portion of that plan is, of course, still roiling Florida politics as we speak. Legal liability questions and dirty trial lawyers have helped thwart CSX’s control of rail policy in the state for a couple of years running. I must confess that the thought of my dirty trial lawyer great grandfather exacting his own ounce of flesh from Big Rail all those decades ago makes me smile.

Nov112009

For Veterans’ Day

The following two newspaper notes appeared almost next to one another in the same Aug. 9, 1918 edition of the Palatka Times-Herald:

Negro Registrants Given Big Send Off Sunday

Sunday afternoon at 5 o’clock the colored registrants under the last orders entrained for Camp Devens, Mass., to enter upon training for service. About 150 men from all parts of the county reported. An immense crowd, both whites and colored, assembled and gave the departing soldiers to be rousing send off.

Lieut. Walton Heard From.

Letters received from Lieut. W. N. Walton — in France — one written before he was injured and the other sent from the hospital where he is convalescing satisfactorily– give information of interest. He writes that he was wounded by a shell exploding within a few feet of where he was standing. Seven bits of shrapnel struck him, inflicting painful wounds, all of which have healed, however, save one on the right foot. His host of friends trust to soon note his complete restoration to his usual good health.

Lt. Walton was J.V.’s brother, my great, great uncle. You’ll notice that he was deemed worthy of more space than the 150 black men sent off to war by an apparently integrated crowd. In 1917, as Paul Ortiz documents in “Emancipation Betrayed,” blacks in Putnam County outregistered whites in Putnam County 341 to 254. That does not even count the 150-250 blacks (I haven’t been able to settle on precise numbers) who enlisted in 1918, the group noted in the paper above. Bottom line, blacks in Putnam County were twice as patriotic, per capita, as their white counterparts in the World War I era.

Remember that when hear Sarah Palin or Pat Buchanan or whoever else talk about who the real Americans are and were.

Oct112009

Homicide Rate in 1926 Putnam County Worse Than 2008 Detroit

How violent was Putnam County, Florida, of which Palatka is the county seat, in 1926?

The most conservative possible count of Putnam homicides in 1926 puts the county’s rate at about 41 per 100,000 population. For comparison, poor, beleaguered Detroit led the US in homicide rate in 2008 with 37.4 per 100,000 of population. The genteel south, indeed.

I’ve gleaned these numbers from reports in the Palatka Times-Herald, the weekly newspaper of the day. An Oct. 8, 1926, story previewing the fall court session for Putnam County cites defendants in four Putnam killings as awaiting trial in the session. The killings occurred between April and September. I know of at least three other murders that occurred in 1926 that didn’t yield arrests by the fall term. Putnam’s population in 1926 was about 17,000. Seven murders in 17,000 population translates to 41 per 100,000 in my calculations. I feel relatively certain that there were more killings earlier in 1926, but I haven’t been able to scour the record yet to find them.

The Times-Herald declared in its Oct. 8 story, “The greatest number of murder cases in the history of Putnam County will be investigated by the grand jury during the fall term of the court.”

For what it’s worth, J.V. Walton successfully defended two of the accused in one of the murders tried during this fall term.

When you couple this appalling homicide rate with the mob/klan violence that exploded each weekend during the year, you begin to sense what a terrifying period this must have been. And it wasn’t just Palatka.

On Aug. 12, 1926, Florida Gov. John Martin appeared before the Gainesville Kiwanis Club and lamented Florida’s record of violence.

Here’s an excerpt from the Gainesville Sun account:

“Let us put a stop to the taking of human life in our fair state,” Governor Martin said. “Let us create a feeling of abhorrence against homicide. Here is a challenge worth of the attention of every law abiding and law loving citizen.”

The governor referred to the fact that he has recently returned from the the conference of governors of the various states held this year in Wyoming, and that while a this conference the governor of Maine had declared that in that state there have been no murders during this year. [ed-Remember, there were at least seven in Putnam County alone in 1926]

“That s a remarkable record the stat of Maine has made,” Governor Martin asserted, “and our record does not compare favorably with it. During the next few months I am going to try to arouse the people of this state to their duty in this matter.”

If I accomplish nothing else with this project, I want to disabuse anyone who reads of the notion that somehow our ancestors lived by codes of honor and decency that exceeded our own, that the civilizations they built were more humane or orderly or noble. They were not. They were subject to all the same base human instincts and fallibilities that Detroit struggles with today.

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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