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Up from the Black Patch
IT WAS JANUARY 1956. As T. R. M. Howard looked back, he had many reasons to feel a sense of pride. He was one of the wealthiest blacks in Mississippi, had treated thousands of patients as chief surgeon in two of the state's largest black hospitals, and had won election to the presidency of the National Medical Association, the leading black medical society in the United States. His national reputation as a civil rights leader seemed secure. As the founder of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, he had mentored an emerging generation of activists, including Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer. In September 1955, Howard had played a pivotal role finding witnesses and evidence in the Emmett Till murder case. At the beginning of 1956, his prospects for a greater future on the national stage looked bright. The Chicago Defender had just ranked him first in its annual honor roll.
At age forty-seven, Howard had risen far from his humble origins living in abject rural poverty amid pervasive racial violence. These characteristics set him apart from most of his approximate peers in age and prominence on the national civil rights scene just before the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. They were far more likely to come from middle-class and urban backgrounds. He was born as Theodore Roosevelt Howard on March 2, 1908, in Murray, Calloway County, Kentucky. His parents were Arthur Howard and Mary Chandler Howard. Like their parents before them, they were unskilled tobacco-factory workers. As an article in Howard's college paper later stated, Arthur, inspired by a "spirit of patriotism," had insisted that their first child be named after President Roosevelt. It proved an apt choice, for Theodore's life would often mirror that of his famous namesake.
The Howards had lived for decades in the Black Patch area of western Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee, so named because of the highly prized olive-colored dark-leaf tobacco grown there. They initially labored to grow the crop but later worked in the factories to refine it for chewing purposes. The Black Patch had cast its lot with the Confederacy and segregation was rigid. In the Tennessee portion, blacks almost completely lost the franchise after Reconstruction, but in Kentucky they continued to vote, usually for Republicans, and to serve on juries. But these rights were tenuous and circumscribed by whites, who voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
The Howards originally hailed from Henry County, Tennessee, just south of Calloway County. Theodore's paternal grandfather, Richard Howard, was born a slave in 1863 or 1864. In common with most blacks in the region, he never advanced beyond the economic margins of society. Like his wife, Mary Lassiter Howard, he could neither read nor write. Her father, Andrew Lassiter, was about twenty years old when the Civil War ended. He was Theodore's most direct link to slavery. Theodore may have had Lassiter in mind when he later referred to a story from his "grandfather" who "just before the Civil War ... had begun to 'feel something.' It was something that works just like religion. He didn't explain what it was, but he said, 'There was something in there that made me feel the war would soon be over and I would soon be free.'"
In 1907 Arthur Howard, then only seventeen, married Mary Chandler, who was a year younger. Like the Howards, the Chandlers had an uninterrupted family history of grim poverty and backbreaking toil. Mary's father, Henry Chandler, was born in May 1865, only a month after Robert E. Lee's surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. He left the farm to be a laborer in a nearby tobacco factory, a typical occupation for blacks in Murray. His wife, Almeda, was a washerwoman in a private home. She was the first of Howard's known ancestors to read and write. Like their parents, Arthur and Mary drifted into semiurban unskilled labor. Arthur secured employment as a twister of chewing tobacco in a factory in Murray, but he may have supplemented the family income through moonshining. Roughly one-third of the town's 2,139 inhabitants were black in 1910, a proportion much higher than the county average.
Mary Howard brought her son Theodore into the world at a time when tensions in Murray were especially high. The year 1908 was probably the most violent in the town's history. As the tobacco wars encroached on Calloway County, locals felt compelled to choose sides. The trouble had started after 1904 when leading Black Patch farmers formed the Planter's Protective Association. The goal was to counter the buying power of the big tobacco companies by pooling their crops in association-owned warehouses. By selling collectively, they hoped to get a higher price than what the tobacco trust usually paid. Within a year, seven out of ten farmers in the Black Patch pledged their crops to the association. But even this level of cooperation did not bring enough market control to determine the price. Independent growers throttled the association's plan by continuing to sell at lower prices directly to the companies. In 1905, frustrated by the failure to establish a cartel to oppose the big companies through voluntary cooperation, some members of the association turned to terror by forming the Night Riders.
Hooded and prowling by night, the Night Riders terrorized all those who did not toe the line for the Planter's Protective Association. Night Riders traveled in mounted patrols that burned crops, warehouses, and factories, destroyed seedbeds, and, in some cases, committed murder. For a brief period, race was not an issue and some black farmers even joined the association. This changed as resentment mounted against the big companies who flaunted "racial etiquette" by purchasing tobacco from blacks at lower prices. The association discovered that blacks might be convenient scapegoats to hide its failure to coerce independent growers. By 1907 many Night Riders in western Kentucky went on a rampage, determined to drive out black farmers. An incidental goal was to make a killing of another sort by snatching up abandoned black property at bargain rates. In desperation, Governor Augustus E. Willson took measures to enforce law and order. He went so far as to take the serious step of announcing his intention to pardon individuals who shot Night Riders.
At the beginning of 1908, the epidemic of violence edged perilously close to Murray. In February and March, whites inspired by the Night Riders attacked blacks in Marshall County (bordering Calloway on the north). Local blacks pleaded in vain for legal protection as they bore the brunt of a sustained campaign to expel them. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported: "encouraged by the failure of the Marshall County officials to prosecute whitecaps who have warned and whipped blacks, 100 men rode into Birmingham on March 8, and shot seven men and whipped five others." Blacks fought back — killing three assailants — but this provided only a temporary respite. Overwhelmed by superior numbers, they began to flee. The black population in Marshall County plummeted from 348 in 1900 to 135 in 1910. Less than three weeks after the attacks, the Night Riders lynched a black farmer in Trigg County (just east of Calloway) on the pretext that he packed tobacco for a big company.
One day after Howard was born, the press reported that the first "real night riders have appeared in Calloway county" and were intimidating independent growers and burning barns. A few tried to scare blacks into leaving Murray. The attackers played on white fears that blacks, who had begun to move into white neighborhoods, were "getting out of their place." Violence escalated later in March when more than two hundred masked Night Riders assembled in the eastern part of the county in preparation for a direct assault on Murray. They called it off only after hearing that citizens were carrying guns and determined to resist. On April 2, County Judge A. J. G. Wells of Murray, the nemesis of the Night Riders, warned that he had "direct information from the riders themselves that before the moon changes, they will swoop down on Murray and burn property and beat her citizens and continue to beat and bruise the farmers over the county." Although the announced targets were prominent buyers and bankers, Murray's five hundred or so blacks had every reason to expect an orgy of racial slaughter.
The planned sack of Murray fell apart after the arrival of a detachment of state troops, sent by the governor. This time the Night Riders had gone too far: law-and-order forces in Murray, backed by the governor, rounded up most of the ringleaders. Despite this, a local observer commented that "hardly a farmer comes to town without being heavily armed, and the sale of pistols, rifles and shotguns by local merchants recently has been unprecedented. Many women, also, are armed, practically every housewife has a rifle handy." After a mysterious fire destroyed several stores, the city council passed a law allowing citizens to shoot on sight any suspected Night Riders. The Night Riders were a spent force by the end of 1908. In their wake, they had left a trail of death and destruction, marking these years as the bloodiest in Kentucky since the Civil War.
While the demise of the Night Riders gave some breathing space to the Howards and other blacks, the violence of 1908 left a lasting imprint on Murray's black community. The younger generation, brought up on stories of the Night Riders, embraced armed self-defense. During the 1890s, the famous anti-lynch activist Ida B. Wells had highlighted how blacks in Paducah had successfully used guns to ward off racist attacks. In comments that would have resonated with blacks in Murray, she recommended that "a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. ... The more the Afro American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched."
For young Theodore, however, the most immediate physical threat was in his own home. Jealousy, fear, and violence had tainted the Howard marriage almost from the beginning. Arthur beat his young wife repeatedly and, on at least one occasion, broke open her lip with his fists. Mary left Arthur for good in December 1910 after he threw a smoothing iron at her that, had it hit with full force, could have killed her. When her father, Henry Chandler, testified at the divorce hearing, he described his son-in-law as a man of "quick and ill temper. Get mad at nothing. He's got a temper like this: He don't want his wife to go nowhere nor say nothing to nobody nor speak to nobody, and do just as he says all the time."
Although Arthur stayed in the community for several more years, he did not show up at the hearing when the judge granted a divorce. Mary and three-year-old Theodore moved in with her parents. Her life took a happy turn when, in 1913, she married Morris Palmer who, like her previous husband, worked in a tobacco factory. They had six children together. Morris was apparently a hard worker and good husband and was respected in the community. The marriage brought her young son some stability.
The poverty of Theodore's childhood was typical of blacks in the area. Almost no middle class existed among them. The vast majority rented their shacks and toiled in unskilled occupations, mostly in the tobacco industry. The family subsisted on a regular diet of biscuits and little else. If any meat was available, the eldest child ate first. Theodore was expected to contribute to the meager family budget and was resourceful in turning up ways to make money. He shined shoes, sold newspapers, and perfected his hunting skills. He later recalled that when he was ten his mother gave him twenty cents each Sunday to buy four shotgun shells. Her instructions were to return with either two rabbits, two squirrels, or one of each for the family table. She warned him not to waste shells on quail because "there wasn't enough meat on 'em."
Theodore grew up in the close-knit black neighborhood of "Pooltown," derisively nicknamed "Darktown" by local whites. It was also home to his great-grandfather, and four grandparents. He was particularly close to Almeda Chandler, his maternal grandmother, who had helped to raise him after the divorce. She imparted a sense of history and nurtured his prodigious work ethic. In later years, he often referred to her high expectations and encouragement. The annual Emancipation Day festivities in August reinforced the traditions instilled by Theodore's family and community. Blacks throughout the region flocked to the annual celebration in Paducah. There they heard speeches about their history, feasted on picnic lunches, and participated in sporting contests. Reflecting the stereotypes of the period, the Paducah Evening Sun reported in 1913, "several thousand dusky celebrators of Emancipation Day invaded Paducah today for their annual joy-making. ... At least eighty coaches filled with Negroes from Western Kentucky and Tennessee were brought to the city."
Although Emancipation Day was a reminder of liberation and opportunity, whites never let Theodore forget that he was a second-class citizen. Black people had more rights in Murray than in Mississippi or Alabama, but they still were subject to Jim Crow. Theodore attended the Murray Colored School, later called the Douglass School. Despite poor facilities, including weathered, hand-me-down textbooks, the black teachers often boasted a better record in attendance and enrollment than their white counterparts. The fact that blacks in Kentucky continued to vote, occasionally served in Republican conventions, and sometimes tipped the scales in close elections gave some solace. Even so, they took care not to give whites a pretext to use the specter of "Negro domination" against them.
The color line was somewhat more permeable in the tobacco factories where Howard's parents and grandparents worked. His grandfather, Henry Chandler, eventually rose to the job of classer. His duties were to assess the quality of the tobacco product for later sale — a task rarely entrusted to blacks. But Chandler always had to be on guard. In 1910, for example, white workers at the Griffin and Pitts tobacco factory in Murray went on strike after management hired a black classer. The white classers refused to work with him. Their immediate subordinates, four black rousters, in turn, vowed not to perform their duties. In an open letter, six of the striking white classers took special note of the "impudence of these four negro rousters" and angrily reminded their employers "that 95 per cent of the tobacco deliverd [sic] to this firm is raised by the sweat and toil of the Anglo Saxon."
Racial violence was the most terrifying reminder of white supremacy. Whites lynched fifty-four blacks in Kentucky between 1900 and 1919. The Murray Ledger, published by Night-Rider sympathizer O. J. Jennings, added fuel to the fire. Its news coverage was racist, even for western Kentucky. The stories ranged from condescending to inflammatory. The double standard was all too evident in its coverage of a twenty-year prison sentence for a white man who killed a "negro wench." With obvious disgust, an article called it one of the "severest sentences ever given by a Calloway county jury" for a white killing a black person. When the Ledger reported killings of blacks by other blacks, the general approach was to make light of the circumstances with such headlines as "Another Negro Emancipated" and "Another Murray Coon Is Dead."
In 1916, the Murray Ledger reprinted an unusually long story about a nightmarish double lynching that took place in broad daylight in neighboring McCracken County. The events were of more than passing local interest because one of those lynched was Brack Kenley, a native of Murray who had moved to Paducah but occasionally returned to take part in bootlegging. The authorities in Paducah had locked him up on a charge of violent "criminal assault" (which seems to have included alleged rape) of a white woman who lived on a farm. An enraged mob, identified as Illinois Central Railroad employees, broke into the jail with sledgehammers and crowbars and marched Kenley two miles to the alleged victim's house, where she identified him as the culprit.
As they prepared to string him up to a tree, Kenley's cousin drew a pistol and threatened to shoot into the crowd, now numbering as many as ten thousand. The mob proceeded to hang him as well: "Both bodies were riddled with bullets from the pistols of the enraged members of the mob, a fire built under the negroes and their bodies burned to ashes. Then the mob disbursed [sic], leaving the charred remains of the two negroes to the solitary buzzard, which slowly circled above the grewsome scene." When the flames died down, spectators picked over the bone fragments and other remains for souvenirs. The Louisville Courier-Journal called this "exhibition of bestiality too disgusting to be described adequately. ... Everyone knew the possibility of it happening in Paducah was great, yet no effort was made to take the prisoner out of danger or to offer real protection. Those features make the degradation of Paducah complete." Blacks in Paducah did not react passively. At least fifty attempted to purchase guns and ammunition from local hardware stores after news reached them about the lynching. Several weeks later, a grand jury adjourned without an indictment when more than one hundred witnesses pled ignorance when asked to name members of the mob.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "T. R. M. Howard"
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Table of Contents
FOREWORD / Jerry W. Mitchell Acknowledgments Introduction
- Up from The Black Patch
- The Education of a “Race Man”
- Fraternalist, Entrepreneur, Planter, And Segregation-Era Pragmatist
- A “Modern Moses” For Civil Rights in Mississippi
- “The Most Hated, And Best Loved, Man in Mississippi
- “Hell to Pay in Mississippi” / The Murder of Emmett Till
- “Time Bomb” / Howard, J. Edgar Hoover, And the Emmett Till Mystery
- Taking on The Machine in Chicago / A Republican Campaign for Congress
- Triumph and Tragedy / The Friendship Medical Center