My wife and I met and married in 1990. We lived in Louisville until 1998 when we moved to Grayson County. Our son Logan was in first grade, and daughter Julie was in kindergarten.
In Louisville, we lived in a house in a nice, suburban middle-class neighborhood. There were apartment buildings across the street, and kids from the apartments sometimes came over and played with our kids. Two such kids were Shanise and Denise.
Shanise was rather quiet and reserved; Denise was more vivacious and outgoing. I usually came home from work around 4:30 or 5. When the weather was fair, I usually sat outside on the patio and had a drink or two while my wife prepared supper.
Ever so quietly and stealthily, Denise would open the metal gate to the patio, sneak up behind me, and shout “Boo!” I always jumped out of my skin. Even when I watched for her, Denise always managed to take me by surprise. And she always thought it was uproariously funny.
Their mother Flo was a very Christian woman, and she raised “the girls” to be very Christian, too. One time when the kids were playing, our daughter Julie said a cussword. “What did you say?” Denise asked loudly, righteously. “Your mother ought to wash your mouth out.” (I thought it was funny — a little Baptist girl correcting our little pagan child.)
After we moved here, we kept in touch with Flo and “the girls” with Christmas cards and phone calls. Sometimes we visited when we were back in Louisville. (They had moved from the apartments to a house.) Repeatedly we invited them to visit, promising them a nice picnic by Nolin Lake. Flo was normally a friendly, happy person. But whenever I invited them to visit, Flo became somber and unhappy. “Oh, no — I don’t ever want to go back,” she said, her face and voice filled with dread and dismay.
I’ll mention quickly here and now that Flo and the girls are Black.
100 Years from Mississippi is an award-winning documentary film that tells the story of Mamie Lang Kirkland. In 1915, Mamie was just seven years old when her father came home and said the family had to flee Ellisville, Mississippi. A lynch mob was after him and his friend, John Hartfield.
Mamie, her family, and John Hartfield escaped to East St. Louis, Illinois where, from July 1 through July 3, 1917, rampaging whites hunted and killed Blacks. The official death toll was 39 Blacks and 9 whites; many believe more than 100 Blacks were killed.
In 1919, John Hartfield returned to Ellisville to visit his white girlfriend, Ruth Meeks. White men accused Hartfield of raping Meeks, claiming she was 18, when in fact she was in her mid-twenties. Hartfield eluded a lynch mob and bloodhounds for weeks. When he was finally captured, he was badly beaten and shot. A doctor kept him alive overnight so he could be hanged the next day.
Several newspapers, including The Jackson Daily News and the New Orleans States, ran headlines to announce the lynching: “John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville mob at 5:00 this afternoon.” A jubilant crowd of 10,000 people gathered to watch the premeditated murder. While Hartfield was hanging, more than 2,000 bullets were fired into his body. The corpse was then cut up for souvenirs, and commemorative postcards were sold far and wide.
Governor Theodore Bilbo was petitioned before Hartfield’s lynching, but he refused to intervene. After the lynching, Bilbo declared: “This is a white man’s country, and any dream on the part of the Negro race to share social and political equity will be shattered in the end.”
For many years, Mamie Kirkland’s filmmaker son, Tarabu Kirkland, urged his mother to return to Mississippi. Like my friend Flo, Mamie’s replies were always emphatically No. “I don’t even want to see it on a map,” said Mamie. Or, “What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”
Finally in 2016, at the age of 107, Mamie returned to Mississippi with her son. “I left Mississippi a scared little girl of seven years old. Now I’m 107, and I’m not frightened anymore.”
Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, a human-rights advocacy group, commented: “She [Mamie] can articulate every aspect of what it means to be a human being who has survived terrorism and segregation and bigotry and bias — and yet has this hope, this joy, this love, this light.”
As a writer and a person, I am always naturally curious — especially about the “why” of things. Repeatedly I asked our friend Flo why she adamantly refused to visit us here in Grayson County. Eventually I learned that Flo was born and raised near Central City in Muhlenberg County. She said the words “Central City” as if they were something smelly she had stepped in.
I can’t find much about the history of Blacks in Central City. On November 12, 1914, a white man named Henry Allen was lynched in Muhlenberg County, supposedly by a mob of regulators with whom he had had a falling out. A University of Richmond website states: “By 1890 Kentucky had become increasingly lawless and lesser organizations connected to the Ku Klux Klan carried out frequent acts of violence throughout Kentucky. These groups were known as ‘Regulators.’ ”
If regulators would lynch one of their own in Muhlenberg County, it probably wasn’t a safe and friendly place for African Americans. Just 50 miles away in Grayson County, a mob of masked men lynched Joe Richardson the year before in September 1913.
Flo and her family left Muhlenberg County when she was young. Some settled in Louisville, and some moved to Chicago.
According to the National Archives: “The Great Migration was one of the largest movements of people in United States history. Approximately six million Black people moved from the American South to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states roughly from the 1910s until the 1970s. The driving force behind the mass movement was to escape racial violence, pursue economic and educational opportunities, and obtain freedom from the oppression of Jim Crow.”
In 2016, the homeownership rate for Blacks was just 46.4%, compared to 75.8% for white families. In 2016, white families posted the highest median family wealth at $171,000, while Black families had a median family wealth of just $17,600.
That isn’t because Blacks are lazy or stupid or inferior. It’s the natural and predictable result of nearly 250 years of brutal slavery (1619-1865), followed by 73 years of Jim Crow laws (1877-1950) that codified racial segregation, prevented or discouraged Blacks from voting, and otherwise disadvantaged Blacks.
There are perfectly understandable reasons, too, why there are so few Blacks in Grayson County (1.3%) and other rural regions in the South.
Mrs. Kirkland survived racial terrorism in Mississippi, racial violence and mob rule in East St. Louis, cross burnings in Ohio, and two World Wars. At age 108, in a speech in New York City, she urged people to keep fighting, to tell the truth, and to have faith.
Mamie Lang Kirkland had nine children and more than 150 direct descendants. She died on December 28, 2019, at the age of 111.
Our friend Flo never returned to southcentral Kentucky.
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