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Archive for December, 2009

Note from Moderator Vikki Bynum: Author and independent historian Ed Payne will give a talk on “Sarah Collins and the Free State of Jones,” in Hattiesburg at the South Mississippi Genealogical and Historical Society (SMGHS) on January 5, at 7 p.m. The SMGHS Library is located on Park Avenue (rear of the Water Dept. Building).
 
The life of Sarah Collins provides insights into the harsh conditions faced by Piney Woods settlers and the circumstances that prompted a number of them to not only abandon the Confederate cause, but to take up arms against it. In the following essay, Ed shares some of his recent and broader research on the impact of the Civil War on the people of Jones County, Mississippi

Introduction—Collateral Damage:  Civil War Widows of Jones County

By Ed Payne

            Researching post-Civil War Jones County has led me to develop an interest in the women who were left widows as a result of the conflict and how they dealt with their often radically altered circumstances.  But compiling even a partial list of Jones County women who lost husbands in the Civil War is difficult.  The most basic product of war is death and the Civil War produced more deaths than all other pre-Vietnam American conflicts combined.  But Confederate records are notoriously incomplete.  A report submitted in 1866 cited a figure of 6,807 Mississippians dead or wounded, an absurdly low number.  Ben Wynne in Mississippi’s Civil War, on the other hand, states that of 78,000 Mississippians who served in the CSA, 27,000 never returned home.  Another calculation is that Confederate states suffered a death rate, on average, equal to about 2.84% of their 1860 free population.  The 1860 free population of Mississippi was 354,674 which would yield a death estimate of 17,627.  The same estimate applied to the 1860 population of Jones County (2,916) produces a casualty figure of approximately145.  

Going strictly by census data, there are some hints that Jones County men, largely non-slave owners and outside the cotton economy that had brought prosperity to other sections of Mississippi, may have died in disproportionately high numbers.  In September of 1860, seven months before the outbreak of the Civil War, the U.S. Census tallied 502 white males in Jones County who were native-Mississippians and born between 1820 and 1849—the prime age group to be impacted by the coming conflict.  A decade later the population of Jones County remained essentially static, with a total count of 3,313 persons versus 3,323 in 1860.  However, native-born males within the 1820-1849 timeframe now numbered only 257, a decline of 48.8%.  For Mississippi as a whole, the decline in men having the same criteria amounted to 12,061 (from 41,892 to 29,831), or 28.8%. 

Unfortunately, these numbers are insufficient to make the case, since other factors such as post-war migration out of the county could account for some of the disparity.  But other data can be used to infer some of the toll that the war took on Jones County males and, as a result, on their surviving spouses.  The 1860 census listed 482 household of which only 29 (6%) were headed by females.  Ten years later the household count, which now included those of freedpeople, stood at 562.  Of these, the number headed by white women had expanded to 94 (17%).  Even in 1880, 15 years after the end of the war, it stood at 82. 

Jones County Cabin

Another factor to consider is that Jones County women lost husbands and sons not only in service to the Confederacy, but in opposition to it as well.  There were casualties among those who fought with the renegade bands, including 15 hung during the campaign lead by CSA Col. Robert Lowry, and among those who joined Union regiments in New Orleans, at least 13 of whom died of disease after enlisting.

For decades after the end of the conflict, Mississippi war widows—with the exception of the few whose husbands died in the Union regiments—received no governmental compensation.  The state’s economy was shattered.  It is an oft repeated fact that in 1866 one-fifth of the state budget was earmarked for the procurement of artificial limbs for veterans.  The first state pension for Confederate veterans and their survivors was not instituted until the late 1880s.  By 1894 a mere 44 Jones County citizens were receiving modest pro rata shares (ranging from $20 to $30 per annum) from the $64,200 allocated for veterans who had lost a limb and war widows of limited financial means (property worth less than $500).  Later legislative pension acts, primarily passed during the period from 1916-30, raised the total number of Jones County veteran and widow claims to 395.  It should be noted that this count includes claims by surviving wounded veterans and later claims by their widows as well as claims by the same individuals under separate legislative acts.  Also, a number of these claims were filed by persons who relocated to Jones County during the turn-of-the-century timber boom.

Although fewer in number, the pension files of those who enlisted in the 1st and 2nd New Orleans Union regiments offer abundant detail.  Thus far Union pension files have been located for forty Piney Woods enlistees or their survivors.  Their files, housed at the National Archives, average 20-40 documents each—but in some cases run to over 150.  As this indicates, the bureaucratic paperwork necessary to prove one’s eligibility was formidable.  But those who persevered received compensation well in excess of that provided under state Confederate pensions.  Eli F. Rushing, who deserted from the 8th MS Infantry in February of 1864 and then enlisted in the 1st New Orleans Union regiment in May, was receiving a monthly disability payment of $10 shortly before his death in 1903.  The availability of this rich deposit of Union pension material should not, however, obscure the fact that the vast majority of Jones County war widows lost husbands who served in Confederate units and thus have left us only a thin trail of records.   

Despite these problems, a list of Jones County Civil War widows is slowly emerging.  Over the coming months I hope to post brief portraits of some of these surviving spouses.   Since women held decidedly secondary roles within 19th century society, the information available is primarily derived from census and pension files.  And, even then, their stories necessarily come to us largely as reflected in the lives of the men around them.  Those who are familiar with Jones County will not be surprised to learn that several of the widows I have studied are connected through kinship or marriages.  None of the biographical and genealogical vignettes will be offered as definitive.  Indeed, I hope that family members with more specific information will be prompted to comment on, expand upon, and correct the information which I post. 

In the series I plan to provide information about widows of combatants on both sides of the conflict.  Although “Renegade South” deals primarily with those who rebelled against the Confederacy, Jones County owes its special place in history due to the fact that an isolated population in the Deep South was brought into conflict with itself by the same forces that divided a nation.  As noted, while the majority of the county’s Civil War casualties occurred among those who served in the Confederacy, members of renegade bands and Union enlistees also contributed to the toll of widows.  These deaths were emblematic of the way in which the war splintered the Piney Woods community.  In its aftermath, a stark commonality that bound women of the region was their effort to survive.  If men were the principle casualties of the Civil War, these widows represent its collateral damage.

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Note from moderator Vikki Bynum: With David Woodbury’s permission, I have posted here his interview with author Leonard Todd as a followup to “A Beautiful Craft; A Wonderful Book: Dave the Potter and Carolina Clay.” This Q & A was originally published on November 02, 2009, on David’s blog, Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles

A sidenote to Leonard’s sensitive discussion of the life of Dave, a slave within his ancestors’ household, is his mention of his ancestral name of Landrum. The Landrums of Jones County, Mississippi, were originally from South Carolina. Many of them were Unionists during the Civil War. Leonard tells me that his great-great-great granduncle, Dr. Abner Landrum, was one of the foremost Unionists in the South Carolina upstate.

My thanks to David Woodbury for his generous lending of this and the previous post on Carolina Clay!

Dave the Slave
a Q&A with author Leonard Todd

At left. Leonard Todd with some of Dave’s pottery. Photo by Brook Facey.

Faithful readers with better than average recall and few distractions in their lives will remember a blog entry from a month ago when I first became enthralled with Leonard Todd’s book, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. Since that time, I took time to read it cover-to-cover, and corresponded with the gracious Mr. Todd about his uniquely American story.

I sent him six questions, and received six answers, presented here unedited.

OBAB: Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to some questions about your book. First let me say that I enjoyed reading it very much. It’s a powerful and poignant journey of discovery, and fascinating in the way your effort to piece together the life of this illusive historic figure is simultaneously a fleshing out of your own family history and roots. Could you begin by relating a little bit about the experience of first learning about Dave’s pottery in The New York Times, and of the dawning realization that you had familial ties to the potter?

Leonard Todd: I can remember the exact date on which I first learned of Dave. I was in New York City, where I had lived for almost thirty years. I opened The New York Times on January 30, 2000, to find an article announcing an exhibition of his work. I read that, while in bondage, Dave had created pots of great size, utility, and beauty—many bearing original poems that he had inscribed on them while their clay was damp. The article indicated that he had lived in South Carolina, which increased my interest because I had been born and raised there—in Greenville—before moving north.

Information at the end of the piece, however, took my breath away: Dave had been owned for much of his life by pottery manufacturers named John Landrum and Lewis Miles. Their names matched those of ancestors of mine, who had lived in a small, central South Carolina town called Edgefield, not far from the Georgia border. I saw that Dave also had lived in Edgefield. With sudden understanding, I realized that my family had owned Dave!

That moment of discovery was like finding a door flung wide to the past: Through it, I could glimpse a complex world of clay and kilns and pottery workers—that I had known nothing of. I was pleased to find that I was linked to Dave, one of the south’s great artisans, yet dismayed that slavery was the mechanism that connected us. Like many white southerners of my generation, I had grown up with a vague sense that my ancestors had been slaveholders. It seemed so long ago, however, that I regarded it as almost unreal. Now, I couldn’t do that anymore.

OBAB: On the surface, this is an account of a skilled slave—exceptional in that he could read and write—whose utilitarian workmanship has transcended to the realm of valuable museum pieces. But the story is so much more than that with your personal connection to the artist. Like the author Edward Ball in Slaves in the Family, you were compelled to face potentially uncomfortable truths about family history. Quite frankly, it would have been easy to concentrate on the pottery and present this as the story of a well cared for servant of kindly masters, and left it at that (an apologist alternative still commonplace today). I thought you treated “the elephant in the room” honestly, and without flinching. Did you struggle with that at all, or do you feel far enough removed to be dispassionate in recounting simple history? Was there any resistance on the part of present-day family members along the lines of letting sleeping dogs lie?

Leonard Todd: My ancestors were Dave’s owners throughout most of his life. When I began writing Carolina Clay, I was so uncomfortable with this fact that I bent over backwards to judge them harshly. Over the course of several drafts, however, I began to understand that my role was not to judge but simply to tell what happened. This would leave the reader free to come to his or her own conclusions.

By telling the story in a straightforward way, I hoped to reach a deeper understanding of both sides caught up in the slavery system. Only by seeing the slave owner and the slave in all their complexity—their strengths and their weaknesses—could I begin to penetrate the world that produced Dave.

My relatives were uniformly supportive of my project. Their only qualm was that I would not be able to find enough material about Dave in the historical record. And, indeed, mentions of him are sparse. As anyone who has tried to research the life of an individual slave can tell you, the institution of slavery so complicated the lives of those in bondage and at the same time so completely erased the record of what it had done that it is often impossible to discover what happened to them. I was able to put together clues about Dave and his fellow workers in the potteries of Edgefield by learning all I could about the men who owned those factories. In an odd way, I first had to know the slave owner before I could know the slave.

OBAB: I learned a lot about the history of pottery in this country from your book, all very interesting—in particular, the workings of groundhog kilns, the development of different glazes, and the mysterious adoption of some ancient Chinese techniques in antebellum America. You mentioned a new program at the Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield that planned to construct a groundhog kiln of the type Dave used. Your book’s been out for a year or more—how’s that kiln coming along? What a cool idea. At the very least they should get you to lead a class out to Pottersville (I know the location of the Stony Bluff kiln remains a secret—damn relic hunters!).

Leonard Todd: The ground was broken for the construction of the school’s outdoor kiln on July 12, 2009. This date fell on the 200th anniversary of Dr. Abner Landrum’s discovery of a bountiful supply of fine clay in Edgefield District, a discovery that led to a century of successful pottery making here. I was invited to be among the speakers at the ceremony. I took that opportunity to present a very special guest to the audience. She was Mrs. Thomasina Holmes Bouknight, who was the only person I had found who knew of a link to Dave in her life: He had made a large jar with an inscription on it for her mother, whose parents had been slaves in the area where Dave lived. She had recounted the fascinating history of the jar to me when I was writing my book (see page 205 of Carolina Clay). After I introduced her to the crowd, she rose and took a bow in response to the protracted applause. A few weeks later, she died. With her passing, the last known connection to Dave disappeared.

Though construction on the kiln is temporarily on hold, it will, when completed, be one of the major attractions of Edgefield. Its site is only a few steps from Main Street. Crowds will be able to gather for firings, as they did when Dave made his pots in the district.

OBAB: If tenderly cared for, do the surviving jugs and containers have a shelf life before they begin to crumble or disintegrate? Or will they effectively last forever, like stone?

Leonard Todd: I asked an expert to answer this one. He is master potter Gary Clontz, Coordinator of the Professional Pottery Program at Piedmont Technical College in Edgefield. He says, “Pots treated in a normal manner will last virtually forever. They will break, of course, if they are dropped, and they will crack if liquid is left in them to freeze. But there are pots in museums that are thousands of years old and still have their integrity.”

Dave touched on this question in one of his inscriptions. In June of 1854, his owner, Lewis Miles, apparently told him that the handle on the jug he had just made was not sturdy enough. To let posterity be the judge, Dave wrote, “Lm says this handle will crack” down the side of the jug at issue. More than 150 years later, the handle is still intact!

OBAB: Dave spent his entire adult life producing pottery. It’s exciting to think that there are still extant pieces, like bits of treasure, scattered across the regional landscape. You write of a number of examples, such as an inscribed “Dave” pot sitting in an old barn, or the one in the yard of Thomasina Holmes Bouknight that she remembers playing around as a little girl. I’m dying to know if you’ve learned of any new pieces coming to light since the publication of your book (“Hmm, that old pot says ‘Dave’ on it”). Are there any pieces on permanent display (in Charleston or elsewhere)? Do you personally own any of Dave’s pottery?

Leonard Todd: Word of several newly discovered Dave pots has come to me through my web site (www.leonardtodd.com). Because the world of pottery collecting enjoys its secrets, I am usually sworn to silence when the news arrives. I think I can safely say, however, that there will be some interesting auctions in the months to come!

I do not own any Dave pieces, but I take great pleasure in visiting the excellent examples on public display. The art museum in my hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, has recently purchased a magnificent jar inscribed with a poem that speaks of stars and bears (pronounced “bars” by Dave.) The Charleston Museum owns the two largest jars he ever made, turned on the same day in 1859. Two museums in Columbia, (the South Carolina State Museum and the McKissick Museum) own Dave pots, as do two museums in Atlanta (the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta History Center.) Other repositories of Dave’s work are the Augusta Museum of History, the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, Georgia, the Mint Museums in Charlotte, the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Washington Historical Museum in Washington, Georgia, and the Smithsonian Institution.

OBAB: I’m intrigued by the fact that—in the course of this exploration—you actually relocated with your wife from Manhattan to live in Edgefield, the center of the story. Has living there—amongst your own distant relatives, and certainly some descendants of Dave as well — helped you gain a better understanding of Dave’s life experience, or some other insight into the day and age in which he and your ancestors lived? Have you uncovered any more information on Dave from local sources since the publication of Carolina Clay (you mention the emergence of an African American historical society, and a surge in the writing of local histories, with the tantalizing prospect of new connections)?

Leonard Todd: Edgefield is one of those rare spots that the poet W. S. Merwin calls “an unguarded part of the past.” Once a powerful place—ten governors have come from here — it virtually echoes with historical incident. By walking on the very sites where Dave and my ancestors lived and worked, I often begin to get a sense of what their lives were like. Some of the buildings and homes and landscape are unchanged since Dave’s day.

Though I have located descendants of many of the players in Dave’s story, I have not yet found members of his own family. I have traced what I believe is one branch of that family up through the 1930 census (see page 226 of Carolina Clay.) The 1940 census will be released to the public in a very few years. I have great hope that it will bring Dave’s descendants closer to us.

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Note from moderator, Vikki Bynum: The following post was written by David Woodbury and originally published on September 21, 2009, on David’s fascinating blog, Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles. I asked David’s permission to repost it on Renegade South because author Leonard Todd’s subject, Dave, an enslaved potter who lived in Edgefield County, South Carolina, and the culture of pottery-making, dovetails with an important theme of this blog: the personal lives of “ordinary” Southern people of the nineteenth-century.  Pottery is a particularly relevant craft; many of the Unionist families (such as the Lathams) who lived in the heart of North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt,” were potters.

 This post will be followed by a second one, also borrowed from Battlefields and Bibliophiles. There, you’ll be treated to David Woodbury’s Q & A with the author of Carolina Clay.

 

 


An artist, and slave
Dave, a slave, was born in 1801 and as a teenager was put to work in a pottery near Edgefield, South Carolina, making stoneware vessels such as jugs and pitchers. Learning to read and write along the way, Dave signed his work, and inscribed it with bits of verse. For over seventy years he created beautiful pieces that are now sought by and exhibited by museums.
Now, a descendant of one of Dave’s owners, has written what looks to be an intriguing and moving chronicle attempting to piece together the story of Dave’s life. I can’t get enough of these kinds of explorations and personal discovery, and have ordered a copy of Carolina Clay this evening. I’ll report back once I’ve delved in.
Author Leonard Todd is connected to Dave by way of his mother’s father’s mother’s father, a principal owner of Dave at one time. There is a nicely-constructed website promoting the book and the story here, chock full of information on Dave, his pottery, his poems, and the author’s personal discovery of a family history comprised of “a long and complex intertwining in which members of my family purchased blacks, whipped them, slept with them, sold them away from one another, tried to prevent them from voting, and perhaps sometimes loved them deeply. Certain of these blacks supported my forebears with their labor, bore their children, murdered them in anger, killed themselves in protest against them, and perhaps sometimes loved them deeply.”
That passage alone suggests the author wrote an unflinching account of what he learned, enough reassurance for me to order the book sight-unseen, without fear of enduring an apologist rendering of family legend.

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Professor Stauffer is angry at me; I mean really angry. He’s furious that I don’t think more highly of his and Sally Jenkins’s book, State of Jones, but especially that I have the temerity to publicly say so. To get it all off his chest, he just let off more steam on page 2 of the December 10th issue of the Jones County ReView.

Why, he even called me a gadfly–again. His definition: one who “builds her reputation by constantly annoying, irritating, or slandering others.” Well, I prefer Socrates’ description of the gadfly’s role:  “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” Under those terms, I plead guilty, having criticized the sloppiness of his research and the distortions of his arguments. That’s what reviewers (and gadflies) are expected to do, when warranted, in our profession.

Professor Stauffer claims that he and Sally Jenkins have in turn treated my work with respect. Go back and listen to you and your co-author’s remarks about me in your interviews last May and June with Mike Noirot of This Mighty Scourge, and on NPR’s Diane Rehm show. Who are you kidding?

Aside from gadfly, what I really am is a history professor who has taught at the same university (in that “small Texas town” he sneeringly mentions) for almost 24 years; a historian who has written three books published by the University of North Carolina Press, a premier academic press.

I could say more about my credentials, but then I’d begin to sound like Stauffer, who ritualistically trots his out. So let’s get to the point. Mr. Stauffer says that I have slandered him. As he kindly explains for us, that means “saying something false or malicious that damages somebody’s reputation.”  He then proceeds to attribute words to me that I have never uttered (how’s that for slander?)! Such as that I “dismissed” him and Ms Jenkins as “Yankees and carpetbaggers.” Mr. Stauffer is not only confused, he repeats himself a lot. You can read my response to these and other phony charges by clicking here.

There is a new charge against me. Stauffer now accuses me of having launched a “blitzkreig” against his and Jenkins’s work on the Internet. Gee, all I did was review their book. They were the ones who asked Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory to let them post a response to that 3-part review, and Kevin graciously did just that. An internet debate followed in which the authors and I, and anyone else who cared to, participated.

So, what’s all this talk about me refusing to debate? Seems to me we’ve already had that debate. Virtually every charge that Stauffer raises anew in his ReView column I have answered either on Renegade South or Civil War Memory. In any case, Mr. Stauffer has never extended an invitation, as he claims, to debate me face-to-face. Now, Mark Thornton, the editor of the Jones County ReView, did once extend such an invitation–Oh, my, has Mr. Stauffer appropriated Mr. Thornton’s idea as his own? Tsk, tsk, imagine that.

Having misrepresented not just the history of Jones County, but also the history of the present debate, Stauffer goes on to confidently proclaim my book, Free State of Jones, a failure. Most remarkable are his standards for that judgment: sales figures and fame. You see, my university press book hasn’t sold nearly the copies that his mass-produced, media-hyped Doubleday version has.  

Here I was, thinking it was great that people from around the United States continue to contact me eight years after Free State of Jones was published. But, no, Stauffer assures us that my book was “virtually unknown outside of Jones County, the Texas town where she teaches, and a community of some 50 scholars who write on Southern Unionists.” Why, he says, I was just a poor little nobody who had never even had my name in the New York Times (just imagine!) before he and Ms. Jenkins opened the door to fame and fortune for me. Silly me for thinking that fame and fortune have about as much to do with high-quality scholarship and history as pop stardom does with perfect pitch. Mr. Stauffer can explain that, too: he says I simply don’t understand his book’s “genre.”

Despite Professor Stauffer’s tactics, which represent the worst in academic class snobbery, one might expect that he, an academic himself, would understand that the vast majority of historians don’t spend years in graduate school because they hope to write bestsellers that will entertain the masses.

Which reminds me. Years ago, when I was in the final years of my Ph D work at the University of California, San Diego, I proudly wore a shirt sold at conferences by Radical History Review.  The logo on the front featured Karl Marx holding a copy of the Review and the words “Earn Big Money; Become a Historian.” My fellow graduate students and I loved that shirt–it epitomized the passion we felt for the research and writing of history. No, we were not in it for the money.

Vikki Bynum, wearing her Radical History T-shirt in 1986.

(To see a copy of the t-shirt logo, visit Radical History Review and scroll to the bottom of their page. You might even want to order one for yourself!)

The same, evidently, can’t be said for all history professors. For some, it is, rather, all about the money.

It all comes down to this: John Stauffer and I have very different approaches to the profession of history, and I have a very different personal story from his, one that he apparently can’t fathom from his lofty Harvard perch. You see, I earned a PhD the hard way–as a divorced mother of two children and the daughter of parents who, through no fault of their own, never graduated from high school. It may surprise Mr. Stauffer to learn that I never aspired to be either an Ivy League professor or a bestselling author; that my hard-won goals were to write honest, deeply-researched histories about ordinary people of the past who acted in extraordinary ways, and to teach students from backgrounds similar to mine that intellectuals are not confined to elite institutions.

Mr. Stauffer, in contrast, evidently loves to write about poor, downtrodden folks from the past, yet exhibits contempt for present-day renegades who have beat the odds, achieved success on their own terms, and have the gall to proclaim a flawed book just that–no matter who wrote it.

Why, Mr. Stauffer, you’re all lit up like a Christmas tree, and all because of the words of this little old Texas gadfly.

With the sting of truth,

Vikki Bynum

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Note from Renegade South: Vernon F. Dahmer, a well known Mississippi civil rights worker, was murdered in 1966 by white supremacists connected to the Ku Klux Klan. Before the night of January 10, 1966, when the Dahmer grocery store and home were firebombed, Vernon had been leading voter registration drives in his community. To facilitate that effort, he had recently placed a voter registration book in the grocery store he owned.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Dahmer Grocery Store

Vernon Dahmer's grocery store, located on Monroe Road, 3.5 miles from the Jones County line. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Vernon Dahmer, Western Union Telegram

Telegram from President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson expressing sympathy for the family of Vernon Dahmer. Courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

It took many years and five court trials to convict KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 of having ordered the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Today, Dahmer is revered for his courageous work on behalf of black civil rights. In honor of his memory, both a street and memorial park in Hattiesburg bear his name.

In the essay that follows, Dahmer’s grandniece, Wilmer Watts Backstrom, and Yvonne Bivins, a member of his extended family of Smiths, Ainsworths, and Knights, enrich our understanding by telling the story of his family roots in southern Mississippi. Dahmer’s multiracial heritage included white, black, and Indian ancestors. The narrative begins with the story of his grandmother, Laura Barnes.

 

The Family Origins of Vernon F. Dahmer, Mississippi Civil Rights Activist

By Wilmer Watts Backstrom and Yvonne Bivins

Laura Barnes was born in Jones County, MS in October 1854. According to her daughter, Roxanne Craft, “she was given to a black family to raise because she was born out of wedlock to a white girl.”

The 1870 census for Twp 9 in NE Jones County, Mississippi, shows that fifteen-year-old Laura was living in the household of Ann Barnes, a 55-year-old mulatto woman born in Mississippi whose occupation was housekeeper. A young mulatto boy, Augustus, age 12, also lived in the home.  Living next door to the Barnes family were Andrew and Annice (Brumfield) Dahmer.

Laura Barnes

Laura Barnes, grandmother of Vernon Dahmer, Sr., courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Andrew Dahmer was born on 17 February 1836 in Hesse Darmstadt, Germany. After a series of crop failures in the 1840’s, emigration was regarded by many middle class German families as the only remedy against impoverishment in Bavaria, one of the most densely populated areas of Germany. Andrew, James, John, Peter and Henry Dahmer took the opportunity to leave the country for opportunities abroad. Andrew arrived in America in 1851. His brother, James, came the following year in 1852.  The brothers first settled in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, where they worked for a rich merchant named R. N. Bayley (Bailey).  Peter joined them in the United States in 1865.

After the Civil War, Andrew Dahmer and his brothers became traveling salesmen who peddled their wares in Wayne, Jones, and Perry Counties in Mississippi. Andrew soon met and married Annice Brumfield, whose mother, Altamarah Knight Brumfield, was the aunt of Newt Knight.

Andrew and Annice’s neighbor, Laura Barnes, met Andrew’s brother, Peter Dahmer, in the early 1870s. They began a relationship that resulted in the birth of a baby boy in 1872, who Laura named George Washington Dahmer. Peter apparently did not acknowledge his child, and soon moved to Chickasaw County with several brothers, where they farmed and built a mercantile business.

For giving birth out of wedlock, Laura became a “marked woman.” During this period in her life, she operated a boarding house for the railroad and sawmill workers in northeast Covington County and near “Sullivan’s Hollow” in Smith County. The “Hollow” was notorious for its lawlessness and racial bigotry.  Blacks were not welcome there.  Black families that did live there were descendants of Craft and Sullivan slaves.

Laura hired a black man from the hollow named Charlie Craft. Working closely together on her place, they soon fell in love and developed a relationship. This would bring trouble, because although Laura was raised by a mulatto woman and listed as mulatto on census records, whites still considered her off limits to a black man.

Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft

Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft, grandparents of Vernon Dahmer. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Charlie Craft was born in Smith County, MS, around 1853.  According to family history, he was part Creek Indian and part African, with piercing eyes and coal black straight hair. A former slave of Bryant Craft, Charlie was known as a man who had never run from a fight. Story has it that after a shootout with the infamous Sullivans, he left Smith County, but doubled back to spirit away his siblings. Because newly freed slaves were not welcome in Smith County, they moved to Covington County, where they settled on a ridge south of the Hollow in the Oakohay area. Here, they established a prosperous community called Hopewell.

By 1880, thirty-year-old Charlie and twenty-eight-year old Laura lived in the Oakohay District.  Four children lived with them: George (Laura’s son by Peter Dahmer), age 10; [Roxanne] Viola, age 7; Bettie, age 5; and Elnathan, age 2. All, including Laura and her son George, were listed as “mulattos” on the 1880 federal manuscript census for Covington County.  Living nearby were Charlie Craft’s mother, Melvina, and several siblings.

One night a local white mob filled with home brew surrounded and attacked their home.  Both Laura and Charlie were excellent shots. Laura shot and killed one of attackers as they tried to protect their children from the mob and, in so doing, the couple had to flee “the ridge.” Laura’s son, George Dahmer, helped them escape.  Upon arriving in the Kelly Settlement, they moved off in the swamps on the Leaf River on the old “William Jenkins Place.”

George Washington Dahmer

George Washington Dahmer, father of Vernon Dahmer, son of Laura Barnes Craft and Peter Dahmer, stepson of Charlie Craft. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr

The area commonly known as Kelly Settlement was settled by John Kelly, a white man born in North Carolina about 1750.  John and his wife, Amelia, left Hancock County, GA, and arrived in Mississippi in late 1819, settling in Perry County on land located in what is now North Forrest County, just across the Leaf River to the west. By 1820, the Kelly household included John, Amelia, sons Green, 16, and Osborne, 18, Osborne’s wife Joene, and nine slaves. Among these slaves were the parents of Sarah, whose descendants later formed Kelly Settlement. Although the 1820 federal manuscript census for Perry County listed no free blacks living in the household of John and Amelia Kelly, descendants claim that Sarah’s folks were not slaves, but free people who accompanied the Kelly family to Mississippi.

After the Civil War, Sarah’s children began to homestead land, marry, and raise children.  Working together as they had down on John Kelly’s place, they cleared the land to raise crops, cut timber, and hauled it to the Leaf River by oxen to float it down to the Gulf Coast.

Laura Barnes Craft’s son, George Dahmer, moved to the Kelly community ahead of the rest of the Crafts. In 1895, George married Ellen Louvenia Kelly, the daughter of Warren Kelly and Henrietta McComb.  Like his own mother, Laura, Ellen’s mother, Henrietta, was a white child born out of wedlock and given to a black family, the McCombs, to raise.  The McCombs were living on the William Jenkins place when the Crafts arrived in Perry County.  Ellen Kelly’s father, Warren Kelly, was the mulatto son of Green H. Kelly and the grandson of John Kelly, the original white settler of the area. Warren Kelly’s mother was Sarah, the daughter of John Kelly’s slaves (or perhaps free black servants).

Warren Kelly

Warren Kelly, son of Green Kelly and Sarah Kelly, father of Ellen Kelly Dahmer, grandfather of Vernon Dahmer. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Ellen Louvenia Kelly

Ellen Louvenia Kelly, wife of George Dahmer, mother of Vernon Dahmer, daughter of Warren and Henrietta McComb Kelly. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

It was to this community that Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft fled with the aid of Laura’s son, George Dahmer. According to Wilmer Watts Backstrom (their great granddaughter), Charlie and Laura’s family lived in isolation for many years after being forced out of Covington County; they were prone to violent disagreements and exhibited heated tempers. This family drank heavily with much cursing.  They lived down in the swamps isolated from the community until the children were all grown.  As the children became adults, they gradually moved out of the swamps, married and had families of their own.

Charlie was employed by Green Kelly as a night watchman on the Leaf River. He died before 1910 in Forrest County, MS.  By that year, several of his and Laura’s children were married and living in Kelly Settlement, Beat 2 of Forrest County, MS. Although Laura’s name does not appear on the 1910 Census, she was still alive that year. In 1920, she lived with her oldest child, daughter Roxanne Craft Watts, on the Dixie Highway, Forrest County, MS.  Laura died on 5 June 1922, and is buried in the cemetery at Shady Grove Church in Eastabutchie, Jones County, MS.

Wilmer Watts Backstrom

Wilmer Watts Backstrom, granddaughter of Roxanne Craft Watts, great-granddaughter of Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft. Photo courtesy of Wilmer Watts Backstrom

Laura’s son and Charlie’s stepson, George Dahmer, identified as a black man even though his mother and biological father were white, demonstrating how strongly one’s racial identity is shaped by social experience.

George and Ellen Kelly Dahmer were the parents of Vernon Dahmer. George was known as an honest, hardworking man of outstanding integrity, rich in character rather than worldly goods. Like his father, Vernon worked hard and became a successful storekeeper and commercial farmer. Before his tragic death, he served as music director and Sunday school teacher at the Shady Grove Baptist Church, as well as president of the Forrest County Chapter of the NAACP. He and his wife, Ellie Jewell Davis, were the parents of seven sons and one daughter.

Vernon F. Dahmer, Sr.

Vernon F. Dahmer, Sr. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Vernon and Ellie Dahmer Family
Vernon Dahmer’s wife and children: seated left to right, George Weldon, Ellie J., Alvin; standing, left to right, Vernon Jr., Betty Ellen, Harold. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

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