Monday, October 12, 2015

Search for Video of West Tennessee Reveals a Story of Racism and Murder, Part 2 of 2

Part 2 of 2 / Part one can be found here.

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Jesse Hill Ford

While his successful novels, short stories and the critical and commercial success of “The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones” resulted in Jesse Hill Ford being heralded as “the next great Southern writer,” the film based on his novel was a big disappointment.


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Scene from "The Liberation of L.B. Jones"

To make matters worse, many in his community of Humboldt in West Tennessee had not read the book, so the movie was their first chance to see what Ford was telling the world about them. Many of his black and white neighbors were embarrassed by what they saw and many felt betrayed by this young author who had become one of their own.

The Ford family began experiencing harassment and threats that only intensified in the days leading up to the shooting that would change the course of Ford’s life.

However, the movie wasn’t the only race-related issue the Ford family was dealing with at the time.

One of his sons was captain of the Humboldt High School football team. He and the other white athletes were allowed to keep their starting positions at the recently-integrated high school. After skipping a football practice as a form of protest, every black player had been thrown off the team. If you’re familiar with small towns and their passion for high school football, you can imagine the tensions that were taking place in the community among both black and white parents and students and others for whom the sport had great importance.

The situation must have reached a boiling point for Ford when, during the school’s homecoming parade, the car in which his son was riding had rocks thrown at it and his desk at school was vandalized.

Ford’s anxiety and paranoia were only made worse by his use of a drug prescribed by a “doctor” back in Los Angeles. While working with Stirling Silliphant on the script for “L.B. Jones,” Ford met Max Jacobson, the physician nicknamed “Miracle Max” and “Dr. Feelgood.” His celebrity patients had included John F. Kennedy, Truman Capote, Mickey Mantle, Marilyn Monroe and many others. 

Jacobson began injecting Ford with B-12 shots that also contained methamphetamine sulphate. The shots were later mailed to Ford, who continued to inject them after he returned home to Humboldt. (1)

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Canterfield, the Ford home in Humboldt
from documentary about Jesse Hill Ford

It was in this environment, on the evening of Nov. 16, 1970, that Ford noticed a car parked in the grass, near the driveway of Canterfield, the large home he had built in Humboldt. Possibly also feeling the psychosis and paranoia that are side effects of methamphetamine use, he felt certain his son, not yet home, was about to be ambushed. 

Ford would later testify he fired his .30-06 rifle in an attempt to scare the driver into stopping while his wife called the sheriff. As the car began to pull away, Ford fired a second “warning” shot. Moments later, the driver, 21-year-old black soldier, George Doaks, lay slumped dead against the steering wheel as a young woman holding the hand of a small child, jumped from the car and ran for her life.

Doaks was the married son of a popular Humboldt minister who, it was later alleged during the trial, had parked for a romantic encounter with the young woman who was not his wife. Ironically, she was a cousin of Dorothy Claybrook, the unfaithful wife of the undertaker on which Ford had based his best-selling novel. The young child who had also been in the car was a 4-year-old the young woman was baby-sitting.

Ford went on trial for first-degree murder, which was later changed to second-degree murder.

Ford and his wife welcomed the media before and during the trial and participated in many interviews, especially with print reporters with whom Ford felt a natural affinity. When you read the articles, you can't help but wonder what they were thinking. He later wrote in his journal, “The bar was open. Liquor and food was dished out lavishly, and the drinking and the talking drifted on sometimes into the early hours of the next day.”(2)

The trial did not disappoint those looking for sensational drama as it pitted the famous author known for writing about the mistreatment of black people in the south against the popular black family of the man he killed.

The fact that there was only one black person on the jury that eventually found Ford not guilty, offered an additional layer of irony. Many would point out that it appeared Ford had benefited greatly from the same unjust system about which he had written.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Vintage footage of George Doaks' sister commenting after the trial
from documentary about Jesse Hill Ford

After the trial, Doaks’ sister stated in a broadcast news report, “If my brother had of killed him (Ford), it would be quite different. He would have been gone a long time ago.” (3)

Ford held a press conference at Canterfield where he summed up his feelings about the killing. “A tragedy has occurred out here and we’re all changed by it,” he said. “It is something I will never forget and it’s affected my life from here on out and I’m very sorry for it.” (4)

In a post-trial interview with a great deal of foreshadowing, Sally Ford said, “This week has been just like one of Jesse’s books, but it turned out much better because Jesse doesn’t believe in happy endings.” (5)

Although he was found not guilty, a happy ending was not in Ford’s future. Much damage had been done to his career by the shooting and subsequent trial. Even more damage was to come from the long-form journalism that was published after the verdict.

Photo/Life magazine

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Article about Ford in Life magazine by Marshall Frady, Oct. 29, 1971

One story in particular, written by Marshall Frady for the Oct. 29, 1971 issue of Life magazine was particularly enlightening. Frady, born in Augusta, Georgia and the son of a Southern Baptist minister, was well known for his work as a writer in the civil rights movement. In 1968, he had published a controversial biography of George Wallace and he would go on to write biographies of Billy Graham, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture, wrote that Frady’s article is one of his favorite pieces of journalism and he re-reads it every year. “Digging it out,” he wrote, “is always worth the effort. (6)

The Life magazine article, as well as others, presented a harsh view of Ford who handled the anxiety and stress around the trial in a way that could be only be interpreted as arrogant and extremely insensitive to the Doaks family and the seriousness of their loss. Reading the article, one comes away with the understanding that Ford was wrestling with some very serious internal demons and the community in which he lived was filled with the ugliness of racism, fear and hatred.

Frady wrote:
“Ford had written with an acute understanding of how literally white southern society had cursed itself with the brutalizing legacy left by its old crime of slavery. But now, it was as if he had decided that he must invest himself totally into that society, into all those old demons and dark charms of violence at work in the South and in his own nature, with which he had always been only tentatively in communion.”(7)
Ford’s literary career was essentially over. He was financially ruined and, shortly before the trial, his wife discovered that while in Los Angeles, he had been unfaithful. Two years after Ford walked out of the Humboldt courthouse a free man, he was back to watch the same judge from the murder trial grant his wife a divorce.

At the University of Memphis, where he was a writer in residence, members of the English department circulated a petition for his dismissal and he was no longer booked for lectures and public appearances. (8)
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The Raider by Jesse Hill Ford

Ford released another novel set in West Tennessee, The Raider, on which he had been working throughout the trial. A historical novel, it was “a sprawling epic of West Tennessee before and during the Civil War.” It was only moderately successful and would be his last published novel. Of course, I have now ordered one to add to my growing stack of books I plan to read when I get a chance. Although, I seem to have more books in the stack than chances to read.

Ford moved to Nashville where he remarried. Although he seemed to enjoy life to some degree, friends believe he continued to struggle with unresolved feelings about the shooting.

He occasionally wrote as a guest columnist for USA TODAY in 1989 and 1990 where “he emerged as a crotchety, outspoken conservative who defended Oliver L. North, railed against the American Civil Liberties Union and said flag burners should have their heads broken.”(9)

In the spring of 1996, Ford underwent open-heart surgery at age 66. After weeks of struggling with severe depression, he locked himself in his study with a .22-caliber pistol and took his own life. 

Ford had been working on an autobiography that was found in his office after his death. When writing about his departure from Humboldt after his trial and divorce, he provided a little insight into his feeling about the town he came to love but which figured so significantly in his downfall:
“Goodbye to Humboldt, the city with the ungainly name and the beautiful soul…Goodbye to the springtides and strawberry season, to the parades and the bands…Goodbye to our secret society parties and dances…Goodbye to Kentucky Lake, where my children learned to hunt, to camp, to fish…Goodbye to the preachers and the bootleggers, the cops and the politicians, the harmless town loony who thought he was a night watchman, and was in many ways a night watchman…Goodbye to the hot, sultry summers of that cotton climate, and to the fertilizer plant just south of town chuffing its red smoke…Goodbye to the storms sweeping up from the gulf, to the tornados, to livid sunsets streaked with long and lovely wisps of oxford-gray cloud; and to the sounds of geese in autumn…Goodbye to so much rich material for stories…” (10)
For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.

(1) John Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” Esquire, February, 1997, 74.
(2) Ibid, 75.
(3) Moling, Troy. writer. “Jesse Hill Ford” YouTube. Online video clip, (accessed Oct. 11, 2015)
(4) Ibid
(5) Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Jesse Hill Ford, 66, a Novelist Who Wrote of Race Relations,” New York Times, June 5, 1996.
(6) Morris, Bill. "A Year in Reading: Bill Morris." The Millions. 18 Dec. 2014. Web.
(7) Marshall Frady, “The Continuing Trial of Jesse Hill Ford,” Life, October 29, 1971, 74.
(8) Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” 77.
(9) Thomas, “Jesse Hill Ford”
(10) Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” 79.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Search for Video of West Tennessee Reveals a Story of Racism and Murder, Part 1 of 2

After reading a few weeks ago that the Brownsville, Tennessee train depot was used as one of the locations for filming the movie "The Liberation of L.B. Jones," I was anxious to see if it included other locations as well.

Having never heard of the movie, the book on which it was based or the author, I discovered so much I wanted to share, I’m breaking this blog entry into two parts.

Although I was really only looking for interesting shots that would show what the West Tennessee area looked like, what I actually discovered is a story of racial injustice that took place both both in literature and in real life.

Watch the Video

As I hoped, the film does offer a really good look at the train station and some of the region as it appeared in 1969 when the movie was filmed. Those familiar with the area will notice the town square scenes were filmed in Trenton, Tennessee. I pulled out a few of the clips and uploaded them to YouTube so you can check them out for yourself.

Be sure to turn up your volume so you hear the funky score which was done by film composer Elmer Bernstein.

The film was based on “The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones,” a novel by Southern author Jesse Hill Ford (1928 – 1996).

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I finally finished the book this morning. If, like me, you aren’t a fan of the “n” word, racism, bullies, brutality and cruelty, you’ll have a difficult time getting through the book.

As one reviewer put it, the book features, “an astute study of the social stratification and power imbalance in a southern town in the early sixties.”(1)

Ford grew up in Nashville and attended college at Vanderbilt and The University of Florida, studying under the fugitive writers Andrew Lytle and Donald Davidson.

While he was a student at Vanderbilt, Ford began working for the Nashville Tennessean and became friends with another reporter, John Seigenthaler, who I actually had the pleasure of meeting. Before his death in 2014, he was a passionate supporter of the Newseum and a tireless champion of the First Amendment. In an interview for a 1997 article for Esquire, Seigenthaler said, “Jesse was a very intense young man who took himself more seriously than most people do in a newsroom. He was very conscious even then of what he wanted to be.” (2)

After a stint in the Navy during the Korean War and a short career in PR, at the age of twenty-eight, Ford decided to focus on writing a novel. He and his wife, Sally, moved to her hometown of Humboldt so he could write full time.

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"The Conversion of Buster Drumwright"

He sold a short story to Atlantic Monthly and wrote a play, "The Conversion of Buster Drumwright," which aired on CBS in 1960. With a title inspired by Indian mounds located near Humboldt, his first novel, Mountains of Gilead, was published in 1961.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Jesse Hill Ford

His writer’s imagination was then inspired when he began hearing about the 1955 murder of James Claybrook, a successful black undertaker from Humboldt. The undertaker was found shot twice in the chest and propped up against a tree on a deserted country road, right outside town. Ford’s maid speculated with others in the community that the undertaker’s pregnant wife, Dorothy, had been having an affair with a white policeman, which led to his murder.

The novel Ford wrote based on those actual events was set in fictional Summerton, Tennessee, and was about a wealthy black undertaker who insists on divorcing his much-younger wife, because she was having an affair with a white policeman. The divorce would expose the (then illegal) biracial affair in court, and the undertaker’s refusal to back down leads to his brutal murder by the policeman.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Jesse Hill Ford

Racially charged at a time when the hard-won civil rights laws of the 1960s were being tested and integration was just beginning, the novel was a cultural, critical and commercial success for Ford. It was nominated for the National Book Award in 1966 and selected for the Book of the Month Club, exposing it to thousands of readers around the nation. Ford was also awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction writing.

As the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Ford seemed destined to take his place among the pantheon of Southern writers.”(3) He was compared elsewhere to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner.
“This is a novel which no American can disown but which only a Southerner could have written. The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones is a realistic narrative of racial crisis, set in a small Southern town that far transcends its local setting. Perhaps only once a decade does a work of fiction so completely enter and embody current conflict…he gives life and breath to the men and women the headlines and television reports of the civil rights revolution have failed to make us understand.”
"The Liberation of Lord Byron James" book jacket
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Stirling Silliphant

Stirling Silliphant, the Oscar-winning screenwriter for "In the Heat of the Night," bought the movie rights and Ford began working with him on the script in Los Angeles. With fame and fortune came a lifestyle filled with temptations that Ford apparently found difficult to resist.

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William Wyler and Audrey Hepburn
on the set of "The Children's Hour" in 1961

The movie, "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" was directed by legend William Wyler. It starred Roscoe Lee Browne, Barbara Hershey, Lola Falana and the six million dollar man himself, Lee Majors.

This would be the last project for Wyler, whose body of work included "Ben-Hur," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Roman Holiday," "How to Steal a Million," "The Children's Hour" and "Funny Girl."

William Wyler: The Authorized Biography by Axel Madsen, gives a little insight into the filming in West Tennessee:
“In February of 1969, Wyler went to Tennessee to scout locations and to meet Ford in his hometown of Humboldt, eighty miles northeast of Memphis…Tennessee was another world, flat cotton country with acreage set aside for raising strawberries or feeding Black Angus and Hereford cattle.

Driving up to Humboldt, he first saw the quarry ponds where they cut rocks for buildings, then the swamp where cypresses rose from dark stained waters. South of town, were the Indian mounds known as the Mountains of Gilead, which had been the title of Ford’s first novel. On the city limits were the cemeteries—one for white folks and one for blacks.

Spending over $200,000 in Humboldt and the environs, the company filmed in half a dozen small towns—Humboldt, Trenton, Gibson and Brownsville, and all eighty-odd members of the cast and crew stayed at the Holiday Inn.” (4)
Unlike the novel, the film was neither a financial nor critical success. What worked in a novel, didn't translate well to the movie theater.

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"The Liberation of L.B. Jones" movie poster, 1970

"I'm sure that Wyler and his screenwriters, Stirling Silliphant (who adapted "In the Heat of the Night") and Jesse Ford Hill, were out to make a suspense movie that would also work as contemporary social commentary. In the interests of melodrama, they have simplified the characters from Hill's novel to such a degree that they seem more stereotyped than may have been absolutely necessary—a problem that is aggravated by some of the casting." The New York Times 
"This story of a glossed-over Negro’s murder by a Dixie policeman is, unfortunately, not much more than an interracial sexploitation film." Variety 
"The cast gives some strong performances, ultimately the film is an empty affair. The questions of racism and southern prejudice had been well handled by other films long before this. Had it been made 10 years earlier it would have been a landmark, but in 1970 it was no longer fresh material." TV Guide 

The negative publicity and tone of the film brought even more notoriety to Humboldt, angering both whites and blacks in the community. By this time, the Ford family was living at Canterfield, a large home in Humboldt built by Ford. They began receiving death threats, obscene phone calls and other forms of harassment including garbage dumped on their massive lawn.

When the Humboldt black and white high schools were integrated by court order in 1970, the white players maintained their starting positions, which of course, angered much of the black community. Ford’s son, Charlie, was a starting running back and was shocked one morning at school to find “Kill Charlie Ford” carved into his desk.

Always a bit paranoid, Ford’s anxiety continued to increase with each threat.

Photo/Jesse Hill Ford Documentary

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Ford’s life would soon take a turn that would be considered too ironic if it were written in a novel. The writer, who made his fame and fortune writing about crimes against black people, would soon end up murdering a black man himself.

Part two

(1) Christa Buschendorf, Astrid Franke and Johannes Voelz, eds., Civilizing and Decivilizing Processes (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 230.
(2) John Taylor, “The Liberation of Jesse Hill Ford,” Esquire, February, 1997, 74.
(3) Robert McG. Thomas Jr., “Jesse Hill Ford, 66, a Novelist Who Wrote of Race Relations,” New York Times, June 5, 1996.
(4) Axel Madsen, William Wyler: The Authorized Biography (Open Road Distribution, 2015), 100 - 112. 

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Civil War Knights of the Forked Deer

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Posing with a couple of Civil War-era ghosts
at the Appomattox County Courthouse

I recently visited the Appomattox County Courthouse where Confederate army commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union commander Ulysses S. Grant.

Fresh in my mind during the visit was an old article posted a few weeks ago on Facebook by Judge Roland Reid of Brownsville, Tennessee. Robert Thomas Chambers (1843 - 1921) originally wrote the article in 1917 and a clipping of it was submitted many decades later to the Brownsville States Graphic by Judge Reid’s grandmother, Jo Williamson Reid (1896 – 1993).

Photo/Roland Reid

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Knights of the Forked Deer

What Chambers wrote offers a glimpse into a moment in history when a group of young men gathered with their friends and family at Providence Church in Madison County, Tennessee for their final meal before heading off to fight in the war as part of Alsey High Bradford’s 31st Regiment, Tennessee Infantry, Company F.

Most of those young men never returned home.

Judge Reid and I share several mutual Haywood County ancestors who are mentioned in the article because his grandmother, Jo Williamson Reid was the aunt of my paternal grandfather, Bo Williams (1910 – 2008). 

Photo/Joe Reid

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Jo Reid on the steps of Providence Methodist
Church in Madison County, Tennessee

Aunt Jo, as I grew up calling her, and my grandfather’s mother were sisters and she lived across the street from my grandparents for many years. My grandmother and Aunt Jo took me fishing many times when I visited as a child. But, because my grandfather’s mother, Janie Williamson Williams (1887 – 1914), died when he was only four years old, the specific family connection was always a little fuzzy to most of us. 

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Janie Williamson Williams, upper left
Jo Williamson Reid, lower left

I like to give this great-grandmother a shout-out when I can. Although she didn’t get a chance to enjoy the fruits of a long life, she made an impact. Without her, none of my paternal family would be here.

Janie and Jo's paternal grandfather, Beverly M. Williamson (1813 – 1877), is my third great-grandfather. Williamson donated the land for Providence Methodist Church and cemetery in Madison County. You can find more about that in a blog I posted several years ago.

Photo/Library of Congress

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A few of the photos of unidentified Confederate soldiers in the
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs
archived by the Library of Congress

While the names of soldiers are helpful to those of us interested in genealogy, for me the best part of Chambers' article is he pulled back the curtain on a specific moment and provided a little more detail into the Civil War’s impact on his community. Like looking at the faces of the mostly unidentified soldiers in the Liljenquist Family Collection at the Library of Congress, the stories of the young men and women from that era are ultimately what really resonate most with us today.

Chambers wrote:
“After the organization of the company (at Providence Church), a bounteous dinner was served for everybody and it seemed like everybody was there; a very large crowd. In the afternoon we went to Jones Station, a very large crowd accompanying us. Soon the parting hour arrived and it was indeed a sad time—leaving fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, but perhaps the saddest partings were those of sweethearts.

We went to Trenton that night and the next day, September 20th, we were sworn into the confederate service, where we continued for three and one half years.

Many of those dear boys were left slain on the battlefields, many died of disease and others were maimed for life.

Much could be told of the experiences of this company of Madison and Haywood county boys, but unless it should be called for will probably never be told.

Suffice to say that at the surrender of Gen. Johnston’s army at Greensboro, N.C., April 26, 1965, only the following named members of the company were present, viz:

B.D. Williamson 
B.W. Dougan 
W.J. Shaw 
J.C. Paisley 
W.D. Fletcher 
R.E. Crutchfield 
J.J. Rooks 
J.B. Tassel 
Joe Chambers 
R.T. Chambers
Of this number, as far as I know, this writer is the only survivor.

I have given, probably an imperfect roll of the company but it is nearly correct. I have given from memory as I have no list with me.

Fifty-five years is quite a long time to remember 85 names and I hope to be pardoned if I have failed to give the name of any member of the old “Knights of the Forked Deer.”

R.T. Chambers
Dyer, Tenn.
March 6, 1917

Chambers also listed the names of everyone he could remember who had been part of the formation of Company F and I quickly spotted several of the names from my genealogy research. 

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General Braxton Bragg

Their unit was assembled in October 1861 at Camp Trenton in Gibson County, Tennessee. The men trained at Fort Pillow, then moved into Kentucky with General Braxton Bragg. After many of the men and boys had been killed, they were consolidated with the 33rd Regiment.

By spring 1865, those few who survived had been engulfed by injury, illness, starvation and the deaths of their fellow soldiers. 

Many of them were in a desperate state when they heard of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865 and then the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just five days later.

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William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston

Only a handful of the Madison and Haywood County boys survived to see the final surrender of their regiment to William T. Sherman by Joseph E. Johnston on April 26, 1865 at the home of James Bennett in Durham, North Carolina. 

This was the last major surrender in the Civil War.

The names listed by Chambers in the article, include several that are part of my ancestry line.

Robert Deward “Bob” Williamson (1839 - 1903), who was among those who survived to the end of the war, was the one of the sons of my third great-grandfather, Beverly Williamson. According to "Journey into Yesteryears" by Martha Jones, the Civil War began before Bob Williamson could marry his sweetheart, Callie Stanfield. Williamson and his best friend, William J. “Billy” Shaw, were together that afternoon in 1861 as the train pulled out of Jones Station headed for Trenton.

They fought side by side until Williamson was wounded and fell at his friend’s side with what appeared to be a mortal injury. As he lay dying, Williamson gave Shaw the ring he had in his pocket with a last request that his friend make it home to give the ring to Callie. After the war, Shaw arrived back home to Madison County to discover his friend had actually recovered, made it home and was already married to Callie. In later years, Williamson ran the Madison County post office and a general store.

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Headstones of Bob and Callie Williamson in the Providence
Methodist Church Cemetery in Madison County, Tennessee

He and Callie had seven children and both are buried in the Providence Methodist Church Cemetery. 

Private B.W. Dougan was likely Benjamin Dougan (1836 – 1900), a nephew of my third great-grandparents, Beverly Williamson and Elenora Harriett Dougan Williamson. My Dougan line can be traced back to the arrival in the colonies of Thomas Dougan from Donegal, Ireland to Paxtang, Pennsylvania by 1731.

J.J. Overton, W.K. Overton, and C.H. Overton who, from what Chambers wrote, did not survive the war, were likely from the family of my grandfather’s stepmother, Eva Iris Overton Williams.

J.T. Jacocks, listed as 3rd Lieutenant, was the brother of John Hill Jacocks whose family cemetery I explored in Haywood County several years ago. 

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Second and third from left, Joe and Sarah Joyner Chambers

Josias “Joe” Chambers (1837 - 1907), another of the survivors, returned to Madison County and married Sarah Joyner, the sister of Mary Elizabeth Joyner Williamson who is my second great-grandmother. In what surely haunted him throughout his life, Chambers’ twin brother, Francis Chambers, was killed in the battle of Perryville, Kentucky on October 8, 1862. 

Photo/Cameron Nabors

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Headstone of twins, Josias and Francis Chambers
at Providence Methodist Church Cemetery 

Today, the two brothers are together again, sharing a headstone at the Providence Methodist Church Cemetery. 

Photo/Unknown Chambers relative

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Robert Thomas Chambers

Born in Madison County, Robert Thomas Chambers, the author of the article, was 19 years old when he signed up for war. After the war ended, he returned to the area, married three times and fathered fifteen children. He was a Gibson County, Tennessee farmer and also served as mayor of Dyer. 

Chambers died on May 16, 1921 and was buried in Dyer in the Bobbitt Family Cemetery

I know his effort to remember and record his memories of that day back in 1861are very much appreciated by all of us who attempt to record the history of our ancestors.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website. 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Brownsville train depot, gone but not forgotten

(Photo from David Duke)

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The Brownsville Depot

A photo of the L&N train depot in Brownsville, Tennessee posted by David Duke in the Facebook group “You grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee if…” generated many posts of memories of the old train station and piqued my curiosity about this piece of Haywood County, Tennessee history.

If you check out the posts by those who shared their memories, you’ll see it was more than just a building. From family trips to visit relatives in nearby towns like Milan, Bells, Stanton and Memphis to experiencing a train ride with a Cub Scout pack or school group or just gathering with friends and family to watch the train come into the station, the depot made a real impact on many who can still remember hearing the whistle blow in person.

(Photo by H. E. Clement)

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Hand-tinted art by H.E. Clement from postcard of
the Brownsville depot

I discovered the depot has an interesting history.

By 1855, the first twenty-five miles of the Memphis and Ohio Railroad (M&O) had been completed. However, according to Maury Klein in “History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad,” deciding the location of the tracks was not an easy task.
“Ironically, the Memphis & Ohio faced a rather unique problem for its day: the indifference and outright hostility of citizens living along the route. Standing aloof from the commercial aspirations of the terminal cities, they saw no advantage for themselves in the coming Iron Horse. In 1856 the picture brightened considerably. After another long debate the Memphis & Ohio board decided to locate the road directly to Paris (Tennessee) via Brownsville.” Page 20
The tracks, which would eventually connect Memphis to Louisville, made it to Brownsville in late 1856. Eventually, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N), which had begun in 1850 in Kentucky as a way of allowing Louisville to become more competitive with Cincinnati, absorbed the M&O.

(Photo by H.E. Clement)

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Hand-tinted art by H.E. Clement from postcard of
the Brownsville depot

During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy used the L&N to transport soldiers and provisions. Eventually, the Union Army operated all the key sections of the L&N which contributed to their ultimate victory.

(Photo from Pope's Manual of Railroads of the United States)

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Southern tracks of the L&N Railroad in 1901

According to “Heart of the Tennessee Delta,” (for sale at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center) construction did not begin on the depot in Brownsville until Sept. 1905 and was completed in five months.

The Brownsville depot remained a hub of activity for more than six decades as the L&N remained a significant source of transportation of freight and passenger trains.

Kathy Mattea, "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore"

By the late 1960s, an increase in automobile ownership and affordable airplane travel made the passenger train business much less profitable. In 1968, the last passenger train pulled out of the depot and that part of Brownsville's history came to a close. The L&N didn't stop there anymore, as the song goes. The old depot, which I assume was in horrible shape, was sold to an individual who had it torn down in 1974.

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Approximate location of The Brownsville Depot

Although the depot is gone and there is not a single trace it ever existed, there are a few ways you can go back in time and catch a quick glimpse.

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Screen captures from
"The Liberation of L.B. Jones"

The opening and closing scenes of "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" were filmed at the depot shortly before it was torn down. The movie was acclaimed director William Wyler’s final movie and was based on the best-selling 1965 novel, “The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones.” The novel was inspired by an actual murder that took place outside Humboldt, Tennessee in 1955.

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"All Aboard with Mr. Bee."

According to a comment on the Facebook post, the children’s program “All Aboard with Mr. Be” included b-roll of the Brownsville depot in the opening. The show aired on Memphis’ WKNO Channel 10 in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I actually remember the show but can’t remember the opening and there are no clips online.

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Opening scene of "In the Heat of the Night"

Some also believe the opening scene from the original "In The Heat Of The Night" starring Rod Steiger and Sydney Potier were also filmed at the Brownsville depot. The fact that Sydney Potier actually arrives "in the heat of the night" makes it's difficult to tell for sure if this was filmed at the depot, but it certainly could have been. 

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Photo of the Brownsville depot on the wall
at Hometown Drugs in Brownsville

As you can read on the Facebook post, the single photo of the depot created an opportunity for many to share memories and stories of times with friends, learning opportunities with Cub Scout and school groups, departing for vacations to other cities and times spent with family who have long passed away.

Just imagine if it had been possible to restore the depot or move it to another location where it could be a part of the community today. I hope we can work together to find ways to make sure other historic sites like this one are preserved for future generations.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The life and death of Will Mathis

My brother-in-law, Alan, recently shared with me a document he found in some of his Mississippi grandmother’s belongings. In great shape other than a few torn and folded edges, this first person account of a man named Will Mathis appeared to have been typed more than 100 years ago.

As it turned out, this Mathis guy had quite the story to tell.

According to his statement, he arrived in Lafayette, Mississippi in 1897 and married the daughter of his liquor-distilling boss. He was clearly not an ideal husband and wrote, “I cannot remember the times she has sit by my side and begged with all the love and tender feelings that a wife could have for a husband to quit my wicked ways, she has offered to work in the field, if I would let whisky alone, she never would get mad.”

As I continued reading, it became clear Mathis’s offenses went far beyond his whisky drinking. In 1901, he was involved in the murder of brothers who were federal officers who had come to serve him with a warrant. Sadly, John A. Montgomery and Hugh Montgomery were shot, dismembered, and then burned beyond recognition when Mathis’s home was set on fire in a lame attempt to destroy evidence of the crime.

I turned to Google to see if there were any records online of Will Mathis and I was not disappointed.

The November 21, 1901 issue of the Oxford Eagle reported:
“One of the most horrible double murders that ever occurred in North Mississippi was committed near Delay, a small village 12 miles south east of Oxford, Saturday night, in which two brave and faithful officers were the victims. Special Deputy United States Marshal John. Montgomery of this place, and Hugh Montgomery of Pontotoc, left Oxford about 3 o’clock that afternoon with a warrant for the arrest of Will Mathis, a desperado, for illicit distilling. The arrest was made, and the trio were supposed to have made the arrangements to return to town.

Pistol shots were heard in that direction at frequent intervals during the night. About 4 o’clock Sunday morning Mathis’ house was discovered on fire, but when Messr. Dan Welch and Robuck, reached the scene the house was reduce to ashes, and the charred remains of the brave officers were found.

The news was received here about 9:30 o’clock Sunday morning and the town was thrown into intense excitement and a large posse left at once for the scene of the horrible deed. Coroner Turner at once impaneled a jury and began the taking of testimony.

The scene was appalling. Brave men were moved to tears as they viewed the work of the assassins. The cremated bodies were removed from the dying embers. Mr. John A. Montgomery was identified by a small piece of clothing and a pocketknife and Mr. Hugh Montgomery was identified by a gold tooth.”
Mathis, his father-in-law, and two other men were accused of committing the crime and, although Mathis claimed he was innocent, he and another man were found guilty and hung in Oxford, Mississippi on Sept. 24, 1902. 

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Account of the hanging of Will Mathis
and Orlando Lester in the
San Francisco Call on September 25, 1902

Mathis’s father-in-law, Whit Owens, was likely the one who was actually responsible for the murders and subsequent fire although he was eventually acquitted. He was later found guilty of the murder of a witness in another crime and sentenced to life in prison. After serving only 10 years in the Rankin County Prison Farm near Jackson, Mississippi, he was released for "meritorious conduct in preventing the escape of a fellow inmate" and lived with his family until his death in 1928.

Why would Alan’s grandmother have this document in her possession? The whole story became so notorious, reproductions of his account were sold throughout the area as a souvenir.

It’s likely Alan’s grandmother purchased this somewhere in Mississippi as a young girl and saved it all these years.

Even though this 100-year-old document isn’t an original, just like the story, it's as fascinating today as it was back during the turn of the century.

You can read more about this entire case on or explore what happened next to the Owens and Mathis families on

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Throwing in my two southern cents on the Confederate flag

My grandparent's farm in Haywood County
in the mid-1990s.

I'm a Southerner and I love all things related to West Tennessee. If you ask me what symbols represent home, my mind immediately goes to family, cotton fields, cicadas on a miserably hot summer afternoon, the blues, the smell of watermelon on my grandparent's back porch and yes, Elvis.

One thing that never really entered my consciousness in a significant way until now is the Confederate flag.

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Of course, I've seen it many times, but rather than associate it with my Confederate ancestors, or anything “Southern,” to me it was an element from a cartoon. Like the Roadrunner's Acme sign or giant stick of dynamite, it was just a sign of silliness. I would have most quickly associated it with Granny on the "Beverly Hillbillies," the car in the "Dukes of Hazard" or a stereotypical gang of leather-clad bad guys who are supposed to represent a threat to the good guys in a movie I would probably never have time to watch.

After the senseless massacre in Charleston last Wednesday, the hateful images of the cowardly young man who committed the murders could be held up against the remarkable display of forgiveness by the church members and families of the victims. The flag is no longer funny to me.

I've read a lot about the pre and post-Civil War period in Tennessee and I admit, I am the guy who has a hard time passing a historical marker on either side of the Mason-Dixon line without stopping. Just ask my family.

Obviously, I'm fascinated by my southern heritage; otherwise I wouldn't have a blog and website about genealogy to begin with. And of course, I find the concept of slavery and all the cruelties associated with it to be repugnant, just like everyone else with half a brain.

I feel your pain, Ben Affleck. I too have always been perplexed and embarrassed by my slave-owning ancestors. Despite the old adage "it was a different time," I still would love to know how anyone could have participated in something so horrific.

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The Confederate flag debate feels especially relevant to me. In addition to having a blog where I frequently post about my southern ancestors, I spend my days working for an organization that champions the five freedoms of The First Amendment.

About 100 feet from my office is a display (right between Bart Simpson and school prayer) in the Newseum featuring Kentucky high school senior Jacqueline Duty, who sued her high school district when she was bared from her senior prom because she wanted to wear a sequined Confederate flag-inspired dress.

The water cooler talk and hallway chatter this week has included a lot of interesting discussion and dialog around the issue and how it relates to our First Amendment rights.

The Newseum Institute’s David L. Hudson Jr. posted a great article about this week’s Supreme Court showdown in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in which the court ruled that Texas could deny requests from a group that wanted to create specialty license plates displaying the Confederate battle flag.

Newseum Institute chief executive officer Gene Policinski wrote that although the Walker decision seems rooted in the court of public opinion, it’s not good news for the First Amendment.

I believe good and evil exist in the world. And now I associate the forgiveness displayed by those in Charleston with good and the Confederate flag with evil. Period.

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I believe it's time to take down the flag from public places, pull the statue (and body) of Nathan Bedford Forrest out of the city park and place items that represent the evils of slavery and racism in museums and history books where they can be remembered and discussed but not celebrated.

Full disclosure: Nathan Bedford Forrest was possibly a cousin of my 4th great-grandfather, Samuel Forrest, so at least you don't have to deal with that, Ben Affleck. 

If you choose to display the Confederate flag on your bumper, at your home or wear it on your clothing, that's certainly your right.

However, I won't be swimming in your cement pond, riding in your 1969 Dodge Charger or joining your motorcycle gang, so you'll have to celebrate that part of our heritage without me.

If anyone needs any positive images or symbols of all the things that I think make the South great, just ask me. I can come up with a whole list for you. The first thing on that list would be the mind-blowing forgiveness shown by the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church this week.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website. 
The Newseum Institute’s David L. Hudson Jr. provides analysis of this week’s Supreme Court decision in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in which the court ruled that Texas could deny requests from a group that wanted to create specialty license plates displaying the Confederate battle flag. Newseum Institute chief executive officer Gene Policinski writes that although the Walker decision seems rooted in the court of public opinion, it’s not good news for the First Amendment. - See more at:
a special section on students’ rights tells the story of Kentucky high school senior Jacqueline Duty, who sued her school district when she was barred from senior prom because of her dress — a sequined representation of the Confederate flag. - See more at:
a special section on students’ rights tells the story of Kentucky high school senior Jacqueline Duty, who sued her school district when she was barred from senior prom because of her dress — a sequined representation of the Confederate flag. - See more at:
a special section on students’ rights tells the story of Kentucky high school senior Jacqueline Duty, who sued her school district when she was barred from senior prom because of her dress — a sequined representation of the Confederate flag. - See more at:
special section on students’ rights tells the story of Kentucky high school senior Jacqueline Duty, who sued her school district when she was barred from senior prom because of her dress — a sequined representation of the Confederate flag. - See more at:
special section on students’ rights tells the story of Kentucky high school senior Jacqueline Duty, who sued her school district when she was barred from senior prom because of her dress — a sequined representation of the Confederate flag. - See more at:

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Photo of Mary Aurelia Blaydes Castellaw and Jack Pender Castellaw

Photo/Lynn J. Graves

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Mary Aurelia Blaydes Castellaw with her grandchildren

Lynn Graves is one of my many Castellaw cousins that descend from my third great-grandparents, Thomas Jefferson "T.J." Castellaw (1808 - 1878) and Mary Elizabeth Cole (1809 - 1875). He recently found this photo of one of his Castellaw ancestors in some of his mother's belongings.

The older lady in the photo, Mary Aurelia Blaydes Castellaw, was born Feb. 22, 1848 in Virginia. 

By Oct. 5, 1865 she was in Haywood County, Tennessee where she married Jeremiah Fletcher Castellaw, one of T.J. and Mary Castelaw's sons. He was one of the brothers of my second great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson "Tom" Castellaw, Jr.

In 1900, Jeremiah and Mary donated the land west of the Holly Grove Baptist Church in Haywood County, Tennessee to be used as the cemetery. It's still in use today and many of relatives are buried there.

Jeremiah and Mary were the parents of nine children; Lucy Albina "Bina", Egbert O., Thomas Jefferson "Tom," Jack Coleman, Charles, Authur Fletcher, Myrtle, Jelks F. and Jessie Beatrice. 

Immediately to Mary's left in the above photo is Lynn's mother and directly behind her is her grandson, Jack Pender Castellaw, from her son, Jack Coleman Castellaw.

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Jack Pender Castellaw

Sadly, Jack Pender Castellaw was one of ten Baylor University basketball players who lost his life in a bus accident in 1927. The players are now referred to as "The Immortal Ten."
On Jan. 22, 1927, coach Ralph Wolf was taking his first Baylor basketball team to play a game in Austin against the University of Texas. 
Rain hampered the vision of the chartered bus driver as debris from the road sprayed the windshield of the bus. In Round Rock, Texas, just miles from the team's arrival in Austin, a speeding train from the I&GA Railroad Company rammed into the side of the bus at a railway crossing near the center of the city. 
Ten of the 21 players, coaches and fans in the Baylor party that traveled on the bus that day were killed. Source
At the first student assembly each fall at Baylor, they still set out empty chairs for each of the Immortal Ten and the university dedicated a large memorial to them in 2007.

Mary Castellaw died on May 30, 1933 in Haywood County. 

You can read much more about Jeremiah and Mary Castellaw and their family in the Castellaw section of my website.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.