You are looking at the Putnam County Confederate monument. It was erected in 1924, three years after the 1921 dedication of a tiny little plaque to the multiracial Putnam County veterans who gave their lives for democracy in World War I. You can’t see that monument in this picture. It’s off to the right. Try to Google an image of it. You won’t find it.
I wrote the piece that follows somewhere around 2011, as part of my book Age of Barbarity: the Forgotten Fight for the Soul of Florida, which I published in 2013. The book focuses closely on the rise and and fall of Florida’s powerful and popular 1920s Ku Klux Klan. My family, led by great grandfather J.V. Walton, played a complex and important role in defeating the mainstream political power of the Klan. Simultaneously, my family played a pivotal role in memorializing Confederate myth and raising this monument. This piece dives deep into those complexities. It’s long. But I think it holds up well in today’s ongoing battles over monuments and memory. I’m sort of an educator now, I guess. And I think you could do worse on this subject than this chapter.
In the last few decades, historians have looked far more critically at the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy and how the battles over the historical memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction shaped modern America. Those battle lines are often considered as North versus South, black versus white, industry versus agriculture. But the post World War I conflicts in Palatka and Florida show that this battle played out within southern whites and Confederate nostalgists as well.
Any cursory reading of contemporary sources makes it clear that virtually all southern whites venerated Confederate soldiers. The Reconstruction Knights of the Ku Klux Klan proved a more complex question.
Many white Protestants, perhaps even most, goaded by Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith, the creators of The Birth of a Nation, saw the Bedford Forrest klansmen as straight up heroes. But many others perceived them as a necessary evil. The distinction would matter in the 1920s.
In January 1924, the Palatka Times-Herald published a history of Palatka’s “Patton Anderson” chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. My great great aunt Susie Lee Walton wrote it. Weedie, as she is known to the family, also read this history aloud at the chapter’s first 1924 meeting. Her mother, my great great grandmother Kate Vertrees Walton, would have been part of the audience. Kate helped found the chapter, which she and other charter members named “Patton Anderson” after the Confederate general whose widow served as president for a number of years.
Susie Lee wrote:
“It has been said that ‘the surest safeguard of the future is a knowledge of the past’, and certainly nothing can be a greater incentive to continued interest in an organization than the memory of good work well done.
“Patton Anderson Chapter hopes to see this year the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream, in the erection of our Confederate monument on the Court House Square. As we approach this task of love, however, it is well for us to pause and review the history of our Chapter, since the quiet steady work accomplished through the passing years is truly the foundation upon which this monument may worthily rest.”
The Confederate monument Susie Lee referred to with hope stands today on the Putnam County courthouse lawn in Palatka. It’s on roughly the same spot where William Jennings Bryan campaigned at the time of Father John Conoley’s mutilation. The Patton Anderson chapter laid the cornerstone of the monument a couple of months after the Conoley attack — on April 26, 1924, Florida’s Confederate Memorial Day.
Today, the life-sized bronze Johnny Reb statue, built atop a stone pedestal, towers over the center of the courthouse grounds. It completely overshadows the memorials to the dead of other more recent wars. A poem carved into its stone honors “the heroism, fortitude, and glory of the men who wore the gray in the sixties” and “their love of country, devotion to principle, and fidelity to the cause they believed was right.”
Back in the late 90s, as a rookie reporter for the Palatka Daily News, I sat in my little newspaper cubicle thinking up stories with which to meet my daily quota. At one point, I debated with myself whether to make a stink over the monument and its implications.
In that combination of faux worldliness and intellectual laziness that has come to characterize far too much institutional reporting, I decided not to. After all, the Confederate monument was there first. Of course the people of the day would want to honor their dead in a powerful way. Why try to revise history? Why dredge up old animosities?
Had I bothered to actually look closely at the monument, or research it even a touch, I might have learned how distorted my own narrative was. I might have pointed out to the public that Putnam’s monument rose six decades after the fall of the Confederacy and three years after the much smaller and less prominent Great War monument. I might have learned that my aunt Susie Lee Walton likely wrote the poem carved into the granite.
Today, the Confederate monument so completely dominates all other courthouse monuments — and so commands the attention of any visitor — that it’s difficult to conceive that it came after the World War I plaque. And it wasn’t just the black men on the bronze whose stories were swallowed by the Lost Cause. More than half the names on the Great War memorial belong to white men. The dashing Confederate figure towers over them, too. Examine Palatka’s World War I plaque today, and you won’t even find the date of its dedication. I had to look it up in old newspapers.
What does it mean that shortly after the Great War, the Palatkans of the day, led in great part by J.V. Walton’s sister Susie Lee and mother Kate, raised a monument to a conflict and a society few of them remembered? Why would they give it a position of honor and dominance in front of the courthouse that enforced the laws of the very country the honored dead fought, killed, and died to abandon? Why do so at a time when Confederate-inspired lawlessness ran rampant throughout North Florida?
Let’s consider another Walton woman of another generation.
In 2001, J.V. Walton’s eldest daughter Sophie, my great aunt, sat down with one of her grandchildren to canvass her memories of family history. Talk soon turned to J.V.’s fight with the “Ku Klux,” as she and all of J.V.’s daughters called it.
“Well [the Klan] was actually started because after the Civil War,” Aunt Sophie said, “the war between the states, the blacks were put in positions by the Yankees, put in positions of authority and they didn’t any more know how to handle authority then a bean, but anyway they organized the Ku Klux Klan, not in Palatka, but in the south, to protect households from the authority, because authority was in the hands of people who didn’t handle it.”
My cousin tried to demur.
“Well, I’m not going to argue with you about it in this time,” replied Aunt Sophie. “Nobody will ever persuade me that it wasn’t the time when…. Most of the southern men were killed in the Civil War, and there were many, many households that were just women and children, and they were in danger.”
This is ripped straight from the teachings of William Archibald Dunning, the Columbia history professor whose “Dunning School” of historical thought in the late 19th and early 20th century laid the intellectual framework for the Lost Causism of Dixon and Griffith. And Aunt Sophie.
How powerful was that mythical grounding? Nobody will ever persuade me. That powerful.
Aunt Sophie’s distillation of this narrative is demonstrably false, particularly in Florida and Putnam County. Exactly one black man, Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs, rose as high as cabinet member in the post Civil War state government. And by virtually all accounts, had the extremely capable Gibbs risen higher, Florida would have been the better for it. Blacks were never close to a majority in the Reconstruction legislature.
Palatka historian Allan Swanson, citing a number of sources in his 1960s history of Palatka, made Putnam’s Reconstruction sound utterly uneventful.
“The Reconstruction Era was characterized by ‘…mild military rule’; there was ‘…very little for the soldiers to do’ because of no overt disturbances. There was ‘…no animosity of feeling apparent’ in the ex-Confederate soldiers who returned…
“The lack of lawlessness of which Tenney spoke apparently pervaded the Putnam County area; during the years 1866-1871, Ku Klux Klan activities in neighboring counties resulted in a declaration of martial law. Putnam did not experience this, however.”
At no point in Florida’s Reconstruction history did blacks supplant all the white men who supposedly didn’t exist after the war. At no point were Florida whites truly at the administrative mercy of lawless black politicians or militias.
One could more accurately say that whites in Palatka were subject, for a time, to a certain degree of immediate post-war chaos. They also experienced a more complex leveling of social and racial relations enforced unevenly by the occupying federal military, which included black troops. Under that military presence, blacks had a role in the judiciary and access to some federal patronage. To the white people of the time, all of that may have felt much like the narrative that Aunt Sophie described, but that feeling doesn’t make her statements accurate.
Consider this memory from James and Margaret Beckett, published in 1935:
“After we left (Yankees) went stealing and plundering around the town. They went to the Devall Hotel and stole the rocking chairs. The next thing they did was to burn a house and after that they burned several houses. The white people were told that Old Daddy Mark did it, so they took him out and hanged him and they told us that old man Haughton stamped the grave down. One of the houses belonged to the Moseleys.
“Ellen, (a slave) was sick in my mother’s house and I went to the house and told the white captain that I would have to have my Mother’s house. He said I certainly could have it, and that he would have a house built and put the sick women in it, and he did. The Peterman’s house was full of Negroes. They took possession of the peoples houses, and we could not get them out. I had a Negro woman do some washing for me and she charged me two dollars for it. I thought it too much and told her so. I did not think anything about her being the wife of a soldier. Anyway the next morning she came back and demanded the money. There stood the husband with a big knife in his hand. He would jam it in the wood of the door facing. I was afraid and paid the money.”
It’s impossible to know the veracity of the facts portrayed in this story. But take it on its own terms: In just these two paragraphs, we see an unpunished lynching, a federal officer responsive to the wishes of a white woman, and a white woman horrified that her black washwoman might have means to enforce payment.
That’s not exactly the tyranny of carpetbag rule. Rather, it’s the tyranny of awaking to find you no longer rule.
In fairness, that account focuses on the immediate aftermath of the war, rather than the period of occupation governed by the Radical Republicans in defiance of Andrew Johnson’s veto. But consider this account. It supports the position of Swanson’s sources while purporting to say the opposite.
“Experiences of Palatkans during the reconstruction period were similar to those of other southern communities. Citizens who had fled from their homes during the conflict returned to rebuild damaged properties and reclaim overgrown fields. Large numbers of freed Negroes roamed the countryside. They were not able to make a living and added to the burden of impoverished white people who were trying to rehabilitate themselves.
“Some were employed by their former masters, but many contented themselves with a gypsy life, wandering through the country and stealing what they needed for subsistence. A few were elected to public offices under the carpetbag regime. One of these was Dennis Wood, a former slave of Colonel Hart, who presided over the Putnam County court of several years. The Colonel dropped in one hot summer afternoon to hear the proceedings in a case in which he was interested. There was a water pitcher on the judge’s desk, but when Colonel Hart went there to get a drink, he found it empty and called Dennis to fill it. The judge immediately jumped up from his chair and filled the vessel. “Here’s some water, Master,” he said. “I’se sorry to kep’ you waitin’.”
“A.M. Doyle, another Negro, was town marshal of Palatka. He had a large force of Negro policemen, who found little necessity for arresting white people but were continually engaged in an effort to curb lawbreakers of their own race. I.L. Purcell, a negro lawyer, had an extensive practice. He was a “Powerful advocate” at the bar and “fixed up” many a case for clients of both races…
“…Most [northerners] established themselves in the community for sinister purposes. In a short time white residents learned that a branch of the Union League had been formed among the Negroes, who were preparing to take control of county and city affairs. They had already elected other officials, in addition to the county judge, and were soon in a fair way to accomplish the aims of their Organizers.
“It is significant that the Constitutional League of Florida (original Ku Klux Klan) was started at Welaka on November 30, 1867. This group was known thereafter as the Grand Council in this State. On December 22, of the same year, the Palatka Council was organized by Thomas Shelley, Sheriff, tax assessor and tax collector of Putnam County. It was the second council and from this beginning the Klan spread rapidly to all sections of Florida.
“During the next eight years there was a bitter struggle between the Klan and the League, with the sporadic acts of violence which could not be traced to any individuals, but League leaders were not able to stir their followers to armed attacks or reprisals on a large scale. [emphasis mine] In fact, the Negroes in this section, while numerous, were not disposed to seek the public offices which their northern friends were trying to thrust upon them for purposes of their own. Like the white Democrats, many of them seemed glad to end the mild racial disturbances when the Klan accomplished its object in 1876 by electing a complete county ticket of white candidates.
“The event was celebrated by a big torchlight procession in Palatka and Negro residents joined with the white population in cheering successful aspirants for office. There was some political trading in the early 1880s and D.M. Kirby, a white Republican, was elected clerk of the county clerk. He appointed a Negro deputy clerk, the last of his race to hold responsible public office in Putnam county. In Palatka several Negroes have been elected to the city council since 1900. In recent years, relations between the two races have been of the most friendly character, based as they are on mutual understanding and respect.”
That was published in 1939 by Palatka historian Robert Black Dowda, who mentioned absolutely nothing about the conflict of the late teens and 20s that is documented in my book.
Note that this passage starts by saying one thing and then completely refutes it. By Dowda’s own account, it was the good Klan, of old Bedford Forrest, that attacked with violence the nonviolent political organizing of blacks and Republicans and sinners.
Even those attacks, according to Swanson, did not amount to much with the “original Ku Klux Klan” apparently not very disruptive in its own home county. Swanson noted that the owner of Palatka’s landmark Bronson-Mulholland House opened a school for the children of freedmen and dispensed federal aid to the needy during Reconstruction.
“Because of her demonstrations for equality, a certain ill feeling was directed towards her by the residents of Palatka and Washington had troops stationed on the property to protect her. She felt this was unnecessary, however, and had the troops removed.”
All evidence suggests that Reconstruction in Florida, for whites, was time of somewhat submissive dreariness, but not oppression. Where oppression and intimidation occurred, whites did it to blacks and the whites trying to help them. Even the reports of general lawlessness are very difficult to substantiate.
Yet, Sophie Walton heard and perceived precisely the opposite story from every source of authority she trusted.
She almost certainly heard it from J.V., whom she adored, and who, by all accounts, remained a good-faith segregationist fond of the word “nigra” — at least in private company — until his death in 1964. If anything, his zeal for equal protection seems to have waned over the years with the rise of integration as the key civil rights aim.
And Aunt Sophie almost certainly heard the carpetbag rule story from J.V.’s sister Susie Lee and mother Kate, who were pillars of Palatka’s UDC throughout their lives.
Over the years, the UDC chapter provided money and care to Confederate veterans; awarded 40 “crosses of honor” for unspecified deeds; arranged social affairs “for these heroes who wore the gray for us;” erected 62 marble headstones for those “veterans who have passed over the river;” and fittingly observed Confederate Memorial Day each day with ceremonies both elaborate and quiet.
“The Education and Historical” elements of the UDC’s mission received special attention.
“Portraits of Lee and of Davis were presented to the public school some years ago. Ever since the organization of the Chapter an effort has been made each year to present to the school children on Lee’s birthday some phase of the life and character of the great leader and of the men who followed him. The Third of June has also been has also been observed regularly, either publicly or by the Daughters only. A watch has been kept upon the textbooks used in our schools, and interest in the true history of our whole country stimulated in various ways.”
Note how Lee’s birthday inspires a yearly pageant of some sort, while the 3rd of June, Jefferson Davis’ birthday, seems orphaned except for the loyal Daughters. Nobody really loved Jeff, not even Confederates. Nonetheless, Susie Lee for years served her nieces and nephews “Jeff Davis” pies—essentially 5-inch muffins or miniature pies stuffed with some sort of filling—every Christmas Eve. Even food was culturally freighted.
The Confederate myth throbbed through the daily lives of respectable white southerners in the early 20th century. One need only read Gainesville Sun Editor Robert Wyche Davis’ ode to black mammies to be reminded of that. The myth formed a moral and political organizational point, allowing white southerners of all classes to see themselves as Americans with special knowledge of “the true history of our whole country.”
We see it in the words of Rep. W.A. MacKenzie. Just prior to helping loose the dogs on Father John Conoley in 1923, MacKenzie represented Florida Gov. Cary Hardee at an Atlanta banquet supporting the long in-progress Confederate bas relief memorial on Stone Mountain. You’ll remember that William Simmons launched the revival Klan in 1915 from the flaming top of Stone Mountain on the same weekend that The Birth of a Nation opened in Atlanta.
“[The monument] can not do else than succeed for behind it is the greatest electrealizing force in the universe–the mighty and united heart beats of the flower of the world’s womanhood, the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of Dixie…
“…I can see countless generations yet unborn standing before this memorial in reverent honor of the greatest “Lost Cause” known to history—a cause that lost its objective, but gained a more shining and greater thing—an eternal cloister of love in the hearts of men…
“…God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to be crucified that you and I and our beloved might live and know that blessings of human brotherhood. Likewise God so loved the world that he allowed the crucifixion of the noble cause of the Confederacy upon the cross of mistaken northern policies that down the path of history at the call of that christ-like leader Woodrow Wilson, a united people would crush the slimy octopus of Germania and rive forever the blast of imperialism from the Garden of Destiny.”
The white men and women who joined the Klan, or openly supported it, accepted the nobility of the Lost Cause as sacred truth. But so did the white men and women of Palatka who fought the Klan and mobs and lynchings; and the power of that myth may well have fed their resistance.
I argue that the revival Klan lost its vital popular support — and fell apart as a truly powerful political force — because it failed to live up to the bullshit cornice of chivalry that Dunning-school historians and later Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith built around the pogromists and thugs of the Reconstruction Klan.
It was easy for The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and 1916 to purge and burnish what the Reconstruction Klansmen actually did in the 1870s. But the MacKenzies of the world could not so easily gloss over the contemporary gashing of white, priestly, testicular flesh in 1924 with gauzy abstractions about virtue and knighthood. One could not torch the property of American citizens, even black farmers, in the dead of night and still credibly argue that you “oppose only the devil.” A jury could not acquit a mob for shooting a white sheriff while trying to lynch a black convict and pretend it cared about law and order.
At some point, the justifications and blandishments fell away, leaving only force and power and the will to use it in the service of a type of individual.
The Klan — and white political violence, generally, from Reconstruction forward — never revolved around anything else but the hard business of tribal power. But at least in Reconstruction, the Klan sought to restore its tribe to tangible political and economic dominance. A real political idea — Redemption — animated the Reconstruction Klan. Its violence served a strategic, if brutal and murderous, purpose. The beneficiaries of Redemption adorned that political accomplishment with all sorts of hogwash about protecting women and children from lecherous scalawags and negro beasts bent on rape. But that doesn’t change the fact that it actually pursued clear political goals.
In contrast, no real ideas but the joy of impunity and easy grifter money lay behind the creation and development of the revival Klan. How do you Redeem further what has already been Redeemed? It’s true that the Protestant clergy of the 20s eventually came to imprint its anti-whiskey posturing and virtue-protection onto the actions of the revival Klan. Enforcement of a narrow vision of Christian morality became the closest thing it had to a raison d’etre. But ultimately, I would argue that the means of the revival Klan were its ends. And for a time, they made it simply the coolest frat to pledge, the toughest gang to join. Then people started to realize what the knights actually did and to whom.
Although I doubt any of them recognized it as this at the time, the emergence of the revival Klan — and the post World War I violence — triggered a struggle among white southerners over what it meant to honor and emulate the men who fought for the Lost Cause and then Redeemed it. This struggle, over what it meant to be a white southern American, pervaded the battles of Florida between World War I and the Depression.
One detects it in the anguish of Robert Davis, a Confederate veteran, during the Age of Barbarity period and his later silence concerning Conoley. One hears it in U.F. President A.A. Murphree’s defiant reference to “the little coterie purporting to represent the Alachua Klan” before he capitulated to the truth of his opposition.
Both men learned painfully that no difference existed between the “little coterie” and the real Klan. And more than that, both men learned how little difference existed between the Klan and much of the public, which, through readership and taxes, paid both of their comfortable salaries and gave them their influence.
We’ll see this internal white conflict again in 1927 in the words of Palatka businessmen —including the same former editor of the Palatka Daily News who in 1918 called for a Palatka Klan chapter — who begged the Florida governor to stop the white mob rule in Putnam County.
My aunt Sophie used this mythical history of the good Klan — of the grim and wise Bedford Forrest of Faulkner’s Harrykin Creek — to distinguish it from the bad Klan of World War I and the 20s.
To fight the revival Klan, but respect the Reconstruction Klan, you needed to believe in a qualitative difference between the two. I see no evidence of that difference from the vantage point of today. But people of the 1920s did. In the end, enough white people, North and South, came to see the revival Klan as such a betrayal of the virtues of The Birth of a Nation myth that its future incarnations lost forever the impunity that comes with real popular support.
But that took a while to happen.
The early revival Klan commanded the popular support of much, if not most, of the country’s culturally conservative Protestant establishment. That popular support lasted longer in Florida than most states. The nativist, religious populism behind the revival Klan remains the political and cultural force that came closest to plunging the U.S. into fascism. The Civil Rights-era Klan pales. The revival Klan was a public movement, structured much like a political campaign, with field organizers raising volunteers and money from locals. And all too many of its anonymous members got off on the thrill of abducting and beating and killing behind the impunity of their hoods.
The men listed on Putnam’s Klan charter represented that political force in Putnam County. Like their spiritual forefathers, they fought a political and quasi-military insurgency against the prevailing order, which was stronger in Putnam County than most places.
I doubt J.V. Walton or his allies ever stopped to consider it, but Walter Minton and his fellows likely thought of them with exactly the same contempt that Archibald Dunning directed to carpetbaggers. Minton and the 20s Klan, asked to justify their actions, would say they were fighting for a second Redemption of their community from general corruption, whiskey-driven licentiousness, and intolerable boldness from a subset of negroes, Catholics, and other undesirables.
Where do Susie Lee Walton and the respectable daughters of the Confederacy fit into this struggle?
Let’s look back at Susie Lee’s paragraph about historical observance and who dominates it, Gen. Robert E. Lee — not the actual man, but the archetype of Confederate nobility.
The “great leader” is a vision of virtue, a southerner’s self-image. Fearless and brilliant in defense of home, graceful in defeat, refined in bearing, personally pious, and unfailingly polite. It makes perfect sense that “an effort has been made each year to present to the school children on Lee’s birthday some phase of the life and character of the great leader and of the men who followed him.”
Walton family lore holds that Gen. Lee was some sort of ancestral cousin, a family linkage I haven’t managed to verify. But his very name falls down like rain through this story to my own life. From Susie Lee Walton in one generation to J.V. Walton’s daughter Kate Lee Walton in the next to my sister Lee. The good general is always with us here in the land of live oaks and oranges, even today, when few people, black or white, still realize it.
In 1924, he was everywhere. Constantly. Sixty years after the war. You might pick up the paper one morning and find a news story headlined, “Matchless Character Of Lee Illustrated By His Decisions.” This type of celebration would follow:
“Refusal of Financial Independence and Devotion of Talents to Educating South’s Youth True Indexes.
“…The soldier’s death, dying gloriously with his face to the foe, would have been the easiest way out. Lee craved it and spoke of it but was too noble and high to court it. He chose the harder work of going on, living, suffering, and sorrowing. [cq]adding to staunch the life wounds of what was once his nation. During the hours of [illegible], when he was weighing the question of further resistance, burdened with the trust laid upon him and bowed by the weight of what was about to fall upon his beloved country, he exclaimed, ‘How easily I could get rid of this and be at rest, but it is our duty to live for what will become of the women and children of the South if we are not here to support and protect them.’ [emphasis mine]
“The passing of more than a half century, has brought not one voice in condemnation of his men or his mission…”
Gen. Lee the man oversaw and actively disciplined slaves belonging to his wife’s family, and his army abducted free blacks and contraband slaves and sent them back to bondage when it marched on Antietam Creek and Gettysburg. These facts did not figure in the portraits of the dashing man in gray presented to schoolchildren of the early 20th century because measured history was not their purpose. And when you read Susie Lee’s full history of the Palatka UDC, you notice its complete absence of conflict or hostility — toward the Yankees, blacks, or even Republicans. All that was in the past. She’s describing the pursuit of rite and culture, not historical inquiry, or even incitement.
Many of my relatives remember Susie Lee Walton quite well, as do various Palatka acquaintances. All of them, without exception, describe her as unfailingly kind and loving. Never married, Susie Lee lived with her mother in a lovely riverfront house for most of Kate’s very long life as a widow. By the time Kate stepped down from the Patton Anderson chapter in 1924, at age 70, she had been a widow for 11 years. She had 22 widowed years left.
Memories of Kate, communicated to me second and third hand, are far harsher than Susie Lee. She was apparently a teetotaler, which would place her among a tiny minority of Waltons of either sex. My grandmother, the kindest woman I’ve ever known, did not like visiting the severe Kate, whom she and her sisters knew as “Ma” or “Mar.” And Kate did, in fact, saw a hole in J.V. Walton’s beloved boat to end a childhood battle of wills, or so the family story goes.
Susie Lee was different. Hardly a Palatka civic organization existed that did not benefit endlessly from her time and effort. She was forever organizing schoolchildren to sing some program or to comfort some group of the afflicted. She’s in many ways the mother of the Palatka Public Library and often donated books to the library on the occasion of a friend or relative’s death. The last one she gave before her death, “Encyclopedia of Roses,” contained “421 glorious color illustrations,” according to a eulogy that appeared in one of the papers.
Susie Lee died in 1963 in a car crash as she drove away from visiting my grandmother Lois Walton Townsend’s newborn youngest child — my aunt Lois Ann.
When news reached the Walton beach compound in Summer Haven, near St. Augustine, family legend maintains that a prominent black man, Gene Johnson, was one of her most pained mourners. A locally famous party host and man of booze, Johnson for years guided whiskey smugglers through the oyster flats of Matanzas inlet. He lived there with his wife on property owned by infamous St. Johns County Sheriff L.O. Davis. Johnson and Bill Walton, and eventually my grandfather Bill Townsend Sr., would cross each other’s paths from time to time in booze-related mischief.
In one story, granddaddy and a friend stole a batch of illegal whiskey, for which Johnson shamed them years later.
Johnson’s exotic, illegal parties for the white political and business elite, including regular winter visitors like the Mellons of Pittsburgh, made his shack a sort of cracker Cotton Club, where politics and finance mixed with oysters.
Upon Susie Lee’s passing, the story goes, the elderly Johnson brought a fresh mess of tomato-based, horsemint-garnished Minorcan clam chowder to the house as a gift in her honor. But he wouldn’t come inside because it wasn’t his place. Instead, Johnson cried and cried on the back steps, his trademark fedora cocked to one side.
I don’t begin to know if this is true.
If it is, I don’t know where he and Susie Lee would have developed a relationship of that intensity. Their interactions in life didn’t seem to stick in anyone’s head. Her death is the only place I know in which they intersect.
Thus even Susie Lee’s mourning, in 1963, in our telling of it, maps itself to the contours of southern elegance and romance. Here, class and racial roles aren’t fought and killed over daily, but accepted voluntarily, even worshiped, by all kind people of good faith, regardless of their station. For its owners, it’s a paradise of sorts, a place of porches and food and rich language, emulating an earlier paradise that never existed.
I say none of this to condemn Susie Lee Walton or indict my own family for what it remembers. Nor would I accuse Gene Johnson of Uncle Tomism just because he helps to populate our lovely tableau. The many adventures and complexities of Gene Johnson deserve their own book, not any easy judgments.
So does Susie Lee. Had I grown up in the 40s and 50s, I feel certain I would have loved her in the way my politically and culturally liberal father and aunts and uncles did and do. I think it’s entirely likely that she earned the love of Gene Johnson through many genuine kindnesses and acts of respect. She would not have found that incompatible with living as a loyal daughter of the Confederacy.
In many ways, I find Susie Lee Walton and her mother (my great, great grandmother) among the most fascinating characters of this story. I still don’t have a good handle on how they reacted as the comparatively idyllic Palatka social arrangements crumbled after World War I and gave way to very real, truly vicious violence — none of which was romantic.
Much of that violence came from nightriders claiming to imitate forefathers who had fought for the Confederacy and then Redeemed the southern states through terror and murder. And those nightriders had the active support of pastors, like J.D. Sibert of St. James Methodist Church, where Susie Lee and Kate worshiped faithfully.
J.V. Walton, for a very long time, stood in very public opposition to those nightriders and their supporters. These stands turned him against large portions of the community, and I see strong hints — in grand jury records and guest lists at parties — that they turned him against elements of his own family, at least for a time.
Through it all, each faction — from the revival Klan to J.V. and his allies — would have imagined itself acting in the spirit of General Lee and the men who followed him.
Ironically, one of the most acute and concise analyses of these cultural divisions among the worshipers of the gray came from the point-of-view of a “radical” black man. W.E.B DuBois detailed the factions of white southerners in The Souls of Black Folk with counterintuitive prescience years before World War I and Great Migration turned them against one another.
“Today even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others—usually the sons of the masters [emphasis mine]—wish to help him rise. National opinion has enabled this last class to maintain the Negro common schools, and to protect the Negro partially in property, life, and limb. Through the pressure of the money-makers, the Negro is in danger of being reduced to semi-slavery, especially in the country districts; the workingmen and those educated who fear the Negro, have united to disenfranchise him, and some have urged his deportation; while the passions of the ignorant are easily aroused to lynch and abuse any black man. To praise this intricate whirl of thought and prejudice is nonsense; to inveigh discriminately against “the South” is unjust; but to use the same breath in praising Governor Aycock, exposing Senator Morgan, arguing with Mr. Thomas Nelson Page, and denouncing Senator Ben Tillman is not only sane, but the imperative duty of thinking black men.”
That was published in 1903.
Two decades later, Palatka’s UDC and Masons laid the monument cornerstone on April 26, 1924, Confederate Memorial Day. Judge A.V. Long, the judge who presided over the trial of the mob who attacked the Putnam jail in 1923, served as master of ceremonies, just as he had for the World War I monument in 1921.
Long brought with him a “ancient battle flag of the 47th Georgia Infantry Regiment, shot through with 32 bullet holes, a tattered emblem, bullet-scarred, wind-frayed and sun-faded,” as the Daily News put it. The banner caused a sensation, with elderly veterans clamoring to touch it.
“One grizzled old Veteran of the sixties saw, for the first time in sixty years, the shrapnel-torn banner under which he fought for four long, bloody years. Many wept with him when he fell upon his knees and kissed the flag he had followed across the Sanguinary fields of Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain and around Resaca.”
The men and women weeping in solidarity on that day lived in a fractiously inclusive incarnation of America — inglorious, confusing, capriciously violent, and industrial. Why wouldn’t they mourn and worship a dead alternative — one that had the unifying advantage of never having existed? Why wouldn’t they love their monument to a nobler, but false, narrative?