Friday, March 21, 2008

Slave, or free?


Dudley Mathis's grave is located in the center of this photo, looking southwest across the oldest part of Hamilton Cemetery. The Hamilton graves are to the right, under the oak tree.

It seems odd, but not surprising I guess, that so many white Americans are so surprised that black Americans are still mad. Why can’t those folks just get over 250 years of slavery, another century of legally-sanctioned apartheid, violence and discrimination and the last 50 years or so of racism sometimes more subtle --- and sometimes not? Golly.

Shock, let me say shock again, when it became clear that some of that anger has bubbled to the surface occasionally as Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, preached from the pulpit of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

“… now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost," he said after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

“God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human,” he said in a 2003 sermon.

"Barack knows what it means to be a black man to be living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a nigger," he said during December.

Shocking --- or is it?

I remember angry white men preaching from other pulpits after Sept. 11, declaring the terrorist attacks to be God’s judgment for what they perceived to be the nation’s sins.

I’ve heard lately from various pulpits white and black that God will damn America if, let’s say, same-sex civil unions or marriages are tolerated.

And what about it? You ever been called “nigger,” or its equivalent based solely on your race, religion, ethnic background or sexual orientation?

These are some of the things I was thinking about last week when I stopped at Hamilton Cemetery just north of Pleasanton in Decatur County to visit the grave of Dudley J. S. Mathis, brought to Iowa as a slave in 1846.


THE INSCRIPTION on Dudley’s tombstone, topped by a hand pointing skyward and surrounded by the words “There’s rest in heaven,” reads, “Sacred to the memory of Dudley J. S. Mathis, Died Nov. 8, 1849, Aged 28 Yrs.”

Dudley’s story is frustratingly incomplete. I’ve been unable to find little more than the inscription on the newer tombstone nearby of his owners, William (Sept. 1, 1801-Sept. 17, 1854) and Susannah Willis (Sept. 22, 1800-Nov. 22, 1869) Hamilton.


This stone, erected many years later by Ralph Hamilton, descendant of William and Susannah, reads, “William Hamilton and family came to Pleasanton in the 1840’s with six slave families, including a slave named Dudley Mathis. Dudley Mathis was the first person buried in the cemetery. He died at the age of 28 in 1849. Hamilton Cemetery was named after William Hamilton as was Hamilton Township.”

WE KNOW that the Hamiltons originated in Grainger County, Tennessee, and that may have been where Dudley was born, too.

Most of the Hamilton children were born in Tennessee, but the obituary of their 13th child, Francis Marion Hamilton, states that he was born Aug. 15, 1845, in Platte County, Missouri, so we also know that the family lived there before moving farther north. The obituary of a Hamilton daughter, Arvesta Ann Hamilton Stone, states that the family arrived in the Pleasanton area during 1846.

Hard to believe there were slaves in Iowa in 1846, year of statehood, so you need to know something about the history of the extreme southern part of the state to understand why more than a few slave-owning families, including the Hamiltons, located there.

The current Iowa-Missouri border follows what is known as the Sullivan Line, surveyed by J.S. Sullivan in 1816 before either Missouri or Iowa had been granted statehood. By the time Iowa became a territory in 1838, confusion had developed.

First of all, Sullivan had made a surveying error that caused his line, which was supposed to be more or less straight from northwest Missouri to the Mississippi River, to drift slightly northeast from true as it approached the Mississippi. And there were other problems.

During the late 1830s, Albert M. Lea, formerly a U.S. Army cartographer, was named chairman of the Iowa-Missouri Border Commission, a group named to sort the border dispute out. He spelled out four possibilities to choose from: (1) the original Sullivan Line, (2) the Sullivan Line as it should have been surveyed in the first place, (3) the Joseph C. Brown line, based on an 1837 survey commissioned by Missouri that cut across Iowa from river to river about nine miles north of the Sullivan Line and (4) another line, optimistically embraced by Iowa, that passed from river to river a few miles south of the Sullivan line.

To add interest, Missouri and Iowa militias almost got into a fight about the border during 1839, when the abortive “Honey War” was almost launched.

Finally, in 1849, the U.S. Supreme court decided that the original Sullivan Line, despite its flaw, would be the permanent border between the two states.

But during the 1840s, there was a good deal of confusion about exactly which state these southern-most miles of Iowa were in. Missouri was a slave state and Iowa, free. A number of slave-owning families, including the Hamiltons, moved into the disputed territory in the belief that their new homes were in Missouri.

So that was why Dudley Mathis and other men and women the Hamiltons may have claimed legal title to were brought into Iowa as slaves.

And it isn’t clear if the Hamiltons freed their slaves, including Dudley, or if the slaves freed themselves. Nor is it clear if Dudley was considered slave or free when he died, although lore suggests that he was a freed slave who chose to remain with the Hamiltons.

WHATEVER THE CASE may be, Dudley, because he was black, slave or free, could not have been a citizen of Iowa, could not have voted, could not have testified in court, could not have married a white woman, could not have been guaranteed a place in an Iowa school, was considered less than fully human by the Iowa Constitution and under Iowa law.

As these things go, Iowa has a fairly solid civil rights record --- when compared to the records of other states, but not perhaps if you are on the black side of the black/white color line.

It was not until 1868, after the Civil War, that Iowa eliminated from its Constitution provisions limiting the right to vote to white people.

Although Iowa’s 1884 law ensuring equal access to specified places of public accommodation was one of the first in the nation, it was very narrowly applied and consistently limited by court rulings. It was not until a 1949 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that Maurice Katz had violated the terms of that 1884 act by refusing to serve Edna Griffin, John Bibbs and Leonard Hudson at his Katz Drugstore in downtown Des Moines that everyday overt acts of discrimination began to wane.

Closer to home, my dad often talked about the involvement of his aunt and uncle, Daisy (Myers) and Durward Ream, in the Ku Klux Klan, so active in Chariton at the time it built as its headquarters the building now occupied by the Assembly of God Church. And I was startled a few years ago to find in an old obituary regarding a funeral at Belinda Christian Church, considered a family congregation, reference to the fact that the services had been conducted under the auspices of the “knights and ladies” of the Klan.

Dad also talked about the only black member of his 1930s high school graduating class in Chariton, a lovely and intelligent young woman taunted by fellow students as “nigger” who left Lucas County upon graduation and never returned.

I SAT DOWN the other night to read the transcript of Obama’s eloquent speech delivered on Tuesday in large part because of the controversy surrounding Wright’s remarks.

After distancing himself from the remarks, the candidate added that despite the fact he deplored the words, he could no more disown Wright than he could the nation’s black community --- and that he understood the sources of their anger.

“ … race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Obama continued. “We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together …”


THERE ARE MANY more things I’d like to know about Dudley J.S. Mathis. His tombstone is an especially fine one for its time, beautifully engraved slate both larger and far better preserved than the nearby eroding marble monuments to members of the Hamilton family. Who ensured that he was memorialized so well?

His grave is in the center of a broad open area in the middle of the oldest section of the Hamilton Cemetery. Why so much space for himself? Why is no one buried near him? Because he was black?

The grave has received careful attention in the past. At some point probably many years after his death, concrete curbing, now shattered by time, was placed around it. By whom?

And finally, there’s the inscription in its lower right hand corner, made enigmatic by time and lichen. Two of the words engraved next to an incised heart seem to read “Stop hate” and I simply can’t decipher the rest. It’s entirely possible this is not at all the proper interpretation and perhaps one day I’ll go back with a gentle brush, equipped to make a rubbing, and see if I can do a better job of interpreting it. But it seemed a good message to take away from Dudley’s grave on Friday.

It has to begin, I think, with white people, with understanding about the sources of black anger and with attempts to channel whatever anger we may have ourselves onto constructive paths. When we've done that, we can begin to talk to black people about their anger.

But until we stop hate, we’re all slaves, none of us free.

2 comments:

Rebecca said...

It is my hope that Senator Obama will keep on inspiring the masses to think a little differently. This country's people needed a fire lit under their collective behinds.

I have been keeping an eye on Barack Obama since his keynote speech in 2004.

Again you have written something so wonderfully thought provoking! Thank you for your words.

we said...

Thanks for your work. Just visited this cementary. My grandmother was
Georgia Hamilton. Would also like to know more about Dudley Mathis and his life and also how he died.