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Inheriting Home: The Skeletons in Pa’s Closet

Read more about this lynching in John Carter: Scapegoat for Anger. Both essays appear on America’s Black Holocaust Museum, an online museum with the mission of educating the public about the ongoing injustices endured by people of African heritage in America, and providing visitors to the site with opportunities to rethink their assumptions about race and racism. The essays were written for junior-high level audiences.

Beautiful Arkansas ©1952 Words and Music by C.M. Harris, Piggott, Ark.

The South is a region of contradictions – warmth and violence, faith and hell-fire, friendliness and bigotry. Growing up, I lived both in the South and away from it. But to my Southern family, home was Little Rock, Arkansas. With its store of family memories, Arkansas defined home for me, too. But embracing and claiming it as my own is prickly business. “Home” has closets of skeletons that are anything but comforting: the Lost Cause, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings.

Harp Family, Little Rock, ca. 1919. Pa is in the back.

Sorting through the threads of love, violence, and inheritance, I began to wonder what family memories meant to me. Did I have to claim all of them? Or could I choose only ones I liked? In letters, photographs, journals, and stories, I saw ancestors who worked as telephone operators, electricians, Sunday School teachers, and small-time public officials. Like any family, mine laughed together, argued, grew old, and taught family memories to their children.


Federal troops escorting the Little Rock Nine into Central High School for the first time. Photo credit: Bettman/CORBIS.

The Stories

One family story with national significance was the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. Growing up among its alumni, I heard about Eisenhower, the 101st Airborne, and the Little Rock Nine in mixed tones of subdued pride. Central had made international news, but only with negative articles about what happened there.

Something else I always heard: Pa, my grandmother’s father, was a deputy sheriff, a “peace officer,” as they were called then. Everyone was proud of this. He and my great-grandmother must have cut quite the dashing figures in the 1920s, a charming, popular couple hosting speakeasies in their shotgun house during Prohibition. They pushed back furniture on bare wooden floors to win Jitterbug contests, while their young daughters peeked around door frames at the glamorous parties. My family clearly remembered the couple with admiration, even awe.

Another family story: a black man was lynched in the middle of Little Rock. The tone was similar to that used about Central High – shame at the blot on the city’s reputation, but just a bit of pride at the notoriety. I was too young to wonder how anyone possibly could be proud of a lynching.

Confederate Battle Flag

Making the Connection

In 1993 my grandmother (Pa’s daughter) died and I inherited her papers, filled with the stories she’d always told me. Reading them one winter day, in my attic office of a house in Maine, I found pieces that formed not what I’d always heard as two separate stories, but a single one. That Deputy Sheriff Pa was “involved” with the lynching, that he was there when John Carter was killed, maybe even had helped drag his body into the city and burn it.

He had helped? I began consuming everything I could find about lynchings – heroes who tried to stop them, complicit law enforcement, seemingly respectable businessmen who hid under robes of the Ku Klux Klan. As I read, I grew more and more angry at my newfound connection to it. Pa was among the peace officers who didn’t stop John Carter’s lynching. Pa’s car might have been the one that dragged Carter’s body through town.

History as Therapy

I kept reading, trying to forgive myself for having this nightmare in my background, in my genes. History as therapy, I called it. I wanted to forget my family’s past. But could I? If I said I inherited my love of books from my grandmother, could I ignore her father’s legacy of white supremacy and violence? I began writing and rewriting John Carter’s story. I whined and raged about ignorance and justice, and my anger didn’t fade. Clearly, the therapy wasn’t working. I needed to know what had happened, but I also needed to know why.

Lynching of John Carter

I enrolled in a master’s program in U.S. history. From lists compiled by the NAACP and Tuskegee University, I learned about thousands of lynching victims, in the South and elsewhere. I learned about upheavals of the 1920s: voting rights for women, the volatility of post-World War I race relations, Darwinism, the Social Gospel. The Civil War defeat still was very real to that generation of white Southern men. Having lost at Appomattox, sixty years later white men thought they could conquer a different enemy: black men accused of attacking white women. When Southern whites of that decade saw lynching photographs, they wouldn’t have felt the shock that turns our stomachs today and makes us look away. Nearly ten years earlier, a white Little Rock newspaper had said, “This may be ‘Southern brutality’ as far as a Boston Negro can see, but in polite circles, we call it Southern chivalry, a Southern virtue that will never die.” (Little Rock Daily News, quoted in Crisis 15 (April 1918), 288-29. Reference in Leon F. Litwack, “Hellhounds,” Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe: Twin Palms Publishers, 2000), 24.)

Taking a stand would have been very difficult in Pa’s community. Some people did it, but Pa didn’t.

Pa at the Missouri-Pacific Railroad Station, Little Rock, 1920s

Pa’s Legacy

With a fuller understanding of the circumstances, I don’t condone or excuse my great-grandfather’s actions. Like the Little Rock mob, I’d wanted a scapegoat. I’d wanted to despise Pa for the Southern history our family embodied. Or, I’d wanted proof his daughter was mistaken and he hadn’t done it. But nothing exonerated him. Pa did a horrible thing, and he wasn’t alone.

Neither am I. Others search their families for heroes or villains. Like me, they find ancestors who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – stand up to social and physical threats. We who have perpetrators in our families have to claim the legacies they left us. We have to speak against it. Telling stories can make a difference; I’ve seen it happen. And burying unpleasant history keeps us from learning its lessons. As a nation, we still have many lessons, both behind and ahead of us. As long as we keep trying, keep talking, we have a chance of learning them.


© 2012-2013 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.