Yesterday I published my friend Melissa’s story about her connection to The Dukes of Hazzard, the Confederate Flag, and a road that runs between Sharon and York, the town we grew up in and the “city” where we went to high school. Sutton Springs Road is a back road, a windy country road that twists and turns around trees and hills and hollers.
Melissa tells in her essay of her mother’s fear when taking Sutton Springs Road home from church, probably in the 1940s or 50s, because sometimes in the summer the Klan would be having meetings out in a field along that road, complete with burning crosses and Confederate flags waving. Melissa’s essay was the first time I’d ever heard about that, despite having ridden Sutton Springs Road all my life.
You see, there was something else on Sutton Springs Road in addition to the field where the Klan met, something in addition to the curve where my brother wrecked two different cars in two consecutive years. There was the old Feemster place, my great-grandfather’s land. And the old Hartness place, my other great-grandfather’s land. And my Uncle Erskine, the war hero from WWII, who got a Silver Star and survived the Battle of the Bulge – he lived in a trailer on Sutton Springs Road right in front of his daddy’s (my great-grandaddy’s) house. So I spent a lot of time on Sutton Springs Road as a kid, and nobody bothered to tell me that the Klan used to meet there. Of course, I was a little young to be fitted for a white sheet, so it really didn’t matter. And my father was never associated with the Klan in any way, and as far as he and I know, neither was his father.
His grandfathers, however, may have been a different story. When I was home last week I mentioned Melissa’s story to him, and her mother’s stories of the Klan meeting on Sutton Springs Road when she was little. I knew that my dad was older than Melissa’s parents, and that he’s known them forever. He just nodded and said, “yep, they did.”
Then he told me a story about a flogging on Sutton Springs Road, which, if Melissa’s mom had told her that when she was a little girl, I don’t know if she ever would have taken that shortcut as a teen. I don’t know when this story happened, and Daddy doesn’t remember it, but I suppose it would have been in the 30s, because he remembers some of the aftermath. But there was an African-American preacher beaten and left for dead by the Klan on Sutton Springs Road, which led to a crackdown on the Klan’s activities in York County. At least as much of a crackdown as can happen when the presiding judge in the one case that went to trial was a high-ranking Klansman.
Daddy remembers, and I don’t know if this is memory or story passed down, my family’s involvement in the beating death of this minister. As Daddy tells it “I don’t know if they had anything to do with beating that preacher, but the next morning my two granddaddies, Granddaddy Hartness and Granddaddy Feemster, they went and cut him down and took him home in a wagon, and that’s where he died.”
Daddy tells another story “Now my Granddaddy Hartness would stay over at Erskine’s, and he’d sleep in that front bedroom, and he had this mean old dog that slept on the porch. And this dog was just mean as a snake, wouldn’t let anybody get near Granddaddy without raising Cain. But one night these two old boys came up on the porch and asked Granddaddy if they oughta run, or stand trial for killing that preacher, ’cause a bunch of ’em, they was running, you see. Some of them boys went to Texas, some of them went to West Virginia, but Granddaddy told them boys they might as well stay. And the whole time they was there, that old dog never made a sound. Now I don’t know if it was just because them boys was that damn mean, or if that dog knew them boys, but it never barked the whole time.”
So I don’t know my family’s involvement in making Sutton Springs Road my friend Melissa’s Road of Fear, but the fear is real, and it touches all of us in some way or another, even if we don’t know it at the time. Obviously I’ve never worn a white sheet, or burned a cross in anyone’s yard, and I work against the racism I see in myself. But it’s important that we not ignore our heritage, and our history. So yeah, the Confederate flag is part of my heritage, but I’m trying not to make it part of me anymore.