When I was a kid growing up in Central Ohio, my family would go to my Uncle Charlie and Aunt Lucille’s house for the Fourth of July. They lived on a farm near New Bloomington, a tiny hamlet in Marion County. Their house sat on a rise in the road and could be seen long before you got there as this was farm country with large fields of corn and soybeans and little else to obstruct your view. Later in the summer, the corn would be so high it limited your line of sight but on July Fourth, the corn was usually only, “knee high”, or a bit less if there had been a delayed planting due to a soggy June.
The primary reason for this family gathering wasn’t to celebrate the 4th, it was to celebrate my Grandmother King’s birthday. Pearl Mae was born on the Fourth of July in Illinois in 1889. To me she always looked very old, no doubt worn down by farm life and minimal medical care.
She lived alone on a small farm not far from my aunt and uncle. The farm was eighty acres of what had originally been an entire section of 640 acres purchased by my great, great, great grandfather, George King, and his brother-in-law, James McElvy in 1820. Our roots ran deep in Marion County, Salt Rock Township, Ohio. We were a pioneer family who settled in the Ohio Territory as part of the westward growth of an infant nation. George King and his father had fought the British in both the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
Through research of my family history, I discovered that my first relative in America, a 21 year old Scotsman, James King, arrived in chains as an indentured servant. He had been sold to a British plantation owner in Maryland. I have since wondered if my ancestors fought the British out of patriotism or a deep hatred of the English who crushed the Scottish clans at the battle of Culloden and killed or captured rebel Scotsmen like my ancestor.
My family was not demonstratively patriotic. However, we did put out the flag on the 4th. My dad was proud of his service in WWII, but also always felt it had stolen four crucial years of his life. At twenty-nine years old, he had been drafted a month after Pearl Harbor and just ten months after getting married.
I don’t think my parents or my aunt and uncle thought much about racism, gender equality, or integration. In Marion County, I doubt if many people gave much thought to these things. Sure, the Little Rock, Arkansas school integration had taken place, Emmett Till had been brutally murdered in Mississippi, Medgar Evers had breached the walls of the University of Mississippi amid violent racist riots, but those things took place “down South” where white people were “prejudiced”. I can’t even recall the term racism being used until I got to college.
I do remember when I had my first experience of racism. I had just turned seven. I was watching TV with my mother and the news showed black children being escorted to school in Little Rock. Soldiers had surrounded the children and were protecting them against a crowd of angry white people shouting nasty things at them. I asked my mother, “Why don’t they want black, (I probably said Negro as this was the term used then), going to school?’ My mother was caught off guard by my question. She seemed a bit flustered and then said something to the effect of, “People should just get along.” Years later I wondered if that was the first time she had ever thought about racism.
But on those July 4th’s on the farm, Little Rock might well have been on the moon. However, Marion was still a place that racism touched. Maybe my family didn’t know that in 1919 the good citizens of Marion, because of an alleged attack on a white woman, decided to drive all the “Negro’s” out of the town. It has always seemed ironic to me that Marion was a way station for the Underground Railroad but had so few people of color as residents. I guess it was OK to help them as long as they didn’t stay.*
It is also ironic to me, that as descendants of people who experienced extreme prejudice, we were so blind to the prejudice happening in our own country. My ancestor who was sold as an indentured servant, was basically a slave, though English law prohibited white people from being “slaves”. Indentured servants were given a sentence of servitude after which they could be free, though many did not live to experience freedom, having been worked hard and treated harshly. My ancestor died at twenty-seven, two or three years after his release.
On those July 4th days on Uncle Charlie and Aunt Lucille’s farm, I think we were celebrating being together as much as we were celebrating the birth of our nation. Earlier in the day, my brother and I had marched in our Boy Scout uniforms in the annual parade down Center Street and had saluted when the National Anthem was played. I can say I felt a certain sense of pride and reverence for being an American. I didn’t know in those childhood years exactly what that meant but I did feel I belonged to something greater than myself.
I was probably also thinking about my aunt’s fried chicken and homemade ice cream with strawberries from her garden. I was also probably thinking about the fireworks my dad and Charlie would light under a tin can and how it would jump high it the air when the firecracker went off.
My grandmother would sit in a chair that had been brought out of the house and placed on the front lawn. She would talk with the, “women folk”, and occasionally say things like, “Be careful Georgie”. Georgie, George, was my dad whom grandma adored. Grandma would also periodically say something none of us could quite understand, except that it was clear she was talking to her deceased husband, Jim. He had died nearly twenty years earlier of a heart attack while shoveling snow.
If the adults on those July 4th’s were aware of the brewing storm that the civil rights movement and the anti-Viet Nam War movements would bring, they gave no indication of it to me. Even if they had, I’m not sure what they would have thought they could do about any of it. I think this is how revolutions are. Forces grow in a kind of vacuum of ignorance and indifference until they burst out and catch everyone off guard except the most forward thinkers. Warnings had been given that there were serious problems in America, but they were warnings that were muffled by the vast corn and soybean fields of Ohio and the bursts of firecrackers launching tin cans into the humid air.
I don’t long for those childhood days in Ohio but I am grateful for them.
I am grateful for the feeling of being part of a family. I am grateful for experiencing a sense of community and pride in the ideals of America. Those experiences gave me the courage to ask difficult questions about American life because I knew I was an American. I knew I had the right to question a war that killed so many of my peers. I knew it was the right thing to do to question racist behaviors I had been told all through my schooling that the ideals of America were great. I loved my country. I was empowered to call its actions into question. I could ask why Black children couldn’t go to the same schools as White children and expect an honest answer.
As the 244th birthday of America approaches, I look at the challenges it faces. Can we do what we have to do to defeat this horrible virus that rages among us? Can we address our issues of racism and inequality with honesty and courage? Can we rid ourselves of leaders who would divide us for political or self-serving reasons? Can we elect leaders that put country above personal ideology?
We’ve made it 244 years. It would be a shame to fail at this point. I want my grandchildren to be able to run around barefooted, with friends of every ethnicity. I want them to wave sparklers, set off a few firecrackers, eat some great fried chicken and feel proud of the country they live in even as we, in our old age sit among them and talk to our deceased loved ones. Don’t you?
I confess I am scared, but I am prepared to do what I can to be accepting of all people around me. I am prepared to listen and compromise with people with opposing views. I am not willing to accept those who would seek to set us against each other or who wish to destroy our democracy.
As Benjamin Franklin supposedly said when asked by a citizen following the ratification of the US Constitution, “What have you given us Doctor Franklin?”, his reply was, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
God bless America and all the nations of the world whose governments are chosen by the people and for the people, governments which may be imperfect, but nonetheless, aspire to the ideals of liberty and justice.
*Following this incident, Marion became a Sundown Town. This term came from signs posted on the edges of towns that read, “TNT”, Travel N*gger Travel, which meant to convey that “colored people” weren’t allowed in town after sundown. Many towns and cities in the South and the North were sundown municipalities at this time.
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