academia | advice | alcohol | American Indians | architecture | art | artificial intelligence | Barnard | best | biography | bitcoin | blogging | broken umbrellas | candide | censorship | children's books | Columbia | comics | consciousness | cooking | crime | criticism | dance | data analysis | design | dishonesty | economics | education | energy | epistemology | error correction | essays | family | fashion | finance | food | foreign policy | futurism | games | gender | Georgia | health | history | inspiration | intellectual property | Israel | journalism | Judaism | labor | language | law | leadership | literature | management | marketing | memoir | movies | music | mystery | mythology | New Mexico | New York | parenting | philosophy | photography | podcast | poetry | politics | prediction | product | productivity | programming | psychology | public transportation | publishing | puzzles | race | reading | recommendation | religion | reputation | RSI | Russia | sci-fi | science | sex | short stories | social justice | social media | sports | startups | statistics | teaching | technology | Texas | theater | translation | travel | trivia | tv | typography | unreliable narrators | video games | violence | war | weather | wordplay | writing

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Reputation and racism, a family story

My great-grandfather, Charles Allen (C.A.) Wheeler, was a small town lawyer in Bonham, Texas in the 1900s-20s. (His law practice partner was Sam Rayburn, who went on to lead the US House for many years.)

He did tons of pro bono stuff for people in the town, including black people. As my father's family tells it, he would sometimes get threatening letters from the local Ku Klux Klan.

But the thing is, this was a small town, maybe 10,000 people; everyone knew everyone. So he knew who was in the KKK, or at least who was likely to be in it.

Even if the men were adversarial, small town culture required that they be cordial in public--at least to white people. Meanwhile, all the wives went to the same few hair salons and grocery stores, and often lead their husbands by decades in their sense of sympathy and basic fairness. Besides, not having outside careers, social standing and relationships were everything to them, and they didn't care to worship at the altar of racial supremacy, even if they were usually happy to go along with it and enjoy its fruits.

So C.A. would highlight choice passages in a bright color, affect a cheerful and aw-shucks demeanor, go down to the white hair salons and grocery stores and find the wives of KKK members (who were there hanging out with their friends, so it didn't seem like he was singling them out), and wave the letter around, saying: "Golly, would you look at the strangest letter I got!? Must be from an out of towner! Do you think it was really meant for me? What do you think they meant, 'these aren't Bonham values'? 'Or else'?" etc etc.

And the women would cluck and say "Why C.A., what a downright awful thing! You just tear that silly thing right up. I've never seen such nonsense!" And the assumption, in my family at least, has been that they went home and gave their husbands a talking to and said to knock off the nonsense.

In his later years, C.A. would credit this strategy with defusing racist violence in Bonham.

Labels: , , , , , , ,