Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Fourth of July Story for You: "For My Part, I Would Say, Welcome Infidelity! Welcome Atheism! Welcome Anything! in Preference to the Gospel, as Preached by Those Divines!"

Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?":

At the very moment that they are thanking God for the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, and for the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they are utterly silent in respect to a law which robs religion of its chief significance, and makes it utterly worthless to a world lying in wickedness. Did this law concern the 'mint, anise and cummin'—abridge the fight to sing psalms, to partake of the sacrament, or to engage in any of the ceremonies of religion, it would be smitten by the thunder of a thousand pulpits. A general shout would go up from the church, demanding repeal, repeal, instant repeal! And it would go hard with that politician who presumed to solicit the votes of the people without inscribing this motto on his banner. . . . 
But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. . . . 
For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs.

Here's a story for you. It's one I've pieced together in the last several days. It's a Fourth of July story. It's about the real as opposed to the imaginary history of the United States.

This story centers on a man named Zachary Taylor Wester, who was born in Gadsden County, Florida, in 1846. His story intersects with the story of my own family in a number of ways that I'll explain in a moment. When Wester was two years old, his parents Daniel Campbell Wester and Mary Ann Nobles Wester moved their family to Bossier Parish, Louisiana, where they settled in the same community (Orchard Grove), in which the family of my great-great-grandfather Mark Jefferson Lindsey was living in 1850, when both the Lindsey and Wester families were enumerated at the Orchard Grove post office on the 1850 census. In 1870, the Westers moved to Red River Parish, which was formed in that year during Reconstruction. Because Red River Parish lies in the fertile Red River valley of northwest Louisiana, it was a parish with large numbers of slaves. 

When the slaves were freed, many of the white citizens of the parish claimed to have strong fears that their former slaves would rise up and massacre them. What happened instead was that, in 1874, the White League of the area, a precursor of the Ku Klux Klan, spurred an uprising of white citizens, who shot and killed a number of the white Republican leaders of the Reconstruction government and a larger number of freed African Americans. This event, the so-called Coushatta Massacre (Coushatta is the parish seat of Red River Parish), ended Reconstruction in northwest Louisiana.

My father was born in Coushatta. His parents farmed near Coushatta when my father was a boy, before moving to south Arkansas. Both of my grandparents' sets of parents farmed in Red River Parish, too, and my great-grandfather Lindsey also served as a country doctor in the countryside around Coushatta. Their families had come to this part of Louisiana prior to the Civil War from Alabama and South Carolina (in the case of my grandfather Lindsey's family) and from Georgia (in the case of my grandmother Lindsey's family).

Several years before the Coushatta Massacre occurred, Zachary Taylor Wester returned to Louisiana from the Civil War, where he had served as a Confederate soldier who enlisted from his family's farm in Bossier Parish, and where he lost an arm. These biographical details appear in testimony he gave about the Coushatta events in the fall of 1874, just after the massacre, to a select committee of the U.S. Congress investigating what was occurring in the states of the former Confederacy in response to Reconstruction. Wester's testimony was published in Report of the Select Committee on That Portion of the President's Message Relating to the Condition of the South (Washington, DC: Govt. Printing Office, 1875).

Wester notes that, when he returned to Louisiana after the war, he became a Republican — that is, a supporter and ally of the Reconstruction government of the area. On his return to Louisiana, he was elected the tax-collector and assessor of Bienville Parish, which adjoins Red River on the east (and is the parish in which my grandmother Lindsey's family on both sides first settled when they moved from Louisiana to Georgia prior to the war). He was a school teacher and was appointed by the parish school directors to teach in a school that had been opened for freed slaves in Sparta, which was then the parish seat of Bienville.

When Wester arrived in Sparta to begin his teaching assignment, no one in the town would board him. He finally found a place at which to board five miles outside the town. Then when the school term began, on the second day of term, someone from the town came to him and told him that if he did not leave the parish immediately, he would be assassinated. When he armed himself and continued teaching his pupils, he then received letters informing him that he would be hanged, and within a number of weeks, a group of local men came to him and told him that if he did not leave Bienville Parish and never return, they would kill him. They intended to drive all Republicans out of the state of Louisiana. 

(Two years after all of this took place, in February 1870, a man named Adolphus Jones, the brother-in-law of my great-great-grandfather William Henry Snead, was assassinated by an unknown assailant in an act the federal government judged to be political terrorism. This took place in Ringgold in Bienville Parish in a store W.H. Snead and Dolph Jones co-owned; Snead and Jones married sisters, Harriet and Patience Godwin. Several years before his brother-in-law was gunned down in their store, William H. Snead had been appointed a justice of the peace for Bienville Parish by the Reconstruction Republican governor James M. Wells.)

Wester refused to be intimidated by the citizens of Bienville Parish seeking to drive him from the parish and continued teaching his pupils until the school term ended. At that point, he left Bienville Parish and went to the adjoining parish of Red River, where his family lived (his father was a Confederate soldier who deserted during the war, and various records suggest he may not have returned home after the war or perhaps died by 1870, at which point his widow moved her children to Red River Parish to a farm ten miles east of Coushatta — the household to which Wester returned after being threatened in Bienville Parish).

As soon as he arrived in Red River Parish, the White League arrested him and would have killed him, except that several men in the arresting party were former Confederate soldiers who had served with him and pled for his life. At this point, Wester had no choice except to leave the area in order to save his life, and he did so temporarily, or so it seems, returning prior to the Coushatta Massacre. An account in the Shreveport Times newspaper on 6 September 1876 states that the preceding Sunday, Z.T. Wester, clerk of Red River Parish, had been riding from his plantation to that of his brother-in-law when he was waylaid and shot at by someone ambushing him from the roadside. His coat was riddled with bullets, but he was unharmed. His horse was killed.

The brother-in-law mentioned in this newspaper report was my great-great-grandfather Ezekiel Samuel Green, who had married Wester's sister Mary Ann following the death of Green's first wife, Camilla Birdwell, as she gave birth to my great-grandmother Mary Ann Green Lindsey. Green then married Camilla's sister Hannah, who was the widow Harville when he married her, and when that marriage failed, he married Mary Ann Wester.

The same year (1876) in which Ezekiel S. Green married Mary Ann Wester, his daughter Mary Ann Green, my great-grandmother, married my great-grandfather Alexander Cobb Lindsey. The preceding year, Alexander's sister Emma had married a first cousin of Z.T. Wester, a younger Daniel Campbell Wester who was named for his uncle of the same name, Zachary's father. In 1878, an uncle of Alexander and Emma, their father's oldest brother John Wesley Lindsey, moved from Mississippi to join his three siblings living in Red River Parish, and married Zachary's widowed mother Mary Ann Nobles Wester, adding to the thick web of connections between the Lindsey, Green, and Wester families. 

In December 1876, Zachary T. Wester was named by the Returning Board of Red River Parish as the parish sheriff, and in April the following year, he took office. He then disappears from all records by 1879, when several New Orleans papers ran a notice throughout much of that year that a bond he had given with other men for his faithful performance of his duties as sheriff of Red River Parish was being cancelled — though none of the notices state why the bond was being cancelled or what had become of Zachary T. Wester, who vanishes from records after this time. 

As I say above, I'm telling this story on the fourth of July because it's a story about the real as opposed to imaginary history of the United States. All of this happened. All of this is part of the historical record of the United States — as is the enslavement of people of African descent for some 250 years in the American colonies and the states formed from those colonies and their progeny. As is the brutalization of people of African descent via lynchings, Jim Crow laws, massacres like the Coushatta Massacre (which was only one of many such massacres targeting the Reconstruction government in the Southern states, forcing black people back into a position of semi-servitude), economic and social oppression, racially motivated police violence . . . . 

While, as Frederick Douglass tells us, white churches preached and sang and proclaimed the gospel . . . . As if none of this mattered or was taking place . . . . 

Just as white churches are continuing to do in the period of Donald Trump . . . . 

The First Baptist Dallas event is one organized in D.C. by the First (Southern) Baptist Church of Dallas last week to fête and praise Donald Trump. As all of this unfolds, a study undertaken by political scientists Paul A. Djupe, Jacob R. Neiheisel, and Anand Edward Sokhey following the 2016 elections finds the following: 

Of those who said they had attended a house of worship in September, 14 percent reported that they had left that particular church by mid-November. 

If churches in the U.S. are talking about that astonishing finding, I have not heard a peep about this discussion — especially from churches determined to turn Donald Trump into a Christian icon draped in a huge American flag as choirs belt out hymns about making America great again. And in the 2016 elections, Red River Parish voted 54.1% for Donald Trump and 43.8% for Hillary Clinton. Data regarding the religious demographics of the parish including Glenmary Research Center data show the parish as 30% evangelical Protestant in 2010, with 59.5% of the people in the parish not affiliated with any church. The Southern Baptist church claims 52.41% of those who belong to any church at all. The current religious demographics are in sharp contrast to the situation twenty years ago, when over 60% of the residents of the parish belonged to churches and the rate of non-adherents was slightly over 20%.

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