When my grandparents passed away 30 years ago, I was given a prized family possession: an 8' X 10' photograph of my great-great-grandpa Peter Henderson. I was told several stories of the life of that elder everyone called Grandpa Pete. He was born a slave on a cotton plantation in Morgan County, Ala., in 1827.
In 1845, when he was 18 years old, the American Baptist Convention had a bitter national debate on the morality of slavery. Southern Baptists broke away from the American Baptists of the North to form their own Southern Baptist Convention.
About that same time Grandpa Pete married his teen-aged sweetheart, Grandma Sarah. Their marriage ended abruptly. Without Grandpa Pete's approval or consent, a rich white man purchased his wife from their plantation's owner and took her to work on his cotton plantation in Panola County, Miss.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Grandpa Pete was 35 years old and a free man. On that day President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, ending slavery in the 11 Confederate States of America: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. It took Grandpa Pete four years of working for low wages, but he saved enough money to get a horse. By then, traveling was safer because the shooting hostilities of the Civil War had ended. So Grandpa Pete took that trip he had been waiting more than 10 years to take. He rode on horseback more than 150 miles from Morgan County to Panola County to find his long-lost teen-aged sweetheart and wife, Grandma Sarah.
When he got there he was not surprised, but he was devastated and heartbroken when he saw that the rich white man who purchased Grandma Sarah in Morgan County forced her into the adultery of sex with another slave, Bob Gipson. By the time Grandpa Pete found her, she had several kids by Gipson. That way, the plantation owner got lots of farm hands without having to pay for children at a local slave auction house. For a Black man to complain about the sale of his wife or the rape of his daughter by a slave master could result in his getting 50 lashes with a horse whip that would leave his back covered with bloody welts. Other slaves were required to watch such a punishment as a way to instill fear in them. All this was considered morally good by rich white Southern Christians. Had they lived in the 19th century, George Bush, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott would have been included in that group.
In 1927, a huge flood on the Mississippi River devastated parts of the Mississippi Delta country as well as the city of New Orleans. The levees around New Orleans were built in response to that flood. They held up until Hurricane Katrina got to them in 2005.
My grandparents heard about that 1927 flood on network radio news and in newspapers, but did not know how much it affected the family still living in Panola County. So they drove their Ford Model T from North Carolina to Panola County to see about Grandpa Pete. He was OK. At 100 years of age, he had a clear mind and great memory, but walked slowly with a cane due to arthritis. While there, Grandpa Pete compared the details and particulars of his treacherous journey to Panola County 60 years earlier by horse with my granddad's relative luxurious mode of travel in a Ford Model T. Both knew through word of mouth from fellow travelers which towns to avoid because of brutal vigilante injustices done by the Ku Klux Klan.
Grandpa Pete died of natural causes on Oct. 8, 1933, at age 106.
There are so many Black men these days whose living situations could be considered 100 times easier than those of a 19th-century man who was property until age 35. Yet they live so fast, with no value upon education, that they die by age 35 or younger.
On Nov. 2, 2004, 86 percent of Mississippi voters voted to approve a state constitutional ban on gay marriage. They cited 'traditional family values.' Yeah, right. Like the tradition of selling wives away from husbands, the tradition of white men raping slave girls, the tradition of whipping husbands and wives who complained about the violation of their families. And what about the tradition of widely popular public lynchings under burning crosses? Their claim of moral superiority is as bogus as their historic claim of racial superiority.
Yet big lies live, because those who tell them repeatedly and loudly coerce more passive people into accepting them.
I wish that when LGBT advocates encounter Christian conservatives who argue 'traditional family values' that they would point out that the Southern Baptist Convention came to life advocating the moral goodness of slavery and for more than 100 years did nothing to counteract Ku Klux Klan terrorism; Jim Crow; or the uncountable number of big injustices and small indignities against African-American families. LGBT advocates need a steel spine and a clear voice to tell today's Christian conservatives that their traditional family value was $2,500: the retail purchase price of one African-American family of two adults and two children in 19th-century America.
Today, a restored photograph of Grandpa Peter Henderson at age 100, taken in 1927, rests on my livingroom bookcase. It is a constant reminder of a history it seems few people know or care about today. If I live another 55 years and make it to 106, throughout that time whoever wants to listen will hear the history I know—and its obvious implications.
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