Bridging the historic racial divide

Friday, June 1, 2012

For the past two weeks, I have been corresponding with a member of the Godleys, the African American family who were victims of the 1901 riot and lynching in Pierce City. This is the first time a member of the Godley family has sought me out to discover what happened.

Rochelle lives in Milwaukee, Wis., where her great-grandfather moved after leaving Neosho in the 1920s. She is in her mid-40s, and in recent years lost her mother and older relatives who may have been able to explain the family history. She went looking for details, not with a chip on her shoulder, but simply wanting to know.

"Our family's oral history always included murmurings about French [Godley] and some sort of major event, although I was never sure of what it was," Rochelle wrote. "As a child, I heard my mom and aunt talk in hushed tones about the cousins in that they were 'rough' people."

In over 20 years, I have collected what should be the definitive archive of documentation on this subject. I have shared much of it with fellow researchers who were willing to ask to see the unique documentation I found.

I wrote to Rochelle. I found her to be curious and openminded. Most of all, to her, this was history. It was unchangeable, blame-free facts about something that happened long ago.

She still wanted to know. In the last two weeks, she has waded through a history of her family, compiled by a genealogist who helped my research, plus numerous highly documented articles and my unpublished historical novel.

Seeing the documentary film "Banished," which described how the Brown brothers moved the remains of their great-grandfather from Pierce City, was more difficult than Rochelle expected. "Boy, I didn't realize that seeing the town would give me chills as it did," she wrote.

Yet the picture I took of an African American child arriving at Pierce City Central Elementary on the first day of classes last August showed all of that ancient history doesn't matter today. Rochelle appreciates that.

"As it should be," she wrote.

In her blog, she has written the following:

"What I've learned is that, yes times were rough and things weren't fair, but my ancestors were people who lived their lives. They didn't sit around wringing their hands about injustice. They established community, fell in love, got married, raised babies, occasionally drank more than their fill (truth be told) and my great-grandfather was even voted president of the Independent Colored Voters. Here's the bottom line: They were the ones who truly found gems in a sea of stones."