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His name popped up in my e-mail with uncanny timing. I was deep into planning the 80th reunion of The Rev. Silas A. Hudson’s descendants, and a few days earlier, I’d been to see “The Help,” a movie about racial prejudice encountered by black domestic workers circa 1963 Mississippi. You see, Leon R. Harris (1886-1960) was a black writer who spent most of his childhood living in my white great-great-grandfather’s Kentucky home.
Leon’s words reach across the decades to tell me how it felt to be Silas Hudson’s “help.”
Harris says he was treated “like a white boy” by Silas Hudson, and, being light-skinned, his longing to “pass for white” breaks my heart to read. Most in the farm community, however, even some of Hudson’s family, kept him in “the n__ boy’s world.” He was happiest alone, in the woodshed, where he could hide and read, he says. Hearing his words echo across a century, I blush. With pride for the Hudsons’ small contribution to this man’s success? With shame for the pain he endured despite my family’s fumbling efforts to do-good? I’m not sure.
Dr. John Garst, professor emeritus at the University of Georgia, contacted me by e-mail. “I am doing research and writing a book on John Henry, the steel-driving man, a legendary figure in American folklore. In 1927, Leon Harris provided an important text of the song, “John Henry.” In looking into Leon Harris’ background, I find that he went from an orphanage in Cambridge, Ohio … to live with the Silas Hudson family, where he is found in the census of 1900. . . Do you know anything about all of this?”
“Well, yes,” I replied. “Harris was mythic in our family stories.”
Great-Aunt Lilly, Silas Hudson’s strong-willed unmarried daughter, “got it in her head,” they said, to take in an 8-year-old black orphan to “help” with work in the house. An extra pair of hands in a rural 19th century household that included her elderly parents and her bachelor brother would have been appealing. Most local people, however, seeking “help” in exchange for room and board took in poor white children from nearby.
Aunt Lilly, though, was a devout and intelligent woman, influenced by the philanthropic movements of the late 1800s. Approaching 30 and childless, I suspect she emphasized her need for “help” to deflect criticism for taking in a black child to raise. In the 1890s, after all, the Civil War was still being fought in whispers in southern-leaning Owen County.
Lilly’s orphan turned out to be bright and personable, and an eager student who delighted her father, Silas Hudson, himself a self-taught lawyer and ordained minister. The way my grandfather, George Hudson, told the story to me more than a half century later, Leon “was treated like a member of the family” in Silas’ home. Defying local attitudes, Silas insisted that the child eat all his meals at the table with them, and on Sunday mornings, Aunt Lilly ruffled feathers by seating the little boy beside her on the piano bench at the front of the Methodist church as she played for the congregation. “I need Leon to turn the pages of the hymnal,” she said.
Eighty-something Silas Hudson was so highly regarded in the community that no one dared challenge him directly for bringing a black child into his family circle. But people criticized him behind his back, and a lifetime later, my grandfather was still defensive. He would boast with an in-their-face attitude about Leon’s education, of his work as a well-paid railroader during the Depression, even of his writing poetry, though I suspect my grandfather never read a poem in his life.
Yet, when Harris came to visit our home in the summer of 1952, my grandfather did not invite him inside. He greeted him with warmth and courtesy at the door and then, after standing for a few minutes talking, asked him to sit with him on our wide front porch. In an era before air conditioning, we often sat with warm-weather guests outside, and so this did not seem unusual to me. The two old men sat together for an hour or two, talking and laughing, enjoying each other.
Later that day, though, I overheard my mother criticize Gran, out of his hearing. She knew that he had been reluctant to invite a black man into his home as a guest, and had not uttered the automatic “Come in!” that was ingrained in our family’s good manners. It’s a glimpse of my kind grandfather at variance with all other images. I remind myself that he was born only a dozen years after the Civil War ended, that there were still segregated fountains and restrooms at the Owen County Courthouse in 1952. Yet, “come in” lingers unspoken, an unwelcome ghost haunting my memories.
I am indebted to John Garst for the rest of Harris’ story. I have learned that his accomplishments were greater than my grandfather realized. I understand, too, that Gran didn’t have a clue how young Leon felt clinging to the outside of the only family he had.
According to Harris, he “ran away from the white folks” when he was rising 14. His autobiographical novel suggests that he left soon after a bad fight with one of Hudson’s grandsons who taunted him. The fight didn’t sit well with some of Silas’ sons. Walking and hitchhiking 75 miles, he arrived at Berea College where he presented himself with a letter of recommendation from Aunt Lilly, his “private teacher.” He enrolled as a work-study student in the fall of 1900, but the infamous Day Law that would eventually prevail in closing integrated classrooms at Berea, nudged him on to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama by the fall of 1901. He studied there for three years and made influential friends. By 1915, he had been named to “Who’s Who of the Colored Race.”
He worked at teaching, lecturing, farming, in steel mills and for the railroad — “because he had to eat” he said but writing was his passion, and he used this to help his people. He published numerous magazine articles, was editor and publisher of several black newspapers, co-founder and president of the National Federation of Colored Farmers, active in the NAACP at the state and national level, serving on President Hoover’s Committee On Negro Housing, and corresponded with the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. He published three volumes of poetry, and of course collected and published an important version of the ballad “John Henry.”
He also wrote an autobiographical novel, “Run Zebra Run.” A contemporary account of race relations at the turn of the last century, it has been discovered by academics and included in black studies curriculum. The cheapest copy I could locate on Alibris sold for $300, with some copies going for $600. So I rely on John Garst who has read it. It seems that Silas comes off well, but my g-g-grandmother did not. She’s described as coming “from a … backward family … [who] aims to keep the ‘little n __’ in his place.” Harris is graphic in his description of the verbal abuse and prejudices his young, orphaned protagonist, “Leonard Hall,” encounters in the household of “Silas Harker.”
The day after Leon Harris visited our home in 1952, he attended the Hudson Reunion. My father, Dexter Green, was presiding president that year, and he asked Leon to give the invocation. Harris responded with a prayer he had learned from old Silas:
Our Father, accept our thanks for these and our many blessings,
Pardon and forgive our sins,
And save us.