A Lost Chapter: The Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy

I delight in finding lost chapters. These are the stories from the past that for one reason or another have been shoved into the dark, dusty corners of history where important pieces of the truth often lie. There to await the search for a related piece of the past to perhaps shed a little light their way. So it is with the story of the Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy.

The reverend emerged as a supporting character in the story of the eccentric political maverick William Patrick “Binks” Henry published on this website a couple of weeks ago, but he has a story in his own right that’s worth the telling. As in the case of Henry, the reverend isn’t mentioned in John McIntosh’s Official History of Elbert County published in 1940, and likely both omissions stem from the same two key reasons. For one, as valuable as his book is in some respects, McIntosh generally − not always, but generally − either glossed over or ignored entirely happenings that might not reflect well on the county. The stories of Henry and Kennedy wouldn’t, to be sure. Second, as is the case with myself, McIntosh was related by both blood and marriage to the then politically powerful Mattox-Allen-Heard family web that had opposed both Henry and Kennedy at various times. His telling the stories wouldn’t have reflected well on kinfolk. For better or worse, I have no such reservations. The facts are what they are, each a brushstroke that helps paint the true portrait of the past, warts and all.

Details about Kennedy’s past, particularly his exact age and place of birth, have defied ready discovery. We know, however, that he was still an active minister and educator in the late 1920s, so a year of birth possibly as far back as the mid to late 1860s or maybe the very early 1870s seems a good guess. He first emerges like a bombshell in the news in Elbert County in August 1895.

“T.L. Kennedy, a negro school teacher who had figured prominently in the affairs of the colored people of Elbert County for a year or so past, had his license revoked by Commissioner Wall last for immoral conduct,” related the August 8, 1895 edition of the Elberton Star.

The school commissioner, James Nunnellee Wall, who was also a farmer and Methodist minister, based his decision on a finding that Kennedy had “made a speech at Hull’s [Hulme’s] Chapel, a negro church near Ruckersville, which the commissioner claims was incendiary in character and calculated to engender strife and bad feeling between the races, and that will, if its injunctions are heeded, cause trouble and bring incalculable injury to the negroes of Elbert county [sic].”

The newspaper didn’t elaborate on the specifics of what Kennedy reportedly said, but according to the paper he denied his remarks fit Wall’s description. Wall held that he had solid evidence to back his claim, and according to the Star’s account when the substance of Kennedy’s alleged comments became generally known “a body of representative men from the city and county” gathered at the courthouse and endorsed Wall’s action and affirmed that the schools should not be used to foment racial discord.

It’s worth noting here as well as anywhere that James Wall belonged to a branch of the Mattox-Allen-Heard family and was a cousin by marriage to William Henry Mattox. A former state senator, Mattox in these years had seen his political power wane in proportion to his declining economic fortunes. His investing heavily in a textile mill on Beaverdam Creek in eastern Elbert County in 1888 and 1889, and the subsequent loss of the uninsured mill in a fire, was the beginning of the end his empire that had included four grist mills and nearly 4,000 acres of cultivated land where a great deal of the physical labor was done by convicts leased from the state. But enough of his kinsmen remained in various positions that the remnants of his political machine still had some juice to jolt local affairs, sometimes, as with “Binks” Henry, resorting to physical intimidation.

Following his firing, Thomas Kennedy didn’t simply pack up and leave town looking for a new teaching position. He continued to preach, and he founded a weekly newspaper, the Progress, aimed at the county’s black community. Elbert County’s black community was already served by one newspaper, the Golden Age, edited by another minister, E.J. Bell, but Kennedy’s Progress staked out a more radical and confrontational course. It evidently developed a readership, at least enough to give Kennedy a base of support for his causes. His first major cause involved an attack on segregation in the county courthouse.

In 1893-94, Elbert County built a new courthouse, the courthouse still standing now on the west side of the town square. Included was a balcony in the rear of the large courtroom where blacks were to sit. In March 1896, Kennedy launched in the editorial page of the Progress his campaign for free access to seating on the courtroom’s main floor. A petition addressing the issue was presented to the county commissioners, who passed it on to the presiding state court judge −who passed it back to the commissioners. Kennedy then trumpeted the editorial call that redress of this grievance would be sought at the ballot box.

This was no idle threat, as it turns out, given the times. Almost without fail since the days of Reconstruction, southern blacks had been inclined to vote Republican when there were Republican candidates to vote for. But “Binks” Henry’s painful (literally) experience voting Republican in the presidential election of 1888, elaborated in the previous column, illustrates how weak and hollow such a threat might have been under the same conditions, but conditions had changed since 1888. As noted in the earlier column, the rise of the Populist Party to become a force by the election of 1892, with the Populists initially courting a voter base of both rural whites and blacks (mostly small farmers), now actually meant that the Democratic Party’s grip on county and state politics was not as firm as in times past. In Elbert County, as in nearly all southern counties, the courthouse was both the totem and the temple of the political party that held local political power, housing the actual offices of the local overlords and the figurative coffers of the patronage by which they kept their minions happy. With the white vote now divided, enough black votes for Populists might indeed cast local Democrats out of their temple. That was especially true since the elections of 1892 and 1894 when the state Republican Party, which generally had no chance of winning elections in rural counties, in a move to weaken the Democrats had quietly thrown support behind the Populists.

The Star, firmly a Democratic organ (and few papers in those days even claimed to be nonpartisan), lost no time in denouncing Kennedy’s editorial. Any desire to change the seating arrangements in the courthouse was “impudent,” read the Star’s editorial page. “[The blacks] should remember,” the editorial continued, “that and [sic] appeal to the ballot box is sometimes followed by an appeal to the cartridge box.” But as the Democratic primary played out in succeeding months, the Star softened its tone. Because even though Kennedy was a longtime Republican Party organizer, it was the dynamics of the Democratic primary that gave him some real leverage.

The Democratic primary for state representative was a close race between Thomas Swift and Ira VanDuzer. VanDuzer was a local attorney, viewed as something of an upstart, whereas Swift was as about as close to local aristocracy as one could be. With roots deep in the county, Swift was a cotton gin and cottonseed oil mill owner who had made hay of William Mattox’s misfortune, obtaining in a bankruptcy sale the site of Mattox’s and his partners’ destroyed cotton mill on Beaverdam Creek and building the three-story Pearl Mill (which itself would burn in 1929).

Swift was an old-school Democrat. VanDuzer, though running as a Democrat, had been endorsed by the Populists. Kennedy seems to have had little trust in the Populists despite the party’s reaching out to Southern blacks, so when Swift’s supporters looked to bring Kennedy into their camp, he parlayed his influence to advantage. Over a week before the election, Kennedy spoke at the White’s Chapel church and he had asked that both Swift and VanDuzer be invited to attend. Five days before the election, the Star ballyhooed the result: “Kennedy made the first speech, and it was a good one. He put forth his reasons why the colored people should support Col. Swift, and he was cheered by both the white and colored people.”

Swift won the primary handily, but the comity with Kennedy didn’t last. As we saw in the story of “Binks” Henry, came the November general election voting day, it was business as usual all way round.
Kennedy’s later claim on the editorial page of the Progress that the “standing army of democratic ruffians” led by William Parks Clark, a member of the extended Mattox-Allen-Heard family, had kept 1,000 to 1,500 Republican votes from being cast in Elberton is probably a bit of hyperbole (as there were only about 3,100 registered voters in the county in 1896), but there is little doubt as to the rest of his claim. He had been “roughly handled by a crowd of rowdies led by W. Parks Clark and Bob Almond,” Kennedy wrote, “and had it not been for the timely intervention of Policeman Irvin and several other white men, no doubt [I] would have been murdered outright. This fellow Parks Clark is characterized by his rowdyism and seldom, if ever, a fuss occurs that he is not the leader. … We hope and sincerely do we ask that the better class of white people in this county will rebuke such devilish work as was done here Tuesday. …”

“Roughly handled” may be a politic understatement by Kennedy, as from later statements and his later actions one can infer that he was beaten. In the next edition, the editor of the Star took issue with the whole of range of Kennedy’s claims. “Not a single voter of any party was hindered or intimidated in any way from casting a ballot for any candidate he chose,” went the editorial. As for Parks Clark, “there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he.” The Star in the same issue also reported that Kennedy had been confronted by a “committee” that had laid 200 lashes on his back and ordered him to leave town. There is some reason to doubt this, and not only because Kennedy struck back with a letter to the editor of the Star, denying the report and also telegraphing his effort apparently then already underway to carry the fight to higher jurisdictions.

“Elberton, Georgia November 14, 1896
Your editorial of the last issue is false to the core. I have not been interviewed and neither have I received a lick from any man or set of men since election day. I did not leave Elberton under fear of being whipped for my editorial, as not a single white man has said anything to me contrary to its publication. I went to South Carolina on business Friday night and returned on the 4 o’clock train Saturday evening and kept on through to Atlanta. I was in Elberton again Monday and went to Atlanta on the same train that Parks Clark left on for Mexico, and when he got to Atlanta I had an officer waiting to arrest him. …”

Kennedy went on to say that Parks Clark had avoided arrest and further threatened to have the Star’s editor “indicted for perjury” if word of his being beaten and threatened continued to be circulated. “Libel” was of course the word that eluded Kennedy in his account, not “perjury.” The claims of trying to have Parks Clark arrested can’t be verified, but that may explain Kennedy’s frequent trips to Atlanta following the election. In any case, Parks Clark was never arrested. Kennedy posted his letter on November 14. Two days later, Monday November 16, he was again on the train bound for Atlanta when his life took a hard turn for the worse.

The Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railroad train from Elberton to Atlanta was pulling into Carlton, in Madison County, when Presh Mattox entered the car where Kennedy sat. Henry Presh Mattox, twenty-two, was a kinsman of the now bankrupt William Henry Mattox (but not his son, as some later accounts held; William Mattox had only two sons, Clark and Singleton). What happened next depends on whom one believes. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. The next week the Star carried Presh Mattox’s version: Kennedy had “cursed one of our citizens, Mr. Presh Mattox, and when the insult was resented with a blow, drew a pistol and followed him off the train at Carlton with a drawn pistol, cursing and abusing him in a manner intolerable to Anglo-Saxon pride and patience.”

For his part, Kennedy never denied pulling a gun on Presh Mattox, but he claimed that Mattox entered the car and struck him, further threatening to have a crowd of men pull him off the train in Carlton. He had pulled the pistol, he said, when he felt his life was in danger. Mattox swore out a warrant for Kennedy on the relatively minor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Kennedy was arrested and carried to the Madison County jail. His bond was soon posted by Monroe B. “Pink” Morton, the wealthy mulatto businessman and Republican political organizer in Athens (and eventually Athens’ first black postmaster). Morton found Kennedy a place to stay in Athens, but within a matter of days Madison County issued another warrant for Kennedy, this time for the attempted murder of Presh Mattox. Kennedy was arrested in Winder, but was eventually lodged in the Clarke County jail after his benefactor Morton petitioned the governor. Morton feared for Kennedy’s safety if he were held in Madison County. He remained in jail until his trial in Danielsville the first week in March of 1897. Morton had retained two attorneys for him, Samuel Tribble and former Athens mayor, H.C. Tuck.

Kennedy had been indicted on both charges, carrying a concealed weapon and attempted murder. The defense’s strategy rested on establishing self-defense, and for that the attorneys would rely on the testimony of a white woman, Lula Watson, who was supposedly in the railroad car at the time of the incident. She did not appear in court, however, and when bailiffs visited her home they found her in bed, apparently ill, and according to her husband, unable even to rise from the bed much less leave the house. Judge Seaborn Reese accepted her husband’s secondhand testimony that his wife had told him nothing of witnessing any incident involving Kennedy and Mattox. Kennedy was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labor. Tribble and Huck immediately requested a new trial on several grounds, but mainly on the inability of getting Lula Watson to court and that Reese had not instructed the jury to consider any of Presh Mattox’s alleged actions as justifying self-defense. Reese denied a new trial but stayed the sentence while the attorneys took the appeal to the state supreme court.

In early June, the supreme court agreed that Kennedy should have a new trial, agreeing that the hearsay testimony of Lula Watson’s husband was no substitute for her own, and was in fact contrary to the law. The new trial was set for September. Neither Kennedy nor Morton could post Kennedy’s appeal bond, however, and he remained in the Madison County jail until his new trial with the exception of a few weeks in the summer when he was rented out as a laborer to James Smith of “Smithsonia,” Smith’s plantation of several thousand acres in Oglethorpe County that, like William H. Mattox in Elbert County, he worked with convict labor. (Much of the old Smith plantation would eventually become the Arabian horse ranch of country and pop music star Kenny Rogers.)

On September 9, 1897, Kennedy was tried again. Again the jury returned a verdict of guilty of attempted murder, but this time with a recommendation for mercy. He had already pleaded guilty to the charge of carrying a concealed weapon and been sentenced to a year of hard labor or a $50 fine. He had managed to pay the fine. The recommendation for mercy handed down meant that he had the chance to escape the two years of hard labor Reese imposed if he could pay a $300 fine. Neither he nor Monroe Morton could raise the money for the fine, however, and in October he was sent to the chain gang of the Fulton County public works department.

There is no record indicating that Thomas Kennedy ever came back to Elbert County after his release. Later years found him a minister in Jackson County, noted once in the local newspaper in 1908 when a young man requested that Kennedy accompany him on his walk to the gallows. He evidently spent his last years in Rockdale County. A February 1929 edition of the Rockdale Record notes that Kennedy had in years past been principal of the city’s black school and at the time of the writing he had been for six years principal of Bethany Academy, a black school associated with the Presbyterian church.

As for Kennedy’s adversaries, they faced their own trials after a fashion. Presh Mattox’s venture at establishing a cotton brokerage business failed, and in early 1901 he went to Texas to try to reestablish himself. He died in Texas in September 1901, allegedly of an overdose of laudanum (a tincture of opium in alcohol) to which it’s said he was addicted. He is buried in Elberton’s Elmhurst Cemetery. Even though he was in his forties, Parks Clark joined a volunteer military company at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of captain and serving in the Philippines. He returned to Elberton and lived there the rest of his life as a civic leader, Masonic brother and man about town.

So there it is, the story of the trials of the Reverend Thomas Kennedy, a lost chapter no more.

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