Monday, September 11, 2017
Vernon Johns was merely another invisible man to nearly all whites, but to the invisible people themselves he was the stuff of legend. The deepest mysteries of existence and race rubbed vigorously within him, heating a brain that raced constantly until the day he died. His ancestry was a jumble of submerged edges and storybook extremes. During slavery, his father's father was hanged for cutting his master in two with a scythe, and even eighty years later it was whispered in the Johns family that the hunting dogs would not approach the haunted spot where the murder had occurred.
Johns maternal grandfather was a white man named Price, of Scottish descent, who maintained two entirely separate families - one white, one Negro. This type of bi-patriarchy, though fairly widespread, was never publicly acknowledged in either culture. The Negro children handed down stories about how Price became one of the first inmates at the new Virginia State Penitentiary for killing another white man he caught trying to rape his slave mistress. He protected the mistress "just like she was a white woman." For this he was admired by some Negroes, but he was by nature a mean, violent, complicated man. When his Negro wife died in the 1870s, he took all of his Negro children into the other household to be raised by his childless white wife, "Miss Kitty." Vernon Johns's mother, Sallie Price, made this transfer as a little girl, and years later she told her family how the taboos had been respected against all opposing reality, even in the intimacy of the home. She never called her father "father," for decency required the Negro children to be orphans and the white couple to be missionary dispensers of foster care. When Price died about 1900, Sallie Price Johns went to the funeral with her young son Vernon and her husband Willie, son of a hanged slave, and sat through the burial service in a separate-but-equal family section, just across the gravesite from Miss Kitty and the white relatives.
Willie Johns died not long afterward, and in due course Sallie Johns married her dead husband's younger brother. So Vernon Johns finished his youth as the stepson of his uncle, and grandson of a slave who killed his master and of a master who killed for his slave. Only in the Bible did he find open discussion of such a tangle of sex, family, slavery, and violence.
-Taylor Branch, Parting The Waters: America In The King Years 1954-63