When Lexington author Joseph G. Anthony set out to write a novel about racism and violence during the Jim Crow era, he didn’t look for a setting in the Deep South. He didn’t need to.
All many people know about Lexington history is a few tidbits about horses, bourbon, Belle Brezing and Henry Clay. Cheapside’s role as a major slave market before the Civil War didn’t get much attention until last year, when the statues of Confederate generals John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge were moved to Lexington Cemetery.
Few people have heard of R.C.O. Benjamin, a black lawyer and journalist who was gunned down in a Lexington street in 1900 after trying to register black men to vote. They also don’t know about the lynch mob of several thousand people that stormed the old Fayette County Courthouse in 1920 with deadly results.
Those events are at the center of “A Wounded Snake” (Bottom Dog Press, $18.) Anthony will read and sign copies of the novel Thursday Oct. 4, 5:30p.m. to 7:30 p.m., at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
“There was so much history to work with,” said Anthony, a retired professor at Bluegrass and Hazard community colleges whose five previous books of fiction have been set in Lexington, Appalachia and his hometown of Camden, N.J. “Benjamin’s story needed to be told. He was a real martyr for civil rights in Lexington.”
Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin was born on St. Kitts in the West Indies in 1855 and studied for three years at Oxford University in England. He came to America in 1869, became a citizen, studied law and worked at newspapers across the country. He wrote a biography of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and books condemning lynchings in the South.
Benjamin moved to Lexington in 1897 with his wife, Lula, and their two small children. As editor of the black-owned Lexington Standard newspaper, he was an outspoken critic of black voter suppression by the local Democratic Party machine headed by boss Billy Klair.
On Oct. 2, 1900, Benjamin chastised Michael Moynahan, a party operative who was harassing black men trying to register to vote. Moynahan responded by beating Benjamin with the butt of his pistol and was jailed briefly. Later that day, Moynahan tracked down Benjamin and fired several fatal shots into his back. He pleaded self-defense, and Fayette County Judge Frank A. Bullock dismissed the case.
Benjamin and his wife are characters in Anthony’s novel, as are Klair, Bullock and other notable Lexingtonians of the era, including suffragette Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, who is portrayed as having much less concern for racial equality than gender equality.
In the final chapter, Bullock is in his courthouse office window watching the lynch mob. In another part of the courthouse, Will Lockett is on trial for murder. On Feb. 9, 1920, when the real mob rushed the courthouse and shots were fired, soldiers sent by the governor to protect Lockett fired back. Five people were killed and 20 wounded.
Lockett, a black World War I veteran, was said to have confessed to killing a 10-year-old white girl in the South Elkhorn community along Harrodsburg Road, between the present subdivisions of Palomar and Firebrook. Lockett escaped the mob, but went to the state’s electric chair a month later.
The novel’s protagonist is Noah Webster, a fictional young black man who works for Benjamin at the Standard and eventually becomes a lawyer himself. But the situations these characters act out are straight from the pages of Lexington newspapers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when this city had fewer than 40,000 residents and, by Anthony’s count, about 150 saloons.
“I haven’t made up any major facts,” said Anthony, who spent years researching in Central Library’s Kentucky Room. “Lexington was a very violent city then, white and black. People shot each other all the time.”
Anthony said black people he knows read several sections of the book before publication, but he expects some aspects will be controversial. “I think you’ve got to be humble,” he said. “The history of whites telling black stories is not a good one.”
To understand Lexington today, Anthony thinks people must learn about Lexington of the past — a place where black people had few rights and even less power. “How complicated and ongoing our history is,” he said. “We keep reliving it but we don’t even know it.”