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The Secret History of Race in the United States

By Sharfstein, Daniel J. | The Yale Law Journal, April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Secret History of Race in the United States


Sharfstein, Daniel J., The Yale Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

In the beginning, there was a man named Looney. George Looney's world was Buchanan County, Virginia, a pocket of Appalachian hills and hollows that juts into Kentucky and West Virginia. In 1911, his place in this world was secure. Where lumber was the only industry in town, (1) Looney owned a mill and a store. He had a thriving family. His home was near Looney's Creek.

But Looney's world was changing. Outsiders were moving to Appalachia to chop, saw, dynamite, and chisel the countryside. (2) Among them were black people, never a common sight in Buchanan, "one of the whitest counties, not only in Virginia, but in the entire South." (3) The locals proved hostile to the newcomers. Although southwestern Virginia had an extremely small African-American population, more lynchings occurred there between 1880 and 1930 than in any other part of the state. (4) The violence was most common in the more industrialized counties immediately to the east. Even so, in early 1893, after mobs lynched five blacks in neighboring Tazewell, vigilantes and rioters rode through Buchanan, declaring it "altogether a white county." (5)

About five years after the mob violence in Buchanan, a young man named George Spencer crossed the Kentucky line into Virginia. Over the next decade, he married a local woman, had six children, and settled near the Looneys. Spencer, a farmer, worked for Looney at times, and the families often ate together, stayed over at each other's houses, and sent their children to the same schools. (6) Their community was small; the local teacher was a third cousin to the Looneys and kin by marriage to the Spencers. (7)

However, when Spencer's brother was accused of killing Looney's brother, the families stopped talking. And then Looney started talking, to just about anyone who would listen: "[The Spencers] are nothing but God damned negroes, and I can prove they are God damned negroes." (8) Adopting these words as a mantra, Looney--"thoroughly addicted to the abominable habit" of profanity (9)--uttered them at the mill, at his store, at home, and in town. In the summer of 1911, his words flowed down the branches and forks and creeks wrinkling through Buchanan. Before the local school opened for the fall term, Looney approached his cousin, the teacher, told him to tell the Spencers that he called them "damned niggers," and declared that he would take his children out of school. (10) "They shan't go with negroes," he said. (11)

Then Looney sharpened his attack. He traveled to nearby Johnson County, Kentucky. "[T]hrough strenuous efforts, involving costs and expenses," (12) Looney found men who knew Spencer's grandfather--old men, on either side of eighty, who lived in places with names like Paintsville, Jennies Creek, Burnt Cabin, and Lick Fork, and knew Jordan Spencer, Sr., "[e]ver since the war, and before too." (13) These men remembered his thin lips, blue eyes, and "tolerably straight," long red hair, (14) quite possibly "painted," with "a kind of a slick rim where his hat went." (15) One recalled that "a wild, drinking kind of a dissipated man" named Letcher Davis used to tell the Johnson County locals that Spencer had mixed blood, (16) and others talked about nagging rumors that would pop up every now and then. Looney paid for a school official to accompany him on his expeditions. (17) With affidavits in hand, Looney convinced the Rock Lick School District to expel Melvin Spencer from the third grade. George Spencer then sued Looney for slander, seeking damages of ten thousand dollars.

Spencer v. Looney (18) was one of dozens of cases decided in the eras of slavery and segregation that hinged on the question of whether a plaintiff or defendant was white or black. During the past decade, legal historians have begun to excavate these bygone disputes, which involved wills, marriage and divorce, transportation, immigration and naturalization, and libel and slander.

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