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Canton Confidential: Race and Asaph's story of progress

By: Patrick Bradley, Georgia State University

 

The endearing story of Asaph Perry's life contains many elements which might, on the surface, appeal to its readers. The first of these elements was that Asaph was a common man living in the South during a period of great technological change. New technology afforded him a way to be an entrepreneur and own a business in a new kind of town, suburban, where the rural and the urban merged. This small town life has been much idealized in our past and many long for its quaintness today. Canton was "an archetypical place that looked and felt like hundreds of like sized cities in America" (Asaph's Story) Yet Canton, along with the rest of the South, and despite all its alluring qualities, could not remove the stain history had so deeply worked into its fiber; racism. Racism in the South, in Georgia and specifically in the Cherokee County area is clearly chronicled in documents and archived newspapers during the life of Asaph Perry.

 

The first obvious evidence of racism in that area is seen in the removal of the Cherokee Indians by the white settlers. One might think that by the description of life in Canton, people's racist attitudes toward Indians would have changed. In any case, most of the Indians had left the area. However, by perusing through some of the archived newspapers in the Canton library, I came across an old advertisement for cough syrup in the March 16,1900 Cherokee Advance that unashamedly portrays Indians as being treacherous. I believe that it is not too much to infer from this advertisement the racist sentiments of the general public toward Indians in that area. After all, there had to be some reason to justify what had happened to the entire Cherokee Nation.

 

In yet another case, racism is seen in the public school in Canton. In the story of Asaph Perry, there is link that shows photographs of actual documents from the time Asaph lived in the Canton area. They include newspaper clippings of the Perry family, letters, and other items of local interest. One of the items, a public school program about a play, stands out above the rest for our purposes, for it contains the derogatory term "nigger" in it two times. The program has a short list of events and one of them is a "nigger cake-walk". I became curious as to just exactly what this was and went to the web for help. Here is what I found. "This program traces the evolution of the rag from its early ancestors to jazz songs. We must remember that there was really no difference between early cakewalks, early rags and the two-step. We also must remember that early ragtime was closely associated with dancing. Early ragtime text was in exceedingly poor taste and decidedly vulgar. It used racial bigotry, using caricatures and stereotypes with brutally coarse language" (from http://www.basinstreet.com/Programs/TheCakewalkCD)

 

Apparently, this public school event was rooted in racial bigotry. This caused me to want to investigate even further so I typed in Jim Crow on the web and this is what I found.

 

THE ORIGIN OF "JIM CROW" "Jim Crow laws were named for an ante-bellum minstrel show character. The minstrel show is one of the first indigenous forms of American entertainment. The tradition began in February 1843 when a group of four white men from Virginia, billed as the "Virginia Minstrels", applied black cork to their faces and performed a song-and-dance act in a small hall in New York City. The performance was such a success that the group was invited to tour to other cities and imitators sprang up immediately. These troupes were successors to individual performers who imitated Negro singing and dancing. One of the earliest and most successful individual performers was Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice. Rice, a white actor, was inspired by an elderly Negro in Louisville, Kentucky crooning and dancing to a song that ended with the same chorus: "Weel about and turn about and do jis so, Eb'ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow." Rice's imitation of the Negro's song and dance routine took him from Louisville to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and finally to New York City in 1832. Jim Crow laws, named for the minstrel show character, were late-19th-century statutes passed by the legislatures of the Southern states that created a racial caste system in the American South." ( from http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/history/creating2.htm)

 

The connection between the school event and Jim Crow is clear as is the intent of the "Niger Cake Walk" being presented at the school; thru dance or imitation the idea of racial bigotry was taught to school children, presumably white, in Canton. One could infer then, with some assurance, that those who approved the school program in the school were racists as well.

 

Other items were found in the archived newspapers that were equally disturbing and revealing as to the extent of racism in that area. I found in an October 18,1881 edition of the Cherokee Advance in the news of the day column the following " Tyler James, colored, was given twenty stripes by a Richmond, Va. court for stealing an overcoat." This is important because, it is not local news and why publish it unless one took joy in it happening to a "colored" man? Another item in the same paper on Sept 3, 1909, described a "Frank Bannister , a Negro" who was incarcerated for assaulting an officer. The engine driving this story is that a mob formed outside the jail in Canton to lynch him not long after he was arrested. Frank was not lynched but his life was preserved when other officers decided to take him to Atlanta by car for safety's sake. In other words, they had to get him out of that area where he might easily have been lynched. In Asaph Perry's day, lynching was a common occurrence in the South and was mostly carried out because of racist attitudes of whites against blacks. Statistics also show that Georgia was a leader in violent lynch mobs. More information is available at http://www.umass.edu/complit/aclanet/ACLAText/USLynch.html

 

I believe that high school student of the eleventh and twelfth grade would benefit the most from this kind of history. Student could work to define racism and trace its roots in the history of the United States and in Georgia. Students could also use primary sources, such as documents I mention in this essay, to look for evidence of racism or racist tendencies in the past. Students could also analyze documents and form a general opinion of society and social life with regard to racism at the time period under study as well as making a link between racism and violence.

 

Any student reading this paper and studying its content with its sources should be able to have a good grasp on the seriousness of racism in today's society. One of the goals of such a paper or study is to enlarge its readers, by means of documented history and primary sources, to a few salient examples in the story of human life in America that historically prove the existence of racism. This exposure to the actual cases of racism should serve to enlighten any darkened corners of the mind that have heretofore refused to admit its existence. It is the hope and aspiration of this writer that a student hearing, learning and reading about these things will not repeat this history of racism , but learn from the mistakes made by others for the sake of the whole world.