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OPINION: Southern history isn’t all black and white

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By Randy Patrick

What shall we say who have knowledge
Carried to the heart?
— Allen Tate, “Ode to the Confederate Dead”

The historic marker in Winchester is mostly unnoticed now but it designates the birthplace of one of America’s most eminent men of letters, Allen Tate.

All I knew about Tate when growing up was that he was one of the Southern Agrarians — along with John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren — who inspired other thinkers I admire, such as Wendell Berry and Rod Dreher.

Tate is best known for his novel “The Fathers” and his epic poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” T.S. Eliot called him “our best American poet.”

Because he was from my hometown, I wanted to read some of Tate’s work. But I couldn’t find anything, not even at Poor Richard’s Books in Frankfort, which specializes in antiquarian Kentucky books, or the recently closed Morris Book Shop in Lexington, which stocked works by obscure Kentucky writers.

I think I know why.

Tate was a noted writer, but he was also a racist. Unlike Warren and other Agrarians, his prejudiced views didn’t evolve.

Although Tate admired the talent of African-American poet Langston Hughes, he virulently objected to hosting a party in Nashville in 1932 for Hughes and another poet, James Weldon Johnson because it would be like socializing with “the help.”

In a letter the next year, Tate wrote that “the negro race is an inferior race,” and cautioned against miscegenation. He also dismissed controversy over lynching as the work of communist agitators. “I support the white race; therefore I intend to support white rule,” he wrote.

As late as 1967, Tate wrote, “I am not moved by the Negro’s demand for social justice and equality (worthy as those causes may be). I am interested in order and civilization, which in a crisis take precedence over all other aims.”

In an essay in “I’ll Take My Stand,” Tate responded to the question of how a Southerner might take hold of his tradition, suggesting: “by violence.”

After having wanted to know more about this distinguished writer from my hometown, I now know enough. He apparently went to his grave in 1979 an unregenerate chauvinist.

Tate might have been a brilliant poet, but his brilliance was marred by his bigotry. If I had bought one of Tate’s books, I would now toss it in the trash, just as the thought he represented belongs in the trash heap of history.

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In the past couple of years, there has been a sea change in how Southern history is seen. Denunciation of the Confederate battle flag and statues of leaders of the Lost Cause has intensified since the Charleston, S.C., church shooting in 2015 and the deaths this summer of three people at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the home of Thomas Jefferson.

Across the country, statues have been pulled down or moved from public squares to more appropriate locations, such as museums and cemeteries.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has asked the Lexington Cemetery to accept the statues of John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge, which for decades have stood on the lawn of Fayette County’s old courthouse on Cheapside, previously the site of a slave market.

Morgan was a renegade, but Breckinridge’s story is complicated and fascinating.

A scion of one of Kentucky’s oldest and most prominent families, he represented Kentucky in both houses of Congress, served as vice president and was a Democratic nominee for president in 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected. But when the Civil War began, he joined the army of the South, and became the Confederacy’s secretary of war.

In hindsight, it is easy to dismiss Breckinridge as someone on the wrong side of history, who fought to preserve the evil institution of slavery, America’s greatest collective sin. But according to his biographer, William C. Davis, there is no surviving record of his views on slavery, “either the morality of the institution itself, or whether it was good or bad for the nation. He only deals with it as an accomplished fact.”

Davis wrote that Breckinridge was, by the standards of his time, a “moderate and compromiser” like his idol Henry Clay. He spoke out against extremists on all sides, including abolitionists, though a friend claimed he was himself an abolitionist in his youth. After the war, he denounced the Ku Klux Klan as “idiots” and “villains.”

His uncle, Robert Breckinridge, who was like a father to him, was an agent of the American Colonization Society, which promoted emancipation of slaves and their resettlement in the West African colony of Liberia.

It is worth noting that this was also the position of Lincoln and Clay.

History isn’t always as back and white as it seems when it is viewed through the prism of contemporary mores.