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Book Review

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Love and Race in the Early 20th Century

March 22nd 2010

Book Covers - Rising Road

Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America by Sharon Davies. Oxford University Press, 2010. 368 pages.

This gripping story, ably reconstructed by Ohio State law professor Sharon Davies, has all the makings of a Hollywood movie. The facts are clear enough. In August of 1921, a hack Methodist minister named Edwin Stephenson (a hack because his credentials were dubious, he lacked a pulpit, and loitered at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama to marry couples for a living) shot and killed a Roman Catholic priest named James Coyle in broad daylight and in front of numerous witnesses. The reason? Hours before, Father Coyle had married Stephenson's eighteen-year old daughter Ruth, a convert to Catholicism, to a 42 year old Puerto Rican native named Pedro Gussman.

In many contemporary legal thrillers, one is typically presented with a person falsely, but understandably, accused of a crime, dependent on the gifted detective or attorney to finally show that appearances are deceiving. In this case, though, the drama comes from reading to discover how far bigots are willing go to set a guilty man free, and whether their enablers will condone the triumph of evil. One of those enablers was Hugo Black, a future Supreme Court justice known for his support of racial integration in the Civil Rights era, who defended Stephenson and joined the Ku Klux Klan prior to his election to the U.S. Senate in 1925. This is one a number of twists in this story—the outcome of which won't be revealed in this review.

Drama aside, Rising Road also happens to be a fine work of history. With notable economy, clarity, and quality research, Davies places her narrative in her stories in a series of contexts that include the emergence of Birmingham on either side of the antebellum era, the rise of the post-Birth of a Nation Ku Klux Klan, and a series of character sketches of the principal characters. Many of those casually familiar with the setting of the book are aware that anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in the region, as well as of the growing complexity of racial classification at a time when industrialism-induced immigration muddied the once seemingly black-and-white simplicity of race relations. But the way these social forces coalesce in this specific case study gives them an urgency they can lack in traditional historical accounts.

In this regard, the book is strongly reminiscent of Kevin Boyle's National Book Award-winning Arc of Justice (2004), which dealt with murder trial of Michigan doctor Ossian Sweet in 1925, or Michael Wayne's account of an antebellum murder, Death of an Overseer (2001). The difference, perhaps, is that Davies repeatedly makes a kind of forensic speculation that, strictly speaking, cuts against the grain of the most scrupulously practiced academic history. At the outset of her tale, for example, she theorizes that the origins lie less in religious or racial hatred than the fact that Stephenson's daughter was an only child, leading him and his wife Mary to indulge in a catastrophic degree of overprotection (a line of thinking that remains implicit, but not formally developed, for the rest of the book). Or she'll suggest that ‘people must have begun to wonder whether any woman would persuade the busy [Hugo Black] to forgo his bachelorhood.’ The book is peppered with such postulations and italicized expressions that some might find distracting, though they give the book a courtly quality, an old-fashioned appeal evocative of the book's setting, that might charm others.

Rising Road is a story of another time, but it is very much a story for our own. Its focus on the ambiguities of identity politics meshes with the mission of the institute for the study of race and ethnicity at Ohio State, one of a number that are now flourishing in the academy, that supported Davies's research. Respectable opinion today tends to celebrate that which horrified earlier generations. As the title, redolent of an old Irish blessing, suggests, we've come a long way. One might plausibly wonder which way, how much longer we have to go, and whether the prejudices of that time have disappeared or merely assumed another form.

Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN, from which this article is adapted. He is the author of ten books, among them The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (2003).


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