“[T]here is always the possibility of human feeling dethroning calm judgement”

Snip: The Durham Morning Herald (August 26, 1920; Page 4) — via Newspaper.com.

Once described in the Raleigh News & Observer as ”a man of inquiring mind, ready decisions, [and] strong opinions” who “expressed himself forcefully and effectively,” Walter Ney Keener (a not too distant cousin) was said to be “frank, independent, and courageous, with a deep aversion to sham and pretense wherever it appeared.” When he died in 1931, the front page of the Los Angles Times just called him a “Dixie Editor,” but he was also a lawyer, a one-term State legislator, and charter member of the Kiwanis Club of Durham as well as an active Democrat in the Jim Crow South.

Snip: The Lincoln County News (November 9, 1916; Page 3) — via Newspapers.com.

Born in Lincoln County, North Carolina in 1880, Walter received a law degree from Wake Forest College in 1903, passed the state bar exam, and returned to Lincolnton — where his father (Elijah Washington Keener) was the police chief— to practice law. Walter often found himself defending people who had been arrested by his father. In the Lincoln County News on January 10, 1908 we learn about one such instance in a piece that, in very short order, could have been written by Walter himself:

“‘Mr.’ Will Smyre, who departed from Lincolnton rather unceremoniously last Sunday afternoon was caught in Gastonia Monday night by Chief of Police Wiley Carroll and brought here Tuesday. A reception committee consisting of Sherriff John K. Cline and Chief E. W. Keener met ‘Mr.’ Smyre at the station and escorted him to Prof. Keener’s select boarding house where he was invited to make himself at home…When ‘Mr.’ Smyre left here he was gotten up regardless of time, taste or expense, and was described to the Gastonia officer as a ‘dude nigger’…[He was] tried before Squire J. O. Allen Wednesday afternoon and bound over to Court under a bond of $50…Attorney Keener appeared for ‘Mr.’ Smyre”…

In partnership with A. L. Quickel, Walter purchased the Lincoln County News and served as the editor of the paper until he sold it in 1907. But he was ultimately “unable…to resist the lure of the game, unable to stay away from the ticking telegraph instruments, or to forsake the music of the droning linotype machines, or the whirr of the press” and once again became “enmeshed in the newspaper snare” (The Wilmington Dispatch; September 11, 1917).

Snip: The Lincoln Journal (September 26, 1906) — via Newspapers.com.

After representing Lincoln County in the North Carolina House in 1907–8, Walter returned to the newspaper business in 1909 and “was in succession city editor of the Raleigh Times (1909–11), managing and city editor of the Durham Sun (1912–13), city editor of the Charlotte Chronicle (1913–14), editor of the High Point Enterprise (1914–16), and editor of the Wilmington Dispatch (1917–18)” (Green, 1988).— intermittently also practicing law (at least for part of 1916). He also served on the executive committee of the North Carolina School for the Blind and Deaf.

In 1918 Walter “returned to Durham to become editor of the Durham Morning Herald; when the Durham Herald Company acquired the afternoon newspaper, the Durham Sun, he became editor of both papers, a post he held with distinction until his death” (Green, 1988). His editorials often reflected his conservative philosophy and were often anti-union, anti-minorities, and anti-immigration. For example, on December 30, 1919 he found the report that “Mexicans shot the American Wallace from behind rings true, as it is a well-known habit of Mexicans to shoot a victim when he is not expecting it or is helpless to defend himself. They seldom are willing to face an American and fight it out like a man.”

His anti-Mexican rant was followed by a piece against post-war European immigration, titled “Pick the Good Ones,” in which he implores the authorities to “be a little more careful and if the country had had more stringent immigration laws the deportation of 249 radicals last week would not have been necessary.” Walter did not hesitate to criticize the authorities when he thought they were doing something wrong, nor to excuse the lack of “calm judgement” by the Anglo-Saxon clan driven by their “feelings.” The August 26, 1920 edition of the Durham Morning Herald includes an editorial presumably written by Walter in which he lashes out at the sheriff of Alamance County for not preventing a recent lynching in the town of Graham.

“Another lynching is charged up to North Carolina, according to reports from Graham, Alamance County, last night. A negro, alleged to have admitting making an attack upon a small white girl, was taken from the officers in the town of Graham yesterday as he was being carried from the jail to the court house, and riddled with bullets…”

Walter found the sheriff’s story unbelievable…

“According to the sheriff’s version of the affair, a small crowd of between 25 and 50 men in broad daylight, not wearing masks, came upon the eight officers convoying the negro and without a display of deadly weapons either on the part of the mob or the officers, took the man, put him in an automobile, carried him out of town and shot him to death. The sheriff says that while the men were not disguised, he did not know them, but admits that they were Alamance County people. How a sheriff of a county could fail to know at least some of the crowd of 25 or 50 men from his county is a peculiar incident, to say the least. He knows they were citizens of his bailiwick, but knows them not!”

Then he elaborates on what he apparently also considered “calm judgement” in the face of these murderous circumstances…

“We are not inclined to be severe in censuring the members of the mob who lynched the negro yesterday, though we contend that they should have let the law take its course…The law should be upheld at all hazards, but as long as red blood courses Anglo-Saxon veins, there is always the possibility of human feeling dethroning calm judgement.

On September 2 Walter provided an update on the incident in Graham, with an editorial titled “Mob Law Prevails,” in which he bemoans that, “It seems that it is impossible to catch members of a mob who take the law into their own hands in this state, and it has developed the situation to the extent that it is easier to escape punishment for lynching than any other crime.” He continued:

“A man cannot safely take a flask of snakebite along with him on a fishing trip without being swooped down upon by the zealous guardians of the law. But a few men acting in concert as a mob, can commit a half dozen crimes, including murder, and make a complete get-away. It strikes us as a helluva condition…How helpless are our law enforcers in the presence of the mob! It means that the mob is mightier in North Carolina than the law.”

No details are provided about this alleged “attack upon a small white girl,” but the 1916 lynching of Anthony Crawford in Abbeville, South Carolina provides some clues about the type of offense that could invoke the ire of a mob of white men in the Jim Crow South: Crawford was lynched for arguing with a white merchant for a fair price for cottonseed.

While “several hundred…participated,” the article published by a white supremacist in the Abbeville Scimitar the next day assures us that “nearly ALL the others were well-wishers.” The piece was purportedly written by members of the lynch mob themselves.

A historical marker was recently dedicated to the lynching of Crawford. It stands “alongside a monument to South Carolina statesman and noted white supremacist John C. Calhoun, and within steps of a Confederate memorial that praises the ‘right cause’ of the Southern forces” (Wang, 2017).

On July 24, 1921 the “Dixie Editor” commended the Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Simmons for taking “vigorous methods to discipline some of the Klansman who have been charged with criminal conduct.” The “lesson from history,” he argued, showed “full well that if members of the Klan are permitted to commit acts of lawlessness under the guise of the K.K.K. it will soon mean the death of the organization” that did “great work in the days of reconstruction.”

And in August, Walter editorialized about the “bombshell” thrown into the ranks of the Klan in the state by Bruce Craven, the newly-former Grand Dragon for all of North Carolina. As an “man on the outside looking in,” Walter was “not in a position to either deny or affirm the Craven charges.” But it was “what we had feared from the beginning of the new Ku Klux.

“We have never, so far as we are concerned, seen the necessity at this time for an organization such as the Ku Klux purported to be, and have so stated. Neither did we find fault with those who honestly believed they would render good service by becoming a member…If it should turn out that the klan is serving a good purpose, it will be better for the members, as it will clear them of the cloud that has been hovering over the organization for some weeks, and which has been growing blacker as reports come of outrages committed in several southern states under the guise of the Ku Klux. If the organization is a menace the sooner it is revealed the better for society…” (August 7, 1921)

Also in August Walter published a glowing story about the Confederate soldiers reunion in Durham in which Fitzgerald Fournoy of Richard, Virginia made a “dramatic appeal to the rising generation” to “correct the history of the south.” When it comes to our monuments, we’re still waiting. And as the historian David Blight noted last Sunday in The Guardian:

“Americans have put up more than their share of memory stones, and are just now living through a profound process of deciding which ones will remain. But as we look deeply into just what our own amor patriae means, and whether it can hold together, we might think hard about what inscriptions we want written on the memory stones of our own times. We might draw one from [Frederick] Douglass in 1867: ‘We ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.’”

A year later (in August of 1922), the Durham Morning Herald “assumed a policy of watchful waiting” after the city of Durham “had been thoroughly billed and circularized, supposedly by the Ku Klux Klan.” The “Kluckers,” by objecting to “conditions objectionable to good morals,” had “put themselves on trial as moral reformers.” But “if they can do what the local officers have not been able to do we will be the first to extent congratulations” (August 6, 1922).

The first African-American Commissioner and Constable of Graham, NC was lynched by the KKK on February 26, 1870.

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Wilhelm Kühner

Wilhelm Kühner

Pruning the “tangled thicket” of Kühner (Keener) Genealogie in Amerika and reflecting on its relevance to current events.