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Kentucky by Heart: Amid horrors of racial intolerance in post-Civil War Ky., some stood and said no more

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

In an attempt to further educate myself on the roots of today’s social/racial unrest, particularly in regard to how it relates to Kentucky, I pulled from my shelves Dr. George C. Wright’s illuminating book, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940, published in 1990. I intended to read it long ago, partly because I know George from including him in volume two of my Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes book series, but with the current national turmoil happening, it seemed even more compelling to read now.

One fact is made clear in the book. The passage of the thirteenth amendment and the time soon after the end of the American Civil War did not mean the end of racial prejudice and violence to be visited on blacks. Documented accounts of such are undeniable and prolific, often with few consequences. However, one story in Dr. Wright’s book struck me as both ironic and somewhat hopeful regarding the human condition. Additionally, I followed up on Wright’s account and found greater detail in a piece writer Roland Klose wrote on his blog.

I learned about George Dinning, who, Dr. Wright noted, was “born a slave, illiterate his entire life, the father of twelve children, (and) somehow saved enough money to purchase a farm.” That achievement was quite significant for the period of such overwhelming challenges to the existence of blacks.

But there is much more to the story of George Dinning.

As the times often demonstrated, Dinning’s success as a landowner and farmer being a black man in late-nineteenth-century Kentucky brought animus from many whites. One such example came on the late evening of January 27, 1897, at Dinning’s Simpson County farm home. Twenty-five angry white men appeared and ordered the Dinning and his family to leave the county within ten days, accusing him of stealing chickens and hogs. Dinning denied the accusations, but the mob responded by shooting into his house and wounding Dinning twice.

Dr. George Wright

Defending himself though injured, he fired back, resulting in the death of Jodie Conn, a mob member. Then things got even more interesting. The next day, Dinning turned himself in to authorities in Franklin, the largest city in Simpson County. Learning of Dinning being in custody, the crazed and racist men returned to his farm and drove his wife and children off the property, then stole their possessions and burned the house.

Acting responsibly, Franklin’s sheriff feared for Dinning’s safety from the mob and moved Dinning to jails in Bowling Green, then Louisville. Sadly, even though the evidence supported the fact that Dinning acted in self-defense in the killing of a mob member, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years of hard labor.

But the unfair decision drew a surprising and immediate backlash, not only from blacks. Governor Bradley soon received letters asking for a full pardon for Dinning — and most were sent by whites. According to Dr. Wright’s words, there were even “a few of whom identified themselves as former Confederates… Nearly all the whites expressed a strong belief in the law of self-defense, the right of a man — even a black man—to defend his home from invaders.”

An attorney who would later become a Kentucky governor, Augustus Willson, strongly urged Bradley to free Dinning while calling the former slave heroic for standing up to the unlawful mob. Two weeks after entering prison, Governor Bradley gave a full pardon to Dinning, stating the man had “defended himself as every dictate of reason and humanity demanded and justified.”

George Dinning (Image from rwklose.com)

Released from prison, the now free man rejoined his family in Jeffersonville, Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville, and Klose stated in his blog that Dinning “began speaking out about the injustice he had endured, even telling a local paper that he intended to file a damage suit against the men who burned his house.” For that, Dinning paid a price. He again was violently attacked, this time, noted Klose, “by three whites who gouged out his right eye and battered his head ‘into a mass of blood and bones.’”

Amazingly, Dinning survived and went forward with the damage suit toward the mob members who attacked his family in Simpson County. Therein is a great irony. For his defense, he attracted the services of a prominent Kentucky attorney who Klose identified as “Benjamin H. Young, a Confederate hero who rode with Gen. John Hunt Morgan and later led the raid on St. Albans, Vermont.” Young’s stirring testimony for his client helped bring the desired results for Dinning. Young denounced the attackers and, according to Klose’s article, quoted at the trial: “If they be fair representations of the present type of man Kentucky is producing we must confess that we are degenerate sons of noble sires.”

On May 5, 1899, Dinning was awarded a $50,000 settlement in his suit, worth approximately 1.4 million in today’s dollars. Interestingly, the decision asked for part of it from the estate of Jodie Conn, the individual Dinning killed in his defense. According to newspaper reports, he eventually only received amounts ranging from $500 to $1750, but the case and decision nevertheless went against the racist grain of the times.

It is refreshing to know that Kentucky’s past gives documented evidence of noble character that shined even in such tumultuous and dangerous times. It presents a clear challenge — and model — for Kentuckians to step up and do the right thing today.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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