This is a tribute to a man you’ve never heard of.
Today, as America celebrates the birthday of a man who helped a race find its way, I hope you will leave this post with a knowledge of silenced heroes.
Frequent commenter “Frodo” and his lovely wife “Sam” surprised me at Christmas with an audiobook of John Grisham’s “A Painted House.” I absolutely loved the book – a Southern tale which raises Grisham to the level of a Eudora Welty or a Willie Morris.
As the title notes, there is a clapboard farmhouse getting its first coat of white paint. As I listened to Grisham’s book, I thought of an earlier book, and there is no doubt in my mind that Grisham borrowed from its Mississippi writer.
One day in the early 1970s, my former husband, then principal of Monticello High School, brought home a little book, the high school library’s only copy. He handed it to me and said, “You need to read this book.” Then, he told me the story behind the short novel.
Many, many times I drove the route from my hometown Jackson, Mississippi, 60 miles south to my new Monticello home. Leaving I-55 South at Crystal Springs, you drive south to Georgetown. From there to Monticello, you travel through 20 miles of verdant tunnel formed by virgin pine trees. As you near Monticello, there is an opening to the right – a road with a country grocery store on one side and one of those lovely old white Southern homes on the other. This is all that’s visible of a community named Oma.
I did not know until I held that book that back in the woods at Oma lived a very noteworthy person.
The book was “A Good Man” by Jefferson Young, published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1953.
Thomas Jefferson Young, with the exception of college and service in the U.S. Air Force in WWII, spent his whole life in Oma. In 1953, the year before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, he dared to write a simple story about a black man who wanted to paint his house white. The book, beautifully written, won national acclaim.
The original Time magazine review of “A Good Man:”
Monday, Mar. 09, 1953
White Is a Color
A GOOD MAN (239 Pp.)—Jefferson Young—Bobbs-Merrill ($3).
There were those in Longfield, Miss. who thought that Albert Clayton was getting too big for his britches. He was a hardworking, illiterate sharecropper who had cleared all of $43 the year before, and this year's prospects didn't even look as good as that. In 15 years he had been able to save nothing. His two kids were hungry, his wife Louella's Sunday dress was seven years old, and yet Albert had some mighty uppity ideas. Wanted to paint his shack white, something no Negro in those parts had ever talked about, much less tried to do.
From fictional materials as simple as these, Mississippi-born Jefferson Young, 31, has spun a completely successful story, as true as it is humble, as convincing as humble truth. A Good Man does unobtrusively what the sordid sharecropper novels of the Erskine Caldwell school have never been able to do: it generates enormous sympathy for the Albert Claytons at the same time that it gives them dignity; it refuses to be defeatist about their future so long as heart and conscience have their say in human affairs.
Everyone knew that painting the shack white went deeper than a paint job. The Negroes knew and were either exhilarated or frightened by Albert's boldness. Albert's boss, Mr. Tittle, knew it, but in his own way he admired his sharecropper's spunk and aspiration. If Albert could buy the paint, he wouldn't stop him. Mathis, the storekeeper, was another kind of white man. Said he to Mr. Tittle: "Every nigger around here knows what he's doing ... If you let this business get out of hand they'll all start thinking they're good as you or me. So I'm going to stop this thing. If somebody don't, a man can't say where it all would end." And he cut off Albert's credit at his store. Albert's own position was simple enough: "A white house let a man be a man."
Albert doesn't get to paint his house white. A whole series of intimidations and threats are too much for his wife Louella, and in a desperate act of family preservation, she kills the calf Albert has been raising to pay for the paint. And Albert understands. But it is one of the strengths of this well-written first novel that Louella understands her husband's need, too. Says she: "We get the house painted next year." And life goes on, but as in all good fiction the dimensions have been subtly altered and the simplest meanings enlarged. (LINK)
In 2006, “A Good Man” was produced as a musical with book and lyrics by, ironically, Philip S. Goodman. The musical opened in Vienna, Austria. Variety’s review called it “dramatically impotent.” Apparently, the reviewer wanted less gospel music and more struggle. Read the Variety review.
In the photo on the back of the book jacket, Jefferson Young, then 31 years old, reminded me of the fair-haired and delicate Ashley Wilkes as played by Leslie Howard in “Gone With the Wind.”
This young man, who could have given so much more to American literature, was ostracized by a 1953 Mississippi and lived the rest of his life as a recluse.
“He lives in a cottage beside a wood under a towering sweet gum tree just south of Oma,” wrote Elmo Howell in his book, Mississippi Scenes: Notes on Literature and History, 1992.
Although “A Good Man” is available on Amazon.com and was recently produced as a musical, there is very little known about Jefferson Young. Howell’s book has the only Internet reference to the man himself.
On Friday, I had a wonderful, long phone chat with Elmo Howell, retired Mississippi schoolteacher and author of numerous books on the South. Elmo, as he prefers to be called, is 90 years old and lives independently in Memphis, Tennessee. He remembers, “I loved the book. I was so impressed with Young’s writing ability and use of dialect, I wanted to include a vignette about him in my book.” He did not interview Young and described his cottage setting from an old photograph which he still has.
We discussed the times in which Young’s book appeared – an era when Jimmy Ward, longtime editor of the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News, used the word “nigger” in front-page editorials. Elmo might have learned more from me about Young than I learned from him. I promised to mail him a copy of this post, and he, in turn, will mail me some of his notes on Young.
The chat with Elmo was the culmination of weeks of research which turned up scant information about Jefferson Young the man.
In the 1970s, when my longtime friend Lynn Lofton and I worked for the Lawrence County (Miss.) Press, she secured what might have been the only newspaper interview with the secluded writer, resulting in an excellent feature story.
Lynn, a freelance writer living in Gulfport, Mississippi, while salvaging her home, sadly lost all its contents, including her newspaper clippings, to Hurricane Katrina.
My Monticello friend Annelle Poole has spent hours at the public library and the Lawrence County Courthouse going through old, bound copies of the Press. There are missing issues and apparently one of these has Lynn’s article.
A pity as Lynn’s interview with Young would have added so much to this post.
I called on my college buddy Bill Sumrall, master researcher, and Bill went into action, digging into library files and talking with folks at the Mississippi Archives.
If ever a man “faded into obscurity,” it was Thomas Jefferson Young. No one seemed to know whether the writer was dead or alive.
Bill finally was emailed a PDF copy of Young’s obituary, published in the Brookhaven, Miss., Daily Leader:
Thomas Jefferson Young, the brief obit said, died at age 73 on 31 March 1995. He was survived by three elderly aunts living in Louisiana. There is a simple mention of his authoring a book titled “A Good Man.” He is buried in Lowe Cemetery in Copiah County, Mississippi.
There is a picture in my mind of a man growing old in a small cottage in the woods, his book on a nearby shelf, saying to himself, “I was right.”
Now, 56 years after a simple story about a black man wanting to paint his house white created racial discord which broke its writer’s heart, a black man is getting ready to move his family into the nation’s White House.
Rest in peace, Thomas Jefferson Young.