Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Vernon Dahmer

After I raved about Taylor Branch's America in the King Years yesterday, I figured I ought to give you an example of why I'm praising it so highly. Here, from volume two, Pillar of Fire, is Branch giving a quick but detailed biographical sketch of Mississippi farmer Vernon Dahmer--and using that sketch to explore the underlying complexity of the very concept of race, especially as employed in the highly charged American South of the 1960s:
Staying on alone at the farm, [SNCC worker Hollis] Watkins gradually learned that the Dahmer family's Faulknerian bloodlines wandered across racial boundaries and taboos. Vernon Dahmer's mother, Ellen Kelly, had been one of four light-skinned mulatto daughters born during Reconstruction to a white plantation owner named Kelly, for whom their farm region north of Hattiesburg was named Kelly Settlement. Old man Kelly had no wife or other children, and he honored his mulatto family far beyond accepted custom. In the 1890s, Ellen Kelly caused something of a family crisis by entertaining a marriage proposal from George Dahmer, a most unusual white man--born illegitimately in 1871 to a transient German immigrant and a white woman who, during the chaos and destitution that followed the Civil War in Mississippi, had gone on to marry an ex-slave with whom she produced eight dark-skinned children raised as George Dahmer's younger siblings.

To the ex-Confederate planter Kelly, the problem with George Dahmer as a suitor for his daughter Ellen was not so much his bastard status or the racial confusion of a genetic white man living within Negro culture, but his lack of higher education. Kelly withheld consent until young George Dahmer completed courses at Jackson State, Mississippi's Reconstruction-built Negro college, but then he blessed the newlyweds with a full share of his estate: forty acres, a cow, two calves, and a feather bed. Although some of the surviving white cousins contested these gifts to Negroes as the folly of a lunatic bachelor, the bequest stood, and in time George and Ellen Dahmer gained possession of additional Kelly acreage.

In December of 1908, four months after Lyndon Johnson was born in the Texas Hill Country, Vernon Dahmer arrived as the eighth of twelve Dahmer children. He may have become the superior farmer of the lot in any case, but competition decreased significantly when three of his five brothers married "out of the race" into white society in the North, one as a church pastor. Not all family members on either side of the color line were aware of the secret. Among Vernon Dahmer's most delicate tasks as an adult was to maintain ties among the witting ones even while engineering an innocent extinction of bonds in the next generation. Life's passages--births, marriages, deaths--posed the most difficult decisions about which distant ones could be notified, and how to do so without risking the fateful curiosity of the unwitting. With time, the simplest family communications across the color barrier became trying and dangerous. On the Negro side, parents faced the crippling issue of whether to acknowledge the possibility that especially light-skinned children might cross over, and if so, whether it was mutually safe and emotionally tolerable to seek the counsel of those who had gone before.

Vernon Dahmer narrowed such dilemmas by choosing successively darker wives. After fathering three sons during the Depression who grew up to look like him and his father, George--that is, by all appearances as white as the governor of Mississippi--he married a darker woman who bore three discernibly Negro sons during the 1940s, and two years after the second wife died, he married Ellie Dahmer in 1952 and produced a son, Dennis, and a daughter, Bettie, his young tractor driver, also clearly of African descent. In public, Dahmer learned to expect different reactions according to which sets of children were in his company. Among strangers, he could pass with his eldest children as a white family so long as Ellie was not along, whereas with her and the younger children he functioned separately across the color line as an ambassador. On Southern highways, he easily picked up food from the first-class "white" side of segregated restaurants if his family remained hidden in the car. Less pleasantly, white strangers who encountered the entire family assumed sometimes that Dahmer was a white boss among servants. Some made collegial remarks to him about his niggers.

Dahmer was murdered by the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in January of 1966 for his work in support of voting rights. In 1998, more than thirty years later, the leader of the local Klan chapter, Samuel Bowers, was convicted, on the fifth try, of Dahmer's murder. Bowers died in prison last fall.

The complexities of race that Dahmer lived out, and the racism he fought against, are, of course, still with us. To take only one obvious example: Barack Obama, despite his multi-racial heritage, is almost exclusively identified as black, a point which will be hammered home over and over, with ever-less-subtle hints of racism, in the coming months. The lesson the GOP took from the 1960s was that they needed to make racism a prominent part of their playbook; should Obama's campaign continue to gather steam, we'll soon see them deploying the nastiest parts of it.


  1. The story gives an interesting and important view of the history of racism in this country and the lives of biracial and multiracial people in pre-Civil Rights era U.S. However, the story is more complex than Branch lets on - or perhaps his information was limited.

    Ellen Kelly's father Warren - referred to as "old Man Kelly" by this story, had more than just the 4 daughters. He did in fact marry, and Ellen had at least 5 brothers in addition to her sisters. The relationships were very complex, as well as the marriages that these children had - just who is on which side of the family (Black, White, etc). One of those brothers was my great-great grandfather. I myself have been working to research our story, and it is not at all clear-cut, to be honest. There is a lot of information that I do not have. However, just be aware that although Taylor Branch seems to speak very definitively on his facts, there are parts of the history that he is still missing.

    1. Anonymous2:17 PM

      Sean, thank you for response. Vernon Sr. is my great grandfather and build a family tree. I would love to compare notes. Feel free to email me at crosstheater@yahoo.com. Thanks.

  2. Dear Sean,
    Thanks for commenting--I suppose I should have expected that the story, like all stories of race, was more complicated than Branch let on, but I didn't, so I'm glad you weighed in. Good luck with your family research; it sounds like fascinating work.