Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Good Reads: Flames After Midnight, by Monte Akers

I was born in Freestone County, which is about 90 miles south/southeast of Dallas. I spent most of my early years in that county, primarily in Fairfield, though we did move around a bit while Dad worked his way up the job ladder. But Fairfield is home. Dad was born near the west county line (near Limestone County) and graduated from Teague High School in the 1940s, and Mom grew up in Kirvin (spelled Kirven in the old days). I have many, many family members resting in the rural cemeteries that dot the county. So Freestone County is really home to me.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that I finally got around to reading Flames After Midnight, by Monte Akers. I was sort of afraid of what I might learn. The book explores the grisly murder of a 17-year old girl near Kirven in May 1922 and the events resulting from that horrible crime. In the aftermath, 3 Negroes were burned alive in Kirven by a lawless mob, and in the days and weeks afterward, other killings occurred.

At the time of the events in the book, thankfully my family did not live in Kirven. They did not arrive in the area until the end of that decade. My mother was not alive at the time, nor was my father. But in reading the book, I recognized lots of familiar names.

Growing up, the events of that terrible May were kept quiet. It was not until I was older -- in high school, I think -- that I ever even heard of the incident. And then I only heard whispers.

I like to think we've come a long way since those days. I began my school career in segregated schools. It was not until my sophomore year that we fully desegregated in Fairfield. Dad was the superintendent during those turbulent times, and I know this was probably his greatest professional challenge. We got lots of threatening phone calls in our home then, usually late at night, and they didn't care which of us picked up the phone. I learned lots of new and colorful words from those callers.

The value of history is that we learn from it, and we refrain from repeating the same mistakes again and again. I'm glad I read this book now. Yes, there are lots of holes in the events from that time, and we will never know the truth. Forensics weren't what they are today, and due process really never had a chance in this situation. But I know more now than I did.

If nothing else, I have even more respect for my father and how he guided our schools and community through the turbulent period of desegregation.

If you do happen to read this book and have an interest in in, you might also be interested in reading Kirvin and Streetman: A New History of the Northwest Section of Freestone County, 1900-1950, which is a thesis written by Fairfield native in pursuit of her MA from Baylor University. This thesis focuses on how the event influenced the decline of Kirven. In the days prior to the incident, Kirven was on its way to becoming a boom town. Following the incident, the town gradually died. Today, little remains except for a small convenience store, a couple of churches, and some houses. It once was quite a lively place, rivaling or even surpassing the other major towns of the county.

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