My mother's maiden name was Aris Venable. My cousin Allison Venable was the first black to be elected to the city council of Lithonia, in De Kalb County, Ga. Walter Venable was my grandfather. His father, Andy, was born a slave in the Venable household in Pine Mountain. Allison recalls the time when he was a little boy and James Venable's sister, a middle-aged lady with a good-natured smile, fondly informed him that her ancestors had once owned his. Then he was overcome with humiliation and shame. Now he can recall the incident with a smile, and only a soft, obligatory touch of bitterness. De Kalb County and much of the rest of the South has changed since then. He has watched it happen, has helped it happen. Now he can take pride in the knowledge that his sons play on the integrated athletic teams and do well in the integrated classrooms of the town in which their great-great-grandfather was a slave. Now he can sip rum and Coke in his air-conditioned living room and reflect that though his sons know of the Old South of wretched slavery and brutally enforced segregation, as their Northern-bred cousins do, almost all of what they know is learned from books and from the ghastly tales of their elders.
Now Allison can chuckle and reply, "Yes, that's right, James Venable's ancestors owned our ancestors. Yes, that's right, he and Uncle Arbria [pronounced arbree] Johnson played together as boys, been friends all their lives. They say that right today he'd do anything for Uncle Arbria. Last time Uncle Arbria's boy Midget got into that trouble, Uncle Arbria went to see James Venable, and Venable went up to the courthouse and kept Midge from going to jail. He didn't do it for Midge—he did it for Uncle Arbria. And you know Uncle Arbria, he ain't never been no Tom. For over 70 years, long before integration, he been speakin' his sober mind to white and black folks alike. That's why a lot of folks around here used to think he was crazy. But you have to understand how it is in the South. If a man likes you, he likes you, it don't matter 'bout your color, never has. He may hate every other person of your color in the world, but if he likes you, he likes you, and he'll do anything for you."
I nodded, having often heard it said that Northerners love blacks as a race but despise them as individuals, while Southerners despise blacks as a race but love them as individuals. All I could say was, "But, still, the James Venable and Uncle Arbria...friends?"
I was raised in the North and did not come across the name James Venable until I was in college. He was, I discovered, a prominent Atlanta-area attorney, "the scion of a distinguished old Peach State Klan family and owner of the sacred pastures of Stone Mountain," where spectacular Klan rallies and cross-burnings were held, and where my father, grandfathers, uncles and great-uncles had all labored in the rock quarries. He had held office as head of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Defensive Legion of Registered Americans, Inc., and the Committee of One Million Caucasians to March on Congress, the anti-Semitic boycotters, the Christian Voters and Buyers League and the Federation of Klans. David M. Chalmers, professor of history at the University of Florida, described James Venable's followers as "more violent and more chaotic" than those of the more widely known Robert Shelton, for many years head of United Klans of America.
It wasn't anything to go around bragging about, but to us in Cleveland it became a dubious source of family distinction—an In joke. The descendant of the people who had owned the Venables was not your common, everyday Georgia cracker. Maybe our ancestors hadn't been so docile after all. And he and Uncle Arbria were good buddies, huh?
One of the things that makes Uncle Arbria such an enjoyable person is his rich, slow-paced, well-timed Southern sense of humor. He's been known to tease and put his nephews on a bit. "Yes sir, yes sir," he beamed that July afternoon in 1977, looking up at me from the peach he was paring on the porch of the house in Lithonia where he and my Aunt Viola lived. He speaks in a deep, unhurried, rolling drawl. "He's a fine man. Known him all my life. When we were boys we played together, swam together, ate at the same table, got into trouble. Did most everything together. I could go to him right now and he'd do anything for me he could. He's helped a heap of black folks out in his time, defended them in court, kept them out of jail. James Venable is as fine a man as you'd ever want to meet, boy."
I grinned, took a strong sip of the homemade peach brandy he'd given me, settled back and waited for the punch line. There was none. "He's the Grand Dragon—or is it Imperial Wizard?—of the Ku Klux Klan," I gently reminded Uncle Arbria. "They're responsible for a lot of the violence and oppression that black people have suffered over the years—beatings, lynchings, shootings...."
Uncle Arbria sighed and put the paring knife down. A look of mild exasperation crossed his face; his slow voice became deeper and more reflective. "A lot of people don't stop to understand James Venable. Back when he was coming along, a white man who wanted to get anywhere around here had to belong to the Klan. It got him where he is today. Now anybody'll tell you he's one of the best lawyers in Georgia. But he grew up poor. His uncle was the high Venable. His daddy didn't have anything. When James was around 16 his uncle took pity on him, paid for him to go to Atlanta and get an education. Then he joined the Klan and became the mayor of Stone Mountain. You had to belong to the Klan. He was an intelligent man, with ambition, and that was the Old South. Yes sir, James Venable is my friend. A fine man. You can't pay no attention to what folks say about James Venable. Helped a lot of these black folks around here."
"Maybe you're right about James Venable," I said out of politeness. "Maybe he only did what he had to do." In my heart, though, I didn't believe it. Doing what he had to do—was a license for irresponsibility. It couldn't be allowed to justify the things James Venable stood for. It was an excuse that people would always hide behind when they could find no other.
"No maybe about it," Uncle Arbria declared. "I know what I'm talking about, boy."