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Major Knox links Clarkston to Civil Rights campaign

September 08, 2010 - Last in a series on Major John Knox


Special to the Clarkston News

The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University houses the American Missionary Associaton archives, which include dozens of letters from teachers in Athens showing their general dedication. These letters in the archives also include several from Major Knox, giving insight into his efforts to get schools for the blacks in Meridian and Athens.

One A.M.A. teacher, Joseph Williams, wrote in 1866 to the A. M. A. headquarters: "Sir I am compelled to believe that you have the great matter at heart—the work of evangelizing and enlightening the freedmen of the South. The great work is just begun. . . . There is a day will come when civil liberty will be the boon of every child of Adam."

White Athenians refused to send their children to classes with blacks, although they were invited.

By summer, 1867, Major Knox could report real progress in building the first Freedmen's Bureau-supported school. Black leaders had bought a site for the school and the Freedmen's Bureau would get it built. Knox wrote the Georgia School Superintendent: "The school building here now in course of erection will be completed about the 15th or 20th of Sept.

The building is 57 x 33 feet. Two story high, 4 rooms 33 x 26 each capable of seating about sixty students." Knox, however, was upset with his building superintendent, an Athens man named Messick. He said he had little confidence in him. "From the fact he is a northern man by birth and education come south some years ago. Sold his birthright. Fought in the Rebel Army and judging from his conversation is a Rebel yet."

Knox wanted the Georgia Superintendent to check the contract, to require Messick to paint the building.

Despite difficulties, the new school opened on Dec. 9, 1867. It would house several hundred black students and their teachers. In gratitude, the African-American community named it the Knox School.

The original building apparently survived at least into the late 1930's. It became a girls' dormitory after the school receive a grant from Andrew Carnegie and built a handsome new, large building. Many hundreds of black students received a solid education at Knox. Many went on to become black leaders and educators. Even whites came to see Knox as a real asset.

Major Knox's real troubles began when he ardently supported the ex-slaves' right to vote. They voted for the first time in 1867, but it was in April, 1868, that whites became the most upset. Knox supported the Union League and helped organize the black community's voting efforts. He saw no conflict in speaking at meetings and seeing to it that fair registrars were appointed.

Black citizens had two black candidates for the Georgia Legislature—Madison Davis and Alfred Richardson. With the backing of Radical Republicans, these men won over white competition and became the first black representatives in the Georgia House.

Knox's strong support angered the Ku Klux Klan, and his office received a threat with a skull and crossbones on it because of the Freedmen's Bureau support of a fair election. It was becoming clear to Major Knox that he had stirred up a hornet's nest backing fair elections.

On May 18, 1868 wrote to his brother William and sister Martha in Michigan:

"Your very kind letter has just reached me, urging upon me the necessity of leaving this country where I am in so much danger of being assassinated. I do not know—but—I shall soon, and would have done so before now had I consulted my own feelings, but the col'd [colored] People say, 'Oh, Major, do not—for God's sake—leave us. We can nothing without your assistance.' And knowing this to be true I have yielded to their appeals. I do not like to be forced to leave any part of the American Continent for political opinions honestly and conscientiously entertained. A friend of liberty I have lived and such will I die. . . ."

But by Dec. 1, 1868, Knox School teacher Fred A. Sawtell wrote A. M. A. officials: "An attempt was made to murder Maj. Knox. . . with whom you are acquainted. Maj. Knox—I suppose in the eyes of our southern friends was guilty of many crimes: first, he is connected with the Freedmen's Bureau and then he insisted in making known to the colored people their rights as Freedmen. There was considerable excitement during the night which continued until the arrival of a detachment of U. S. troops from Atlanta."

The attempt to kill Major Knox never came off, although we lack details. He finally decided it was time to go home to his twin sons. He had more than done his duty as a patriotic American. He knew the Ku Klux Klan wanted him dead. Knox left Athens at the end of the month and gave up his Freedmen's Bureau job.

Although his ill health and war wound were disabling and he suffered much, Knox got a job working with the federal government to see that treaties with Indians were carried out. He married a second time. His letters reflect a happy marriage and fulfilling life.

He then took a good job with the government's pension office in Washington, D. C. He died in 1877. His second wife, Belle Boss Knox, filed for a widow's pension and support for Knox's twin sons, although she did not have custody of them. She was successful in obtaining her pension and the government awarded John and Charles each $2 monthly until they should turn 16 in 1881. They had remained under the care of Knox's brother and sister in Oakland County.

Thus Clarkston and Athens, Georgia, are linked by the dedication and patriotism of Major John P. Knox. His support of civil rights and education for black citizens paved the way for beneficial changes, although they were doggedly slow in coming. His work also stimulated white Georgians to work for public schools for both races. But it wasn't until 1886 that public schools came to Athens. Major Knox is still remembered, and graduates of the school named for him still live and are grateful for his heritage.

Al Hester, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of the Journalism Dept. of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, the University of Georgia. He was Journalism Dept. chair and director of the Cox International Center for Mass Communication Training and Research. He was a reporter and editor for the Dallas (Texas) Times Herald for 13 years. His latest book [in press] is Enduring Legacy: Clarke County, Georgia's Ex-Slave Legislators, Madison Davis and Alfred Richardson. It will be available through Amazon.com and other book sellers in September, 2010.

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