An Unlikely Hero Vs. The KKK: Our hero from Grey County took his missionary zeal south of the border and ultimately crossed paths with the infamous KKK!
Last week, I introduced you to an unlikely hero, the Reverend William Luke of Markdale and Flesherton. This week, we continue his story.
In order to continue his work with former slaves, Luke's only option was to travel to the southern part of the United States.
In July 1869, he arrived at the American Missionary Association offices in Cincinnati, Ohio. There he met Rev. Henry E. Brown, president of Talladega College, a school for freedmen in Alabama.
Luke began working with Brown and, within a short time, had received accolades for his hard work, devotion from his colleagues and the respect and trust of the black community.
He had left his family behind in Markdale and he worked hard to save money to send for them to join him in the south.
Then, an opportunity arose which would indeed provide him with the means to bring his family to him. The Selma, Rome and Dalton Railway, which was financed by the wealthy Astor family of New York, hired Luke to develop a model community for the freed slaves where they could have their own churches, schools and jobs with salaries equivalent to white workers.
What a stroke of luck for the hard-working Canadian striving to bring his family to him. Perhaps naively, Luke failed to realize that such a golden opportunity was also fraught with danger.
Although the North had defeated the South in the recent civil war, and the slaves had been freed, the local white community was not particularly open to the concept of free blacks, let alone former slaves earning a wage that was equivalent to theirs.
Luke, in particular, was a villain in the eyes of the local white community. When it was learned what he was doing in the black community, he was kicked out of his hotel room.
He took up residence with a black family. This further increased hostilities with some of the white citizens. Members of the Ku Klux Klan confronted Luke in Jacksonville, Ala. They threatened to kill him if he did not stop being a "nigger teacher." Within a week of the threats, shots were fired into his room. Fortunately, Luke was out of town at the time.
A short while later, an uprising occurred between some black men and a group of whites. In the ensuing battle, the blacks were arrested, and a mob went to Luke's home and arrested him. In what was, at best, a kangaroo court held the same evening, Luke was asked questions such as, "Did God view black women the same as white women?"
Answering these questions truthfully, Luke was thrown into jail with six black men to await sentencing. It came swiftly, but not in a court of law.
During the next few hours, the fields and roadways saw dozens of white-sheeted riders heading towards the jailhouse. The Klansmen gathered outside the jail. Then they went in and took Luke and his black companions. They were found the next morning. Some of the black men had been shot.
William Luke, the former minister from southern Grey County, had been hanged!
Luke's wife twice attempted to sue the local government in Alabama, but each time, her efforts were rebuffed.
William Luke, raised in Flesherton, schooled in Owen Sound, and who lived in Markdale for much of his life — hanged by the Ku Klux Kan July 11, 1870 in Alabama — has become something of a folk hero in that southern state.
His story has passed from one generation to the next at Talladega College and Piedmont, Alabama. The Alabama Public Television Network produced a film about William Luke. It was released in May 1996 under the title, The Wayfaring Stranger. It is based on the book written by Gene Howard, Death at Cross Plains. The book is available from University of Alabama Press at a cost of $16.95.
Note: Thanks again to Gene Howard of Jacksonville, Ala. for making his research notes available to me for this column.
A version of this article originally appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times on June 29, 1996.
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An Unlikely Hero Vs. The KKK (Part 2) Our hero from Grey County took his missionary zeal south of the border and ultimately crossed paths with the infamous KKK!
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History Pages introduces the readers to interesting people, places, and events that I have researched and written about in my writing career that spans more than three decades.