Twenty-nine years ago I moved to Owensboro to pastor Third Baptist Church. Mayor, college friend, and former Third member David Adkisson took me to lunch. We talked about the city in general and the river in particular. He bemoaned the failure of the city to develop the riverfront into the commercial and recreational bonanza it had to potential to be. Only the then recently-constructed RiverPark Center for the Performing Arts offered a glimpse into what was possible.
I thought about all that as I parked my car on the south side of Veterans Boulevard. The street channels traffic east and west through what is surely the most spectacular success story of the last three decades. The gleaming Convention Center now anchors the western edge, joining the RiverPark Center to frame that half mile of civic achievement: hotels, eateries, gardens, playgrounds, park benches, and performance venues fill the space, punctuated by the impressive Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
I stood on the plaza and starred at the wide expanse of river, the Ohio River. I was 750 river miles downstream from the city where it begins and from which I moved to Owensboro in 1991—Pittsburgh. The famous Blue Truss Bridge dominates the foreground, connecting Kentucky with Indiana. In the distance under the bridge I saw the line of barges, stationary, hugging the far shore.
A dozen miles upstream the new William H. Natcher Bridge crosses the same river near the place where, in 1830, Josiah Henson the slave escaped to freedom with his wife and children. His story, narrated by him and published in 1849, became the basis of the famous 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stow, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Henson described his master as “coarse and vulgar in his habits, unprincipled and cruel in general deportment and especially addicted to the vice of licentiousness.”
He was sent by this despicable man to his brother in Kentucky: “His house was situated about five miles south of the Ohio River and fifteen miles above the Yellow Banks, on Big Blackford’s Creek…. The plantation extended the whole five miles from the house to the river, and there were several different farms, all of which I was overseeing.”
Then Henson described his escape, after years of faithful service and months of careful planning:
“At length the eventful night came…. It was about the middle of September and by 9 o’clock in the evening I was ready. It was a dark moonless night, and we got into the little skiff in which I had induced a fellow slave to take us across the river. It was an agitating and solemn moment…. We landed on the Indiana shore, and I began to feel that I was my own master.”
I wondered if my dad, Tom Moody, was familiar with that story, either in its original form or in the version crafted by the novelist. Did they read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the public schools of Daviess County in the decade of his adolescence?
And I wondered further if Rainey Bethea had ever read the novel or heard the story or knew its approximate location when, on the night of June 10, 1936, he crept down to the river’s edge and hid in the bushes, seeking to escape the arrest that he feared.
What I do know is this. I parked my car on Veteran’s Boulevard and walked across to the sidewalk that separates the street from the shrubs. There, on the other side of the intermittent brick wall that segregates the landscaping, was the sign.
“In Memory of Rainey Bethea”
In size it measured perhaps eight inches wide and five inches high, attached to a slender stalk of steel and stuck at least a foot into the soft dirt. I took a picture then another and another.
Was this sign the common announcement that a particular tree had been gifted and planted in memory of someone? Or was it the surreptitious act of one who not only remembered that young man but honored his memory?
Rainey Bethea did not make it across the river like Josiah Henson. He was captured by two Owensboro policemen, charged with rape of Lishia Edwards, and hung by the neck until dead early on the morning of August 14, 1936. My dad was there and saw it happen.
This small steel sign may be the only public notice of the event that captured the imagination of the nation during that hot depression summer more than eighty-four years ago. But who put it there and why is a mystery; and will it be allowed to remain? That also is a mystery.
See The GTM File for more stories in this series.