Letters and a map document humane & racial justice movements that pointed the way for Martin Luther King Jr.
ARK, Virginia––Bus driver Alan Lemon, then 59, hoped to find antiques that might be sold online in 2018 when he and a friend decided to explore the attic of his great grandfather John W. Lemon’s long abandoned and ruined wooden frame house.
Lost in the woods near the front of the 18-acre property bisected by Lemon’s Loop, the house was occupied for a time after John W. Lemon’s death by one of his sons, Percy, but had stood vacant for nearly 30 years since then.
The Lemon family has owned the land at least since Alan Lemon’s great-great grandfather Jim, freed from slavery before the U.S. Civil War, cleared a 300-acre farmstead just south of the crossroads village of Ark.
The village might have been named after either Noah’s Ark or the Ark of the Covenant, but either way, the name recalled a Biblically significant beginning.
The Honey Pod Tree
Thomas Calhoun Walker (1862-1953), a former slave who became the first black lawyer in Gloucester County, Virginia, recalled in his posthumously published 1958 biography The Honey-Pod Tree that he received his first education in a log cabin that Jim Lemon donated for use as a school at Sassafras, a stage coach stop about a mile southwest of Ark.
This was where John W. Lemon first attended school as a younger classmate of Walker, at the first of a succession of four schools all named Bethel School. The three earliest were built by black parents because black children were excluded from attending the same schools as white children.
Only the current Bethel school was built by Gloucester County and integrated.
John W. Lemon
Most of the former Lemon homestead property has since been sold off, bit by bit. The Gloucester Montessori school covers a portion of the Lemon farm. The convalescent facilities for the nearby Riverside Walter Reed Hospital, the Reedsworth Christian Church, and a 7-11 store may also stand on part of it.
The original boundaries of the Lemon farm may have included Fox Mill Run, Beaver Drive, Beaver Spring Road, and Spring Hill Farm Road, whose names evoke the rural history of the area.
No place name or monument, however, visibly attests to the importance of the long vanished Ark black community in either humane history or civil rights history.
Sources differ as to whether John W. Lemon was born in 1867 or 1868, and as to whether he died in 1947 or 1952, but either way, the Lemon homestead was a hub of humane work and black self-help projects for most of John W.’s life.
“I was looking for material objects”
Alan Lemon had no idea when he carefully poked his head through a trap door in a building he deemed close to collapse that he was on the brink of discovery.
At first all he saw was a lot of dusty nothing.
“I was looking for material objects,” Alan Lemon recounted. “Then I saw this old trunk over by the far wall. I said, ‘Let’s go see what’s in it.’”
The trunk, Alan Lemon found upon opening it, “was loaded with letters,” he told ANIMALS 24-7, including some from Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People cofounder W.E.B. Du Bois.
Also in the trunk was “a large cloth map,” Alan Lemon said, “that my great grandfather used when he drove to speaking engagements.”
“Such troves are rare”
Along with the trunk, Alan Lemon discovered and rescued 800 old books, once the unofficial community library of Ark, that John W. Lemon founded and curated, along with serving as the community minister, teacher, and principal at the second and third Bethel Schools.
Many of the books, Alan Lemon noticed, were about animals, ranging from practical how-to information for farmers to illustrated stories for children.
Sorting out, preserving, and assessing the historical value of the letters and books will require years of work from scholars. Alan Lemon, as of 2021, was still deciding who to work with.
But Humane Society of the U.S. historian Bernard Unti understated the case when, tipped to the existence of Alan Lemon’s find by ANIMALS 24-7, he remarked that “Such troves are rare.”
They are almost unheard of.
Five black apostles
Together the John W. Lemon materials document the times and career of a man who, though now largely forgotten, was for decades among the best recognized faces of the humane movement.
John W. Lemon, with Richard Carroll, Carroll’s son Seymour Carroll, and Frederick Rivers Barnwell, following the example of William Key, were the five black apostles among 12 designated apostles of the American Humane Education Society.
The five, of whom Lemon and Richard Carroll were also distinguished teachers and ministers, while Barnwell and Seymour Carroll were prominent public health educators, were hired by founder George Thorndike Angell and his successor Francis Rowley to spread the humane gospel far and wide.
Together, they made the humane movement perhaps the least segregated sector of either teaching or preaching.
Stood up to the Ku Klux Klan
Along the way, John W. Lemon, Carroll, and Barnwell were expected to stand up to the Ku Klux Klan at the very height of Klan influence, as they did.
Lemon, Carroll, and Barnwell worked chiefly in Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas, respectively. But they also spent thousands of hours driving alone on the dusty backroads of other parts of the South. Few black people had cars then. Fewer, if any, made a living telling white people as well as black people how to behave. John W. Lemon, both Richard and Seymour Carroll, and Barnwell were therefore all at constant risk of lynching.
John W. Lemon, the Carrolls, and Barnwell were only partially protected by their American Humane Education Society affiliation, proudly stenciled on the sides of their vehicles.
The American Humane Education Society was––and on paper remains––an affiliate of the Boston-based Massachusetts SPCA, funded not only by Yankees but by damned Yankees in the segregationist southern view, since George Thorndike Angell had begun his humanitarian career, before the U.S. Civil War, as an abolitionist.
George Thorndike Angell
Twenty-two years after slavery was abolished, nineteen years after Angell founded the Massachusetts SPCA to take up the cause of animals, Angell in 1887 saw and took to heart criticism voiced by the African American newspaper The Christian Recorder following the lynching of two black men in Texas for defending themselves against an armed robbery:
“Where is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that spends hundreds of thousands of dollars seeing to it that men do not maltreat their donkeys and dogs, that they do not protect the animal life that resides in the humanity of the black men?”
Angell formed the subsidiary American Humane Education Society two years after that, in 1889.
The American Humane Education Society
The American Humane Education Society is best remembered today for having been the U.S. umbrella for the Bands of Mercy, founded by Angell and the Reverend Thomas Timmins in 1882 in emulation of the separate Bands of Mercy organization begun in England in 1875 by philanthropist Catherine Smithies.
But Angell and Timmins, as they had already demonstrated for seven years, did not need the American Humane Education Society to promote kindness toward animals to school children. The Massachusetts SPCA itself was a sufficient umbrella for that purpose.
Angell, in particular, wanted an umbrella for an even more ambitious idea: an organization that would unite humane education with a direct affirmative response to the question raised by The Christian Recorder.
William “Bill” Key
Eight years after creating the American Humane Education Society, Angell hired the former slave William “Bill” Key and his famous trick horse, “Beautiful Jim Key,” to travel the county fair circuit promoting humane treatment of animals.
(See Four black leaders who built the humane movement.)
That gambit was a success for nearly 10 years.
Unfortunately, the association of Key and the American Humane Education Society ended on bad terms in 1906, three years before both Angell and William Key died in 1909 and six years before “Beautiful Jim Key” died in 1912.
Angell’s successor as president of both the Massachusetts SPCA and the American Humane Education Society, the Reverend Francis Rowley (1852-1954), was if anything even more ambitious both in advancing humane work and in seeking racial justice.
Rowley may be best remembered today for having been apparently the first animal advocate to use photographs to demonstrate the suffering of animals in slaughterhouses, while unsuccessfully promoting legislation to mandate pre-stunning of animals before slaughter.
Though Rowley lived to age 102, he died seven years before the federal Humane Slaughter Act made pre-stunning of hoofed animals at least nominally the law of the land, except for animals killed according to kosher and hallal teachings.
Not quite a vegetarian, Rowley argued that, “The less meat eaten, the less the demand that creates the whole traffic in food animals, fraught with its many cruelties.”
This belief may have contributed to Rowley’s long employment of John W. Lemon, who had somehow arrived at a similar conclusion.
Hampton Institute & Calhoun Colored School
John W. Lemon, son of the former slave and sharecropper Jim Lemon, graduated in 1890 from the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University, one of the first historically black institutions of higher learning.
Founded in Hampton, Virginia in 1868 by the American Missionary Institute, the Hampton Institute counted Booker T. Washington as an already famous alumnus.
John W. Lemon, at age 22, was hired as farm manager for the newly formed Calhoun Colored School in Calhoun, Lowndes County, Alabama.
Begun by two New Englanders, Mabel Dillingham and Charlotte Thorn, encouraged by Booker T. Washington, the Calhoun Colored School (1892-1943) was more-or-less modeled after the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute, at least at first, emphasizing both vocational and technical training and preparation of teachers.
“Eat less meat”
Four years into the job, in 1896, John W. Lemon formed the Calhoun Land Company, persuading 22 black families to pool their money from sharecropping and buy a 1,040-acre former plantation. They divided the land into 20 fifty-acre farms and two twenty-acre farms. They worked the farms successfully with the help of a cooperatively owned cotton gin. By 1904 the Calhoun Land Company had expanded the property to 4,000 acres, divided among 88 families.
An April 1897 account of the formation of the Calhoun Land Company, published by the New York Post, mentioned that among the covenants governing the company was a pledge to eat less meat.
Whatever brought Frances Rowley to hire John W. Lemon, Lemon wholeheartedly threw himself into the work, returning to Ark to divide the rest of his life between heading the Bethel School and the Ark black church and traveling on behalf of the American Humane Education Society.
“Labored with unrelenting zeal”
John W. Lemon “organized more than 500 Bands of Mercy and gave more than 800 school addresses, lectures, and sermons across Alabama and Virginia from 1910 to 1927,” recalled Janet M. Davis in her 2016 book The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America.
But that was barely half of John W. Lemon’s humane career.
John W. Lemon, Frederick Rivers Barnwell, and Seymour Carroll were still among the principal organizers of “Be Kind to Animals Week,” still representing the American Humane Education Society in Virginia, Texas, and South Carolina, as late as 1942.
“Lemon’s lectures on animal kindness and civilization dovetailed with his other human-centered topics on racism and economic inequality,” Davis wrote.
“Our Dumb Animals,” the monthly magazine of the MSPCA, “noted that Lemon ‘has labored with unremitting zeal to liberate his race’” from poverty, abuse, and ignorance.
“Although Lemon’s lectures acknowledged structural inequality,” Davis added, “they emphasized self-uplift and self-help, which individualized and diffused a more sweeping call for social change.”
“You couldn’t make him angry”
Gloucester Daily Press reporter Judith Haynes on August 16, 1997 published first-hand testimony about John W. Lemon’s teachings from some of the oldest black residents of the Ark neighborhood.
Raymond A. Cook, for example, born in 1912, remembered that John W. Lemon was called “Preacher” Lemon, and was principal of a Bethel Graded School which then taught up to the seventh grade.
John W. Lemon taught the sixth and seventh grade classes for $50 a month, as of 1922.
Wrote Haynes, “J.M. ‘Jake’ Lemon,” Alan Lemon’s father, “remembers his grandfather John ‘Preacher’ Lemon as ‘a jewel––you couldn’t make him angry, no kinda way.’”
Jake Lemon recalled John W. Lemon’s library. “Anybody that had any kind of problem that they had to look up, book-wise, they would come to Grandpa,” Jake Lemon told Haynes.
Introduced Rowley to Richard Carroll
William Francis Dudley, 87, told Haynes that John W. Lemon “was a very religious man. On Friday afternoon, he would call us into the assembly room and teach us the Sunday school lesson for that week. Couldn’t get away with that today.”
John W. Lemon appears to have introduced the Reverend Richard Carroll to Frances Rowley. Rowley hired Richard Carroll too, already a distinguished and dynamic speaker, and exponent of black self-help.
Richard Carroll (1859-1929) likewise threw himself into the work of the American Humane Education Society for the last 15 years of his life.
His son Seymour Carroll (1894-1943), however, probably best brought together the themes of animal advocacy and seeking racial justice.
Preached to the animals
As a child, Janet M. Davis wrote, “Young Seymour held impromptu sermons with the other children, who brought dogs, cats, and chickens to the services.”
Developing into an orator who by his early twenties packed speaking venues as far away as Conway, Arkansas, holding his audiences for an hour or more, Seymour Carroll initially sought a career in the then-segregated U.S. Army.
At age 24 Seymour Carroll became “field secretary of the Negro branch of the [South Carolina] State Council of Defense,” in which capacity he was also pressed into service as a public health educator. Reserve seats at his presentations were “given to the white people,” newspaper accounts document.
After World War I duty, Seymour Carroll participated in founding a newspaper, and as of 1928 directed the “Read A Negro Paper Club.”
Father’s close call put Seymour Carroll on the road
But the “Read A Negro Paper Club” was a side activity to Seymour Carroll’s work for the American Humane Education Society.
This began after his father, Richard Carroll, had the closest call of his career.
“Because [Richard] Carroll publicly acknowledged racism and economic inequality,” Davis wrote, “his animal welfare work occasionally became dangerous. After giving a speech in 1923 at a Baptist church in Princeton, South Carolina, which denounced debt peonage as virtual slavery, he narrowly escaped being lynched.”
Seymour Carroll, as a combat veteran, took over most of what had been Richard Carroll’s regional territory.
250 feet down a mountainside
Seymour Carroll, recounted Janet M. Davis, was “the youngest field representative of the American Humane Education Society and the most widely traveled. Our Dumb Animals described his breadth of activity as ‘limited only by the speed of his Ford car.’ He logged 1,000 to 2,000 miles a month, giving upward of 100 speeches to schoolchildren and dozens of talks to adults at ‘enthusiastic mass meetings,’ and he handed out ‘a great quantity’ of humane literature. He organized Bands of Mercy and Junior Humane Societies in tandem with activities for the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and the National Baptist Sunday School Congress.”
Seymour Carroll had his first of several close brushes with death in August 1925, when his car either accidentally left the road between Asheville, North Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee, or was bumped off or sabotaged.
The vehicle plunged 250 feet down a mountainside.
Home by Pullman
Passengers, any or all of whom might have been Ku Klux Klan targets, included Benjamin Green, mayor of Mound Bayou, Mississippi; Webster L. Porter, editor of the East Tennessee News in Knoxville; John D. Carr, editor of the Asheville Enterprise; and life insurance salesman Fred Miller and wife.
Benjamin Green and Fred Miller were hospitalized.
“Others have been sent home by Pullman,” the Baltimore Afro American reported, a Pullman railway car being one in which an injured person could lie down, in an environment controlled by black Pullman porters.
Seymour Carroll soon returned to the road and the American Humane Education Association lecture circuit.
Eluded the Klan in Georgia
In February 1927 Seymour Carroll spoke for three days at schools in Brunswick, Georgia, receiving a favorable write-up from a local newspaper reporter who mistook Carroll for a local black minister and interviewed him for fifteen minutes about Carroll’s presentations without either of them realizing their mutual misunderstanding.
Recounted the Baltimore Afro American, “That afternoon, on the front page of the [Brunswick] Evening Daily News, was published with catchy headlines, ‘Although Mr. Carroll is white, he is very interested in the Negro schools; he is one of the most prominent educators in America and is at the Northern winter tourists’ golf club here.”
That led the Ku Klux Klan to believe that Seymour Carroll had somehow passed for white and integrated the Jekyl Island golf club, which was not actually desegregated until 1964. A Klan posse pursued Carroll to Jacksonville, believed to have been his next destination, but Carroll had instead driven to a speaking engagement entitled “Kindness to Animals” at the Georgia State Industrial College in Savannah.
Won Anti-Steel Trap Law
Just a year later, in 1928, Janet Davis wrote, Seymour Carroll “lobbied successfully for the passage of the Anti-Steel Trap Law in South Carolina, the first of its kind in the nation. In recognition of Carroll’s leadership, Governor John Gardiner Richards invited him to stand at the signing ceremony.
“Although trapping provided a source of food and income for the rural poor,” Davis elaborated, “[Seymour] Carroll and other activists vigorously fought it because it caused protracted suffering. They also believed that trapping was morally akin to poaching, promoting subsistence, itinerancy, and tacit theft over an ideal of agricultural stewardship, ownership, and capital accumulation.”
National Recovery Administration
Scarcely indifferent to poverty, Seymour Carroll in 1933 led “a negro delegation” to the first organizational meeting of the National Recovery Administration in South Carolina, according to the Florence Morning News, and was “elected secretary of the Negro advisory group,” whose job was to ensure that black people got a fair share of the employment created by the New Deal to help the U.S. out of the Great Depression.
Seymour also made a point of noticing local newspaper mentions of fellow humane workers, black or white, and writing letters to the editor praising their efforts. In 1939, for instance, he commended Chester Monroe Holley, county agent for the Aiken County SPCA, for a dog rescue.
Holley, also a local police officer noted for helping to break up moonshine stills, remained on the job for the Aiken County SPCA for 17 years, until his death in 1953 at age 64.
Eric Hansen ousted Seymour Carroll, John W. Lemon, & Frederick Rivers Barnwell from humane work
The long humane careers of Seymour Carroll, John W. Lemon, and Frederick Rivers Barnwell, and unfortunately the history of black leadership within the U.S. humane movement for at least the next several generations, were terminated by the 1942 ascent of Eric Hansen to the presidency of the Massachusetts SPCA and American Humane Education.
Their longtime patron, Francis Rowley, had been forced from an active role as president of both organizations at age 90, though he continued to hold the title of president until 1945.
Hansen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1903, emigrated to the U.S. in 1923. Meeting then-American SPCA president Sydney Coleman at the New York City YMCA in 1924, Hansen soon thereafter became manager of the Queens Branch shelter for the American SPCA in New York City.
Hansen subsequently served as managing director of the Humane Society of Missouri, 1931-1937; managing director of the American Humane Association, 1937-1942; and finally headed the Massachusetts SPCA and American Humane Education Society from 1942 until his death in 1965.
Hansen at each stop put the organizations he led on a relatively sound financial footing, but often at cost of dismantling animal advocacy programs which might have made high donors uncomfortable, especially those involved in animal use industries.
William Alan Swallow wrote black & Jewish leaders out of humane history
Hansen met his life partner, Willian Alan Swallow, at the American Humane Association, where Swallow had worked since 1930.
Swallow, editor of the American Humane Association monthly periodical The National Humane Review from 1941 to 1943, followed Hansen to the Massachusetts SPCA for the remainder of his career.
Swallow’s 1963 book Quality of Mercy was for nearly forty years considered the definitive history of the U.S. humane movement.
Swallow, however, almost completely omitted any notice of either black or Jewish leadership and participation. The one exception was a transient mention that the Rhode Island SPCA and Children’s Society, founded in 1871, leased shelter space until 1925. Then it opened a shelter funded “by the estate of a Negro lady, Sarah E. Gardiner of Newport, whom the Society had helped from time to time in removing stray cats.”
[See How “Quality of Mercy” Swallowed the humane movement (part 1) and How “Quality of Mercy” Swallowed the humane movement (part 2)]
Claudia Lemon Pratt says
Thank you for your article highlighting my great grandfather and others who were an integral part of the humane movement during the early 1900’s. I knew of his work at the Calhoun Colored School and the Calhoun Land Company as well as his connection to Booker T Washington and WEB DuBois. I had no idea about this aspect of his life. He died 2 years before I was born but his home was lived in up until the 90s. It has deteriorated to its current state probably within the last 10 years as homelessness has become more prevalent in our county and people take advantage of vacant properties. Thankful that we removed the historical articles from the home prior to that and that Alan took that one extra trip to the attic to retrieve that old chest. I appreciate your work as it has given me more avenues to research as even at 64 I learn more about my ancestors. Again…thank you
Jamaka Petzak says
Fascinating history. Sharing to socials with gratitude and hope and determination for the future.
Mark Caponigro says
These accounts of Black leadership early on in the humane movement in the US are invaluable. Thanks very much for putting them together!
I wonder: The term “speciesism” was formed, not very long ago, on the pattern of the older term “racism”; quite recently we’ve all been introduced to the new term “anti-racist”; so has anyone in the animal protection community yet proposed using “anti-speciesist,” with a fitting and practical definition?
Jamaka Petzak says
Treasures all! SO important to preserve and to share. Sharing, with gratitude.
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing with gratitude and wishing THIS kind of education was universal.
Interesting history. All needs to be collated into a book chronicling the history of the American humane movement from around 1850 to 1970. ‘All Heaven in a Rage’ by E.S. Turner did a good job of doing this for Britain but nothing like it covering American (and Canadian) history exists. Some good biographies of Angell and Bergh but nothing that I know of that ties everything together.
Merritt Clifton says
Try Orphans abandoned: Prodigal Pets by Susan K. Houser, a free download from https://outthefrontdoor.com/prodigal-pets/. It overlooks or over-condenses quite a lot, discussed in the ANIMALS 24-4 review at Orphans abandoned: Prodigal Pets by Susan K. Houser, but is the best book-length treatment of U.S. humane history we have seen yet.
Thanks for the tip!