Long before Martin Luther King Jr. had his enduring influence, more people recognized William Key, John W. Lemon, Richard Carroll, & F. Rivers Barnwell in their own time than would have recognized ASPCA founder Henry Bergh
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana––“I am the only colored speaker on the program, and in fact I have not seen a single colored visitor to it,” wrote the Reverend Richard Carroll from the October 1912 conference of the American Humane Association, in an open letter to the Greenville News, of Greenville, South Carolina.
Carroll (1859-1929), whose career in many ways presaged that of Martin Luther King Jr., could have written the same thing from almost any humane conference today, or from most others held since the initial conference of the American Humane Association in Albany, New York, in 1877.
De facto segregation
But the de facto segregation that Carroll encountered in Indianapolis in 1912 might have been all the more shocking, even in the often formally segregated “Jim Crow” cultural atmosphere of those times.
Twenty-three years into the 21st century, the ongoing de facto segregation of animal advocacy is so entrenched that scarcely anyone even makes noise any more from conference podiums––as was done a generation ago––about outreach to the black community or affirmative action hiring.
A few black vendors sold vegan food each year at the National Animal Rights Conference series hosted by the Farm Animal Rights Movement, before COVID-19 forced an indefinite suspension of in-person conferences.
Otherwise, attendees at that or any other humane conference, including the pale imitations now held online, scarcely encounter even a hint that black vegan, vegetarian, and animal advocacy go back all the way to the dawn of these causes.
Many of the most visible faces of the humane movement were black
In 1912, however, and for decades before and after, the most visible faces of the humane movement to millions of Americans, of every ethnicity, included African-Americans, often as keynote speakers.
Decades before television, when even silent single-reel films were just beginning to find an audience, much of the U.S. recognized the touring humane evangelists William Key; John W. Lemon; Carroll himself, a generation younger, who followed Key into humane work toward the end of Key’s long career; Carroll’s son Seymour Carroll, who spent 20 years on the road continuing his father’s work; and Frederick Rivers Barnwell, better known as just F. Rivers Barnwell, who followed Richard Carroll into a 30-year career in itinerant animal advocacy in 1914.
Key, the Carrolls, and Barnwell were all nearly lost to history, though their work lived on, as recently as January 2018, when University of Texas historian Janet M. Davis and Paula Tarankow of Indiana University resurrected their stories at the 132nd annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington D.C.
Friends of Booker T. Washington
Both Key and Richard Carroll, pointed out Tarankow, “were born into slavery, enjoyed a personal friendship with Booker T. Washington,” cofounder of the Tuskegee Institute, “and served as Southern agents of the Massachusetts-based American Humane Education Society.
“Together,” said Tarankow, “the story of Key and [Richard] Carroll uncovers how the early language of animal protection in the New South was a product of the discourse surrounding the failures of Reconstruction, black racial uplift, and sectional reunion.”
Ironically, though forgotten by animal advocates, Key is remembered at length by James H. Neal in the Tennessee Encyclopedia, published in October 2017 by the Tennessee Historical Society.
Self-educated horse doctor
Born in 1833 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the legal property of Captain John Key, the-then-five-year-old Bill and his whole family were left upon the captain’s death to his cousin, John W. Key of Shelbyville.
Bill by the age of six was already known for his ability to calm and train horses, and also to calm John W. Key’s aged and disabled father.
Martha Key, wife of John W. Key, taught young Bill reading, writing, presentation, elocution and etiquette.
“Key read veterinary texts and experimented with animal remedies until he became a successful veterinarian and equine dentist. Known as Dr. Key, he also practiced dentistry and other healing arts for slaves,” Neal recounted.
Already nearly 30 years old when the U.S. Civil War broke out, Key followed John W. and Martha Key’s two sons when they joined the defense of Fort Donelson against the advancing Union Army in February 1862, protected them from Union shelling in his own log-covered dugout called Fort Bill, and then helped them escape to the Confederate Army unit commanded by Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877).
Forrest in 1867 was elected first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, but in 1869 unsuccessfully ordered that the Klan be disbanded. Relatives and descendants, including a grandson who became a Grand Dragon, remained involved at least until the grandson’s death in 1931.
“In the last years of his life,” Wikipedia summarizes, “Forrest publicly denounced the violence and racism of the Klan, insisted he had never been a member, and made at least one public speech (to a black audience, in 1875) in favor of racial harmony.”
“Good cook & poker player”
Bill Key, meanwhile, in January 1863, after the battle of Stones River, which featured the highest percentage of casualties on both sides of any battle of the war, was captured by the Sixth Indiana regiment “as he tried to smuggle another black man through Union lines,” according to Neal.
Key “was sentenced to hang, but the execution was postponed,” Neal claims, “when it was learned that he was a good cook and poker player. Playing poker with Union officers, Key purchased his release in exchange for their gambling debts. Captured and sentenced to hang on another occasion, Key purchased a delay of execution with one thousand dollars he had sewn between the soles of his shoe. Confederate raiders liberated him the next day.”
The irony of Key’s life to that point, as a black man who put personal loyalty to the Key family ahead of his own freedom, took further twists after the Civil War.
“Queen of Horses”
While the white Keys were left destitute, their land mortgaged and buildings ruined, Bill Key “developed and marketed Keystone Liniment for various animal and human ailments. With proceeds from gambling winnings and Keystone Liniment sales,” according to Neal, “he quickly paid off the mortgage for his former masters,” and then put both of John W. and Martha Key’s sons through Harvard University.
Key meanwhile “organized a traveling minstrel and medicine show, at which animals performed skits to demonstrate the apparent effectiveness of his medications,” Neal continued. “While in Tupelo, Mississippi, Key bought a badly abused Arabian bay, Lauretta, from a defunct circus.”
Lauretta, according to Kristin Berkery in a 2012 online posting called Beautiful Jim Key: the lost history of the world’s smartest horse, was in truth the “legendary ‘Queen of Horses,’ an Arabian mare who was allegedly stolen from a sheikh in Persia and sold to P.T. Barnum to tour Europe as a circus performer. After her popularity began to wane, Lauretta was sold to low-rent circuses in the U.S. where she suffered mistreatment and neglect.”
“Beautiful Jim Key”
Whoever Lauretta was, Key nursed her back to health and mated her with the standardbred stallion Tennessee Volunteer.
Their offspring, born in 1890, was a colt so weak and wobbly that Key “named him Jim, after the town drunk,” Neal wrote. Key nursed Jim to health in his own home.
“Lauretta died when Jim Key was a young foal,” according to Berkery, whose account is mostly based on the 2005 book Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World, by Mim E. Rivas.
Jim, meanwhile, “ began picking up tricks he learned while watching Bill’s dog fetch sticks, sit, and roll over. Bill’s wife Lucinda first figured out that Jim Key could answer yes or no questions. She was eating an apple in front of him when she asked, ‘Jim, do you want a piece of apple?’ He nodded his head and up down in response.”
Neal’s version is that Key one day noticed Jim open a drawer, retrieve an apple, and then close the drawer.
“Kindness & patience”
Realizing that Jim displayed rare intelligence, “Key put Jim on a rigorous training routine that lasted for seven years,” Neal said. “When finally exhibited, Jim could spell, distinguish among coins and make change, write letters and his name on a blackboard, identify playing cards, play a hand organ, and respond to political inquiries, among other amazing feats,” or so audiences believed.
Billed as “Beautiful Jim Key,” the horse debuted on stage before then-U.S. President William McKinley at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial exhibition in Nashville.
McKinley reportedly called Jim’s performance “The most astonishing and entertaining exhibition I have ever witnessed,” and an excellent example of what “kindness and patience” could accomplish.
The “Beautiful Jim Key” act was likewise endorsed by band leader and composer John Phillip Souza.
Rogers & Angell
Also in the audience was Albert R. Rogers, a thrill ride promoter, author, and officer of the American Humane Education Association, who according to Neal “was especially gratified that Key’s training methods consisted entirely of positive rewards for performance.”
Rogers arranged for Massachusetts SPCA and American Humane Education Society founder George Thorndike Angell to make Jim an honorary humane agent, “advanced Key a large sum of money, and promised that Jim would not be separated from Key as long as either lived,” Neal wrote.
The timing was right. Angell, an abolitionist before the Civil War, had taken to heart criticism voiced by the African American newspaper The Christian Recorder in 1887 after two black men were lynched in Texas for defending themselves against an armed robbery:
“Where is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” The Christian Recorder asked, “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?”
Promoted the Band of Mercy
Wrote Neal, “Key, Beautiful Jim, and grooms Sam and Stanley Davis of Shelbyville traveled to the Rogers estate in New Jersey where, for several months, Key prepared Beautiful Jim for his New York City debut. In August 1897 Beautiful Jim amazed viewers and the New York City press and quickly became a celebrity.”
Rogers, assessed Janet M. Davis, “carefully controlled Key’s image, transforming the Arabian horse into a charming ‘Southern’ horse and penning William’s biography,” published as The Story of Beautiful Jim Key: The Most Wonderful Horse in All The World, “to conform to the image of a loyal Uncle Tom figure of the Lost Cause variety.”
For the next nine years, Key, Rogers, and Beautiful Jim toured the eastern U.S. on behalf of the Bands of Mercy, a national youth organization sponsored by the American Humane Education Society.
By 1906, however, “the duo was slowing down with age,” Berkery wrote. “Plans were made for the act to rest all of 1907 and return to performing the following year, but Rogers went through financial hardship, had a falling out with the American Humane Education Society and the Massachusetts SPCA, and was forced out of his official roles in those organizations.”
“After appearing before almost two million spectators,” the Neal version ends, “Key and Beautiful Jim retired to Shelbyville, Tennessee, where Key lived comfortably until his death in 1909. Jim lived until 1912.”
The Reverend John W. Lemon
If nothing else, Key had convinced the American Humane Education Society of the value of hiring articulate black men as traveling humane evangelists.
Baptist minister Francis H. Rowley in 1910 succeeded Massachusetts SPCA and American Humane Education Society founder George Thorndike Angell as president of both organizations and soon hired multiple successors to Key.
Among the first and most successful, recalled Janet M. Davis in her 2016 book The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America, was the Reverend John W. Lemon (1868-1952), of Ark, Virginia, who “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.”
Lemon continued to represent the American Humane Education Association until 1942.
Unlike Key, Lemon directly challenged racial segregation and the institutionalized discrimination that came with it.
“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.”
Yet, dynamic as Lemon was, he in many respects was just the warm-up act for Richard Carroll.
Richard Carroll, summarized Tarankow to the American Historical Association, “preached a gospel of Christian ethics, which braided together the message of humane treatment to animals and African Americans. He harkened back to the antebellum ‘harmony’ between slaves and masters as a basis for white’s kindness to African Americans. Richard Carroll enjoyed the patronage and support of South Carolina’s white politicians and community by using animals as a proxy to discuss race relations.”
A capsule biography and description of Richard Carroll’s work published by South Caroliniana Library in Columbia, South Carolina, asserts accurately that “Carroll espoused an extreme agrarian philosophy, distrusted city influences and advised South Carolina’s African Americans to remain on the land,” but wrongly alleges that “Carroll advocated self-help and economic advancement for African Americans while discouraging efforts to achieve political and social equality between the races.”
“Contribute nothing toward segregation & discrimination”
Richard Carroll perhaps most succinctly summarized what he really stood for, and advocated, in a prescient 1914 editorial for his self-help magazine for black farmers, The Columbia Ploughman.
“To segregate the Negro in schools, churches, or otherwise, is detrimental to his best interests,” Carroll wrote. “The white enemies of the Negro race are trying to put Negroes to themselves by making Negro settlements in cities, Negro communities in the country, and when this is done you will find that the Negro will suffer. In the city he will not get light, fire, or police protection, etc.; in the country, roads leading by Negro farms will be neglected and not receive the attention that the road by the white man’s farm does. We hope the Negro will contribute nothing toward segregation and discrimination.”
Son of slave owner & house servant
According to the remainder of the South Caroliniana Library biography, which appears to be factually accurate, “Carroll was born a slave in Barnwell County, the son of a white slave owner. He benefited from the fact that his mother was a trusted house servant on the W.D. Rice Plantation.
“Rice opened the door of opportunity for Carroll. He was educated at Benedict College in Columbia, where he developed his gift for eloquence.”
Taking up a Baptist ministry in Orangeburg, south of Columbia, Carroll stood against the remainder of the “Colored Convention” in October 1890 in opposing a resolution that black South Carolinians should vote for the straight Democratic ticket.
History proved Carroll right.
Benjamin Tillman (1847-1914), the Democratic candidate for Governor, upon election by a landslide, exulted that “The whites have absolute control of the State government, and we intend at any and all hazards to retain it.”
Tillman’s tenure as governor coincided with a rapid rise in lynchings, and was in general the disaster for black South Carolinians that Carroll alone had seen coming.
Tillman’s last achievement before winning election to the U.S. Senate in 1894 was the introduction of a new state constitution, taking effect in 1895, which Tillman admitted in a 1900 speech to the U.S. Senate was written “calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disfranchising as many [black voters] as we could.”
Carroll’s political opposition to Tillman notwithstanding, he somehow won Tillman over as a sometime ally in later years.
Colored State Fair Association
Meanwhile, continues the South Caroliniana Library biography, “After serving as a chaplain with the 10th U.S. Infantry in the Spanish-American War (1898),” including during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, “Carroll founded the Industrial Home for Boys and Girls, a school for delinquent African American children, located near Columbia” which “drew support from both Northern donors and local businessmen.”
Turning to journalism, Carroll “from 1906 to 1915 edited The Southern Ploughman and published his own newspaper, The Christian Soldier.
Carroll also promoted his ideas through various organizations,” the South Caroliniana Library biography mentions, “founding the Colored State Fair Association and sponsoring a series of annual race congresses. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration invited both Carroll and Booker T. Washington to attend a conference on child welfare at the White House. He was offered the post of United States Minister to Liberia by President Woodrow Wilson but declined.”
Came late to animal advocacy
Nothing discoverable through the extensive coverage of Carroll’s career before 1913 accessible via NewspaperArchive.com indicates that he was to become a nationally prominent animal advocate, though he certainly had extensive contact with humane societies in an era when more humane societies ran orphanages than animal shelters.
Indeed, in an address to rural black South Carolinians reported by the January 12, 1898 edition of the Marion Star, Carroll urged that, “You can grow rice, potatoes, corn, peas, cotton, sugar cane, millet and grain; you can raise cattle, hogs, chickens, and other poultry; you can sell chickens, eggs, butter, and now and then bring a calf or cow to market or to sell to the butcher. You should never come to town unless you bring something to sell or exchange. Then, the creeks, rivers, and lakes abound in fish; the woods are full of game. You remember the old-time diet, opossum and tater? The raccoon is in the swamps; where is the opossum dog? Brer rabbit is as prolific as ever. You can live if you will.”
“Wild animal shows”
Opposition by the mainstream humane community to hunting and trapping was stronger, at the time, than at any point during the 20th century.
A 1909 report about Carroll’s state fair in Batesburg, South Carolina mentioned that “wild animal shows will be featured,” though traveling wild animal shows had already attracted protest from mainstream humane organizations for as long as any had existed.
Carroll appears to have become acquainted with Francis Rowley, perhaps through John W. Lemon, somewhat after that. By 1912, when Carroll spoke at the American Humane Association conference in Indianapolis, he was among Rowley’s “twelve apostles” promoting the Bands of Mercy.
Rowley reciprocated by speaking at Carroll’s Race Conference & Corn Exposition, held from January 27 to February 8, 1913 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Changed view of trapping
By then, wrote Davis, “Although trapping provided a source of food and income for the rural poor, Carroll and other activists vigorously fought it,” contrary to Carroll’s position of 1898, “because it caused protracted suffering. They believed that trapping was morally akin to poaching, promoting subsistence, itinerancy, and tacit theft over an idea of agricultural stewardship, ownership, and capital accumulation.”
Carroll had long since perfected a speaking style antecedent to that of Martin Luther King Jr. and King’s successor, Jesse Jackson, in that Carroll continually reassured white listeners that black people were no threat to whites in seeking to improve their own lot.
Carroll shocked his black listeners by appearing to agree with various statements and stereotypes alleged by white racists.
Carroll then stood those statements and stereotypes on their heads with positive examples of how he believed white and black people ought to interact.
Denounced lynching, alcohol, & urban living
Carroll emphasized self-help for the black community, but encouraged white audiences to contribute to black self-help projects, citing in particular the later-in-life examples of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Carroll, a Prohibitionist, denounced lynching at every opportunity, yet coupled his denunciations with denunciations of crimes committed by black people, especially under the influence of alcohol and the fast life of big cities.
At times Carroll warned, in terms jarring to racial sensitivities today, that eventually white people and black people would need each other to help fight the Japanese––as occurred a generation later, in World War II.
In context, however, Carroll appears to have used the “Japanese” as a hypothetical external threat that provided a pretext for seeking racial harmony.
There were few if any Americans of Japanese ancestry anywhere near his speaking engagements, and Carroll conspicuously did not say anything that might have incited enmity against other minorities who were nearby, for example Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans.
“Opportunity for humane workers”
Carroll’s knack for framing his message made him eminently acceptable to multiracial crowds at a time and in places where segregation had taken firm hold.
The Waco Morning News of April 25, 1915 for instance, noted a recent meeting in Austin of the Texas division of the Daughters of the Confederacy, then mentioned under the subheading “An Opportunity is Here for Humane Workers” that “Women all over the state who are interested in humane work are reminded of an opportunity now in the state for some effective education along the line of humane treatment of dumb animals.
“There is touring Texas a negro evangelist from South Carolina,” the Waco Morning News explained, urging white women to attend a presentation by a black man. “His name is Richard Carroll. He is sent out from the colored Baptist educational board and brings very strong credentials from his home. But, stronger than that is the endorsement being sent by the Humane Society of Dallas. Carroll appeared there before a very large audience of blacks. A section was reserved for the white people and one hundred were present. These report a strong practical appeal, an interesting address, and a deep impression.”
“Narrowly escaped being lynched”
In Waco, as at many of Carroll’s other stops, he delivered separate lectures for men, women, and children, but blacks and whites sat together––if in separate sections––at each.
“Because 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.”
Richard Carroll’s son Seymour Carroll (1904-1943), a distinguished veteran of World War I, thereafter succeeded his father as the American Humane Education Society in much of the South, remaining on the road until 1942, a year before his death of cancer.
Richard Carroll died on October 30, 1929, Founders Day at the South Carolina Negro Fair, descended from his own efforts. His funeral was “the first police-escorted funeral held for any African American in the city of Columbia,” according to the South Caroliniana Library biography, and was attended by both the then-South Carolina governor and one of his predecessors.
F. Rivers Barnwell
Frederick Rivers Barnwell (1883-1958), born in Fort Worth, Texas, was, like Lemon and Richard Carroll, a Baptist minister. He joined the American Humane Education Society as a field officer in 1914.
Like Lemon and both Carrolls, recounted Davis to the American Historical Association, “Barnwell traveled across Texas and the Lower South by automobile,” staging “lantern slide exhibitions on animal stewardship, establishing ‘Bands of Mercy’ for thousands of black children, organizing youthful birdhouse building competitions, and preaching ‘Humane Sunday’ sermons to thousands of people every year, promoting animal advocacy as fundamental to social justice.
“Combating Jim Crowism, he collaborated with white animal protectionists, most notably Kate Friend, who helped found the Waco Humane Society in 1902 and included abused women and children in her interracial project of social reform.”
Humane warhorse care
Barnwell found less opportunity than Carroll to address racially integrated audiences, but made the most of the chances he had, “including a session with black and white soldiers at Camp MacArthur in Waco in July 1918 regarding humane warhorse care,” Davis said.
“In a racist society,” Davis summarized, “Barnwell subtly critiqued white supremacy with an inclusive ‘gospel’ of kindness for people and animals. Like other southern black animal advocates, Barnwell targeted the church and the school—two important sites of racial uplift and self-help in post-Emancipation black society.
“Barnwell extended his condemnation of animal cruelty to other forms of oppression, but his emphasis on animals potentially deflected his denunciation of racism,” Davis assessed, “thus giving him a measure of freedom to travel and speak about inequality across the color line.
Director of Negro Health Service
“Diverse audiences read Barnwell’s activism differently—as an animal protectionist, or as a champion of social justice,” Davis continued.
“Hailed by African American civic leaders for ‘accomplishing vast good for righteousness,’ Barnwell was also praised by white politicians, such as Governor James E. Ferguson of Texas, who commended him in a proclamation supporting ‘Be Kind to Animals Week’ in 1917.”
Barnwell, Lemon, and Seymour Carroll continued to represent the American Humane Education Society until 1942, when Frances Rowley, then 90, was forced out of the active presidency of both the American Humane Education Society and the Massachusetts SPCA.
Rowley’s successor as president of both organizations, Eric H. Hansen, soon ended the outreach work that had put black men in humane leadership roles for almost half a century. Hansen’s life partner, William Alan Swallow, then wrote Barnwell, Lemon, both Carrolls, and William Key out of humane history by omitting mention of any of them from Quality of Mercy, an influential 1963 history of the humane movement.
Seymour Carroll, already gravely ill, and John W. Lemon, who doubled as principal of the Bethel School in Ark, Virginia, and minister of the black church there, faded rapidly out of the public eye.
F. Rivers Barnwell, however, in the latter part of his life and career became widely known as Director of Negro Health Service at the Texas Tuberculosis Association and as a cofounder of the Omicron Upsilon chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity of black businessmen and professionals.