Saturday, March 06, 2021

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery is an excellent book that recounts the story of George Dinning and has the subtitle How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Solider Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South.

The book jacket notes how Dinning in 1897 became the first Black man in the South to beat a lynch mob in court. Dinning was from Southwestern Kentucky, near the Tennessee state line, and 10 years old in 1865 when slaves were declared to be free. The day was commemorated under the name The Eighth of August and the Ku Klux Klan then surfaced in December of that year. Dinning bought from his former slave owner David Dinning in 1877 the land on which he lived, paying off the debt by 1884. He built a house, had a farm, and raised a family. In January 1897 Dinning had 25 white men come to his house at night, wrongfully accuse him of stealing livestock and shooting at the house. Dinning returned fire and a white man in the group died. Dinning a day later turned himself into the Sheriff, and that day his wife and children were told by another mob of men to leave the property and it was then burned.

While Dinning was in custody, Kentucky Governor Bill Bradley was instrumental in keeping him alive. There was a long history of blacks being taken out of police custody and killed by white mobs so the Governor sent troops to Frankin to protect Dinning. Also, prior to his trial for murder, the Kentucky Senate passed an anti-lynching bill that was signed into law by the Governor. About halfway through the book, Montgomery introduces Colonel Bennett H. Young. He was a lawyer who was on the side of the South in the Civil War, robbing a bank in the town of St. Albans, Vermont to fund the war effort, and yet after it was over, he helped people of color. The jury in Dinning’s trial found him not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Public sentiment was that he shouldn't have been found guilty of anything and should be pardoned by the Governor. Bennett Young sent a telegram to the Governor urging a pardon, and then Bradley issued one, freeing Dinning two weeks after the verdict. 

Dinning moved with his family to Jeffersonville, Indiana and Young represented him in a suit against the men who came to his house that first night as well as those who came back when it burned down. It was the first time a black man brought suit for damages against a white mob and in Louisville in May 1899, Dinning was awarded $50,000, to be paid by the six men deemed most liable. This case paved the way for others in the South, including another by Dinning that was settled. Dinning changed his last name to Denning and grew old in Jeffersonville along with his wife Mollie, children, and grandchildren. The book closes with a man named  Anthony Denning, in 2019 in Jeffersonville where he grew up. His great-grandmother Mollie Denning died in 1944 close the age of eighty-nine and great-grandfather George died in 1930. 

It's a well-detailed and I'm sure thoroughly researched book that gives a solid telling of important events. Also, I thought excellent the bookends to the story, with the end having this mention of how the family legacy carried on, and in the beginning, Montgomery writing about the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, which features a walkway through and under 800 coffin-sized steel boxes, each containing the name of an American county and the names of those lynched there, some 4,400 people.