Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Is There Such a Thing As Revisionist History?
Worthy Lee Christy, ca 1901, courtesy Mary Cervantes
Anybody who has studied history at the collegiate level has heard this question: Is there such a thing as revisionist history? Answer "no" to that question and fall quickly into the trap that discredits new research and new conclusions drawn from such research. Revisionist History gets a bad reputation when an historian rewrites certain events to prove a question not previously asked, such as, Are white European settlers responsible for building New York City when it was actually built by slaves? That gets a lot of people's goats. I don't know why. We can't deny that slavery existed even in the Yankee north. We can't deny that history was written by the educated and affluent, the victors, if you will, and those people were not slaves. Well, duh, guess who got the credit.
Revisionist History is necessary. The big picture will remain the same, but that which was witnessed from ten feet away is subject to change. That which is seen with a jeweler's eye will show many facets, and those facets keep history from being static.
I had a boss once who refused to hear me when I offered history as to how certain issues arose and why. He only wanted to know what the issue was and how to fix it, claiming the rest was wasted time. Then when he would go ahead with his idea of the solution to fix the problem, he often found himself digging a much bigger hole, exacerbating an issue that might have been mended by a needle and thread if he had only understood the nuances that would have come from knowing history.
All this being said, I bring you to an example drawn from my genealogical studies. I have been researching my husband's family. His father was orphaned when he was twelve years old. He and his siblings were farmed out to relatives, friends and orphanages. Their mother, Etta Poe Christy died after childbirth in 1932. Their father, Worthy Lee, for some reason gave up the children, remarried and started a new life. The presumption of Etta's family was that Worthly Lee was worthless, a drunkard, a lazy low down rotten scoundrel void of any redeeming qualities. Research, however, has revised the circumstances in which Worthy Lee Christy was weighed in the balances and found wanting.
Remember this was the height of the depression. The stock market crashed in 1929. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in November, 1932 and didn't take office until January, 1933. History shows that sometime between 1929 and 1932, Worthy took his family out of the rolling hills of Kentucky that offered little for a city man trained as a freight hauler. Worthy and Etta settled their family in Cincinnati, where he took what work he could get and Etta took ill during her pregnancy. When Etta died, how was Worthy to rear a family?
There is no evidence that Worthy became a drunk. There is evidence that he became a diabetic later in life and lost both his legs. He died in the Drake Hospital in Cincinnati of complications of diabetes on December 18, 1962. It is true that he died indigent. Hamilton County took him back to Bracken County, Kentucky, to be interred next to his first wife, Etta. The only "mourners" were his son, Bernard, and his wife, Lucille.
We know now that Worthy Lee was not totally estranged from his children. One child, Bert, was adopted out of the Methodist Children's Home in Versailles, Kentucky. Evelyn went to live in California. Patty was adopted by Oakley and Pauline Poe in Brooksville. The other boys remained in touch as much as possible. We know now that Worthy lived with each of his children from time to time, but we also know that wasn't the optimum situation whenever he did. He did seem to have trouble keeping employment even after the depression.
We don't know if Worthly Lee suffered from mental illness, although I think he did.. We don't know what was on his mind or in his heart when his family was broken apart, but it isn't hard to surmised that a man whose own father died when he was 7 would have been a tad dysfunctional and rightfully so. The point is - he wasn't the man of ill repute the Etta's family made him out to be. He wasn't a one dimensional man.
The Poes were well to do even by depression standards. Why is that only one of Etta's siblings stepped up to give her children a home? Why is they didn't want Etta's children? Is it possible that their history of Worthy Lee was written to masque their own ineptitude toward their sister and her children? Could it have been easier for them to point the finger at Worthy Lee rather than step up to the plate with Christian charity and do what they should have done?
The Poe family cannot be written as one dimensional either. We haven't yet delved into that family history, but these are questions for the revisionist historian. They may never have answers, but they have to be asked none the less.