Spearing (John Nathan) Grave and Confederate Flag Youth Crises

by Tim Gilmore, 5/18/2020

1.

I couldn’t have said what made the difference. In high school, in the early 1990s, my friends and I hated Lynyrd Skynyrd, but not the Allman Brothers Band.

Everybody, anywhere, has “an accent,” but people who’ve never traveled sometimes doubt they do. Gregg Allman had no less a hick accent than Ronnie Van Zant singing “Freebird” for Skynyrd. Even the electric guitar, which we loved in aggressive San Francisco Bay Area “thrash metal” bands like Metallica and Exodus and Slayer, sounded backward and whiney when Skynyrd sang, “I’m as free as a bird now.”

I only half understood it had something to do with the Confederate flag, with how my fundamentalist Baptist parents had sheltered me from rock music, how, shortly after my mother died when I was 12, when I first explored music beyond gospel and country on my own, my father called Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang “nigger music.”

2.

So at 16 years old, I launched myself skinny and angry through mosh pits at concerts for Megadeth at the Morocco Shrine Auditorium on St. Johns Bluff Road South, Kreator downtown at the Milk Bar, and Anthrax at some small club in Orlando. (They were touring with Iron Maiden, whose Bruce Dickinson, we’d heard, had a sore throat; arena cancelled, Anthrax found a club.) What songs Kreator, the best of the Big Four of Teutonic thrash metal, performed, whether “Ripping Corpse,” “Death is Your Savior” or “Pleasure to Kill,” I can’t recall, but I said for years that wherever I went in that small club, singer Mille Petrozza’s eyes seemed constantly to look into mine.

My friends and I performed in Airband two years in a row. “Airband” was “air guitar,” pretending to play the guitar with nothing but air, multiplied by the whole band. The drama teacher, or “drama coach,” Jon Nerf, sponsored it. I was all tall skinny limbs, long hair down my back. One year I played the bassist for Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, another year the singer for the thrash band Testament. A cheerleader told me later, “You looked cool,” but the “jocks” who ran the school threw ice and booed us and drowned us in disapproval.

Well before we drove down to Orlando in 1991 to see Jane’s Addiction and Siouxsie and the Banshees and Henry Rollins and Ice-T’s band Body Count and Nine Inch Nails on the first Lollapalooza tour, I’d decided Lynyrd Skynyrd was next to the last band I’d ever willing hear. Even as I dove from the stage to the top of the crowd and moshed and felt the crowd was crushing me, some nebulous idea congealed, somewhere between cerebral wiring and my eager-anger chimp amygdala, that Skynyrd was backward of backward, but the Allman Brothers had talent and at least a sophisticated knowledge of the roots of their own music. Didn’t care for ’em, but had to admit respect.

3.

Surely it never was fair. I’ve never liked Southern Rock. When I was 13 years old, however, I dug when Steve Dozier at Blanding Boulevard Baptist Church sang songs that blasted out the amps and sounded like Molly Hatchet’s singer Danny Joe Brown. Later, at a church camp on the St. Mary’s River, he coached us to shoot his shotgun, which kicked so hard it almost knocked me down. I swam from Florida to Georgia and back and wondered, as I’ve wondered a thousand times since, how you could know, if you fired guns in the woods, that you hadn’t just killed somebody in the distance.

At some point, and I don’t know when, it seemed to matter that Lynyrd Skynyrd performed with giant Confederate flags on the stage behind them, giant Confederate flags in their hands, giant Confederate flags on their hats. At some point in the early 1990s, Southern kids in the city took to understanding those brandishings of Confederate flags as badges of ignorance and quite likely stupidity.

Though my father made fun of my Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang cassette tapes in 1987, telling me they sounded “like a bunch of niggers yellin’ at each other,” and though James Robinson, an ancient cousin of my father’s whom we met in Macon County, Georgia in the late 1990s, showed us his father’s Confederate battle flag and laughed about a time in the 1930s when his father encouraged him to tackle a “nigger” and “cut his head off,” not that he did it, though my father’s favorite uncle, Phil Gilmore, a police officer in Montezuma, Americus and Oglethorpe, Georgia, fired his pistol through his own hand once and killed a black man, told my father how he’d knock his nightstick into black boys’ legs when he found them walking impudently on the sidewalk next to whites…

Nobody told me, directly, what to think of Confederate flags, and I got sick enough of them on my own. My high school was named for the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the 1950s and ’60s, public schools across the South took the names of Confederate generals in response to the Civil Rights Movement and efforts to desegregate schools. All students at Forrest had to take Physical Education, where coaches called “jumping jacks” “Johnny Rebs” in honor of the school mascot, a red-mustached, pistol-toting Confederate.

Every now and then, I’d hear Allman Brothers’ songs, “Midnight Rider” and “Ramblin’ Man” and “Hot ’lanta,” and that was okay, and I might get lost in the noodling guitar, though always I squirmed a bit in the accent, but hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” curdled something dead in my heart and my head.

4.

In 1922, at the height of Ku Klux Klan membership, Jim Crow legislation and the “Lost Cause Movement” that sought to whitewash the goals of the Confederacy from a defense of its economic investment in slavery to a chivalrous response to Northern tyranny, a Minnesota encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic recommended returning Confederate flags seized as war trophies to the South where they would be burned on the Fourth of July.

The G.A.R. was a fraternity of United States veterans who’d fought the Confederacy in the Civil War. The August 7, 1922 edition of The [Bemidji, Minnesota] Pioneer quoted former G.A.R. National Commander Judge Ell Torrance: “If I were a member of the Fourth Minnesota, who captured those flags, I would be very proud and I think I would be willing to walk all the way down to Mississippi” to return them. Members of the G.A.R. seemed to think Southerners would be proud as reunited Americans to receive and burn the old battle flags. The return never happened. Self-identified Southerners still despise the North and its cultural influence and governance.

On May 16, 1967, a black pastor named A. Kendall Smith was arrested for burning a Confederate flag in Central Hall Park, Manhattan. White Vietnam War protestors had burnt big American flags in Central Park just two weeks before.

Smith chaired the Harlem Citizens for Community Action and wore a white poncho cut like Ku Klux Klan regalia to protest “the Southern treatment” of black people in New York City, a century after Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens spoke in Savannah, Georgia, pronouncing the Confederacy dependent on “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” and “that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

Two years after Smith’s arrest in New York, Brett Bursey, a University of South Carolina student, was arrested for burning a Confederate flag outside the house of the school’s president. As the Associated Press reported, South Carolina law “forbids mutilation” of flags of individual states, of the United States and of the Confederate States of America. Maximum penalties were 30 days in jail and a fine of $100. Half a century later, Bursey, director of the South Carolina Progressive Network, proudly said he was still out on bond.

A July 1989 Alabama public opinion poll found that most Alabamans didn’t believe the Freedom of Speech clause of the First Amendment applied to actions. They definitely didn’t think it applied to burning flags, whether American or Confederate. Black Alabamans were just as opposed to the legality of burning Confederate flags as were whites.

By 2020, the black Detroit-based artist John Sims has spent the early 21st century reappropriating the Confederate battle flag as a means of “creative resistance space.” He’s recolored flags in the red, black and green of Black Nationalism, a “Recoloration Proclamation,” lynched the Confederate flag by hanging it from gallows and burning and burying it, and organized “flag funerals” across the South for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

5.

Though Lynyrd Skynyrd made the Confederate flag their symbol, the Allman Brothers abandoned its use as a symbol of rebellion early on. It wasn’t enough that people called it a “rebel flag.” The questions were what that rebellion stood against and why you wouldn’t rebel against that rebellion. Johnny Lee Johnson, his name later changed to Jai Johanny Johanson, the drummer known by the name of Jaimoe, a black man, helped found the Allman Brothers Band.

“I was taught to play music,” Gregg Allman said in July 2015, “by these very, very kind older black men. My best friend in the world is a black man. If people are gonna look at the flag and think of it as representing slavery, then I say, ‘Burn every one of them.’”

6.

Ever though the earth muddies the sky as Florida, the mud smudges the sun. Governments branded this filthy hot reptilian beast with bars, with frames, with stripes, with stars, but Florida can only ever be as wild as its original swamps and mythological monsters.

The problem with acknowledging that anybody did anything worthwhile with their life in Florida is Florida. It’s also the wonderful wildness of living a life here. Terminally ill, what you do on which address doesn’t matter. Drink fifths of whiskey and smoke what reefers every day and acknowledge each of the earth. Florida is the earth bubbling up against its better judgment, but all judgment’s ours, the earth’s just the earth, so Florida’s all the earth Americans make lowest common denominator and smoke it and drink it and shoot it and snuff it and snort it and huff it and then it walks about in human form on Floridian earth as the earth and it’s Florida.

7.

Several times in the last 30 years, I’ve hiked up paths to the bluff heights over the marshes in the Theodore Roosevelt Area at the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve in eastern Duval County near the ocean, only to stop dead in my tracks at the sight of a small plastic Confederate flag protruding by an isolated grave up in the cedar trees roots and oak scrub.

It’s the grave of Confederate Sergeant John Nathan Spearing. We’ve reached it by wandering through scrub oak and poison ivy and wild Florida rosemary and trees called Devil’s walking sticks and ancient Timucuan “kitchen middens,” the ridges where Indians pitched and piled mollusk shell for two thousand years or more. Someone regularly brings Spearing a flag and honors him by thrusting it in the dirt above his bones.

But his bones aren’t here. Well, they’re here, but “here” means somewhere in this vast expanse of wild bluff and scrub oak and poison oak wilderness. They’re not here beneath this tombstone.

8.

Spearing came from Maine, owned a shipyard in what’s now downtown Jacksonville on the riverfront of what became Spearing Street. Despite his northern birth, he joined the Confederate army, eighth regiment Florida infantry stationed nearby at Fort Caroline. A woodpecker blurs bright through the trees on the hills on the swamps and ancient Timucuan curvatures of shell and bone.

John Nathan Spearing, after the war, built his primitive estate deep in these woods on the hills where Willie Browne, the strange skeletal old white man, lived at what he called Browne Manor in clouds of mosquitos and yellow flies for a lifetime before donating his primeval land to the Nature Conservancy in 1969. The Browne family lived their lives in Spearing’s “manor” until fire consumed it, right here, in 1914.

John Spearing’s brother Warren lived on “the Indian trail,” here in a cabin he’d built on the bluff, and whosoever had borne his baby, this woman invisible in history and landscape, they buried the infant together with the cabin. Warren Spearing left for Texas on a cattle drive and left his cabin and his infant’s grave in the earth behind him.

John died in 1879. Margaret, his widow, pregnant at his death, moved back to town, to Jacksonville, leaving the Spearing land to the Brownes.

It was Mignonette Spearing Carter, John Nathan’s great granddaughter, who sought out the Daughters of the Confederacy, who placed the Confederate marker on some randomly agreed-upon Spearing’s grave in 1962.

The earth equally composts the bones of Nazis and Jews, of Confederates and slaves. This gorgeous redemptive planet is, of necessity, the original recycler, the ancient ecosystem of repurposing death to new life. The estimated three million shipwrecks deteriorating on ocean floors only prove the earth when paperwhite lilies reemerge from wintry detritus in spring.

So why not burn these little Confederate flags placed on Spearing’s grave? Granted, synthetic plastics last forever. They photodegrade, don’t biodegrade. At least until bacteria evolve to devour them like they eat through the iron of R.M.S. Titanic 12,500 feet deep, 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

Besides, Spearing doesn’t care, his Confederacy denied our very humanity, and Gregg Allman doesn’t mind if I burn every Confederate flag. In fact, he told me to do so. Having taken such circuitous paths through musical history, but pledging last allegiance and coming to worship the earth into which all religions unwittingly bury their metaphysics and their histories, I light a flag on fire and twist off ripe tomatoes.

Nothing more than those two acts can any art accomplish. This, then, is mine. And so I’ve lived, I launch forth my art, consumed of all false starts, I’m fully alive. I touch my life to yours, clandestine, in the middle of the fire, in the middle of the night. I watch you, receding now from me. Take me with you, as far as you can fly, as far as you can take me.