by Tim Gilmore, 5/27/2017
cont’d from J.B. Stoner and the KKK
(The Klan in Jax, part 4 of 7)
The pines grow so close as to touch where windows once looked to the street in the empty lot where the Ku Klux Klan bombed Donal Godfrey’s childhood home at the corner of Gilmore Street and Owen Avenue in February 1964. The little woodframe house next door, built in the late 1920s, whose front porch runs deep and wide, peers eerily at Gilmore Street like the similar house beside it once did.
Walking through the empty lot beneath camphor trees and oaks, I’m astonished to realize this KKK bombing site sits less than a diagonal city block from the site of Ottis Toole’s mother’s house, 708 Day Avenue, which the pseudo-serial killer burnt down after her death in 1981. It was also the Day Avenue address where Toole first fabricated, in gruesome detail, his supposed dismemberment and burning of six year old Adam Walsh, whom he’d claimed to have kidnapped and decapitated in Hollywood, Florida that summer.
Three blocks down Day Avenue from the site of Ottis Toole’s mother’s house, four days before Christmas, 2001, transgender activist Terrianne Summers was murdered in her driveway.
This triangle of tragedies on the streets of Murray Hill Heights, just beneath Interstate-10, sits right outside the shadow of the steeple of Trinity Baptist Church on McDuff Avenue, where the Reverend Bob Gray, whose child rape and molestation Trinity covered for half a century, first gained national attention as a fundamentalist Bible-thumper.
Lackawanna Elementary, the formerly whites-only school that Donal attended in first grade, stands between the pedophile steeple and the Triangle of Tragedies in Murray Hill Heights.
I walk the periphery of Donal’s childhood yard. Can anyone feel the brutality and tragedy in the landscape? Does the Klan’s hate and the Godfreys’ fear and sorrow and determination remain in the soil or the air or the trees? I can’t tell, because I can’t not know what happened here.
Is it true what Sethe says in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved? “Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place—the picture of it—stays, and not just in rememory, but out there, in the world.”
“Nothing ever dies,” she says.
You can walk down the road and “bump into a rememory that belongs to someone else.”
The streets here are dark in the daytime, but that’s because Florida’s lush green grows so thick overhead. The streets are poor. Once modest country homes have fallen through time into the middle of the city. The neighborhood is mostly black. Adjacent to Lackawanna, this is Murray Hill Heights. The Klansman claimed he’d set the bomb “to get the niggers out of Lackawanna.”
Will I bump into the ghosts of Klansmen on Gilmore or Phyllis Street? Will I meet Ottis Toole walking down Day? Could I still stop Terrianne’s murderer from shooting her in her driveway?
Sometime within the year before Donal Godfrey began first grade at Lackawanna Elementary, he was playing with his best friend in the neighborhood who asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Lorenzo wanted to be a cowboy, because he’d seen the movies and the cowboys always won.
Donal didn’t hesitate to answer. He wanted to be an astronaut. He’d watched John Glenn’s space flight in early 1962. Young as he was, he paid attention to everything astronomical.
Lorenzo thought Donal’s answer was hilarious. “You can’t be no astronaut,” he said. “You a Negro.”
“Well,” Donal tells me from his home in Liberia, now 59 years old, “I’d not heard this information before. So I went home and I asked my Mama. That was before the bombing. I wanted to be John Glenn, and this kid burst my bubble.”
Donal has worked for the United States Foreign Service for 13 years. He lived two years in Norway, then 11 years in Africa. He spent five years in Ghana. He’s lived in Monrovia for two years. Soon he’ll be eligible for retirement.
He has no desire to come back to the States. He has a house in Ghana, to which he’ll return when he retires.
Even after Barack Obama’s eight years as president, in the early months of the tumultuous and seemingly incompetent Trump backlash, American racism is enough to convince Donal Godfrey to retire in Africa.
For most of his life, he’d not realized the full traumatic effect of the Klan’s bombing of his childhood home.
“The Klan bombing of our house,” he says, “shaped my future perspective on the U.S. and its rhetoric of ‘Home of the Free and the Brave’ and ‘freedom and justice for all.’ These slogans did not ring true for me, no matter how I sliced them.”
Now, hopeful in a progressing Africa, the context of which Western media, even the BBC, rarely reports, Donal has no desire to return to the country that dynamited his home for beginning the first grade with white kids.
“I want my grandchildren, my descendants, to have a legacy they can follow as free Black people without being terrorized physically and mentally, without being exposed to the outright in-your-face racism we still see in today’s America as President Donald Trump takes office to ‘Make America Great Again.’”
“How long,” he asks rhetorically, “do we sing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ before we overcome?”