Like Father, like Son

Jan 17, 2024 | Spotlight

By Michael Collins

Finchville, Kentucky, is a small, unincorporated town about 30 minutes outside Louisville. 

A mile-long stretch of road guides happy, small-town homes in a straight line. A small park with a pond sits across the street from an antique store, a Baptist church and a basketball court. Beside the park is a Finchville Farms Country Ham warehouse. Next to it, a daycare. The town sits amid a sea of tobacco, wheat and soybean fields that makes one think of “My Old Kentucky Home.”

 Between 1878 and 1911, at least six black men were lynched in the surrounding county. Their names were Reuben Dennis, Sam Pulliam, Clarence Garnett, Jimbo Fields, Wade Patterson and Eugene Marshall. The names were placed on plaques in April 2021, along with an account of each lynching. No one was ever arrested for their murders.

 I’ve read the lynching stories, but I’ve never read any story about their lives. 

Who were they?

Who loved them?

Breonna Taylor was 26 years old when she was fatally shot five times by plainclothes officers executing a no-knock warrant at her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky.

Police entered the residence on March 13, 2020, looking for Breonna’s ex-boyfriend, who did not live with her. Breonna was under no suspicion. But she and her boyfriend were black, and the ghosts of Dennis and Pulliam and Garnett and Fields and Patterson tell us that can be enough.

 When Breonna was shot, I was living at home between semesters at college at Western Kentucky University. I’d been studying journalism for only a year. It still scared me to approach strangers for an interview. My job mostly consisted of man-on-the-street articles about current events and mundane changes to campus for The Herald, WKU’s student newspaper and website.

 “How do you feel about the dining hall shortening hours to 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.?”

 “I don’t care too much,” someone would answer. 

I didn’t either.

Everyone I knew buzzed after Breonna’s death with talks of widespread demonstrations —riots, to some. The frustration over George Floyd’s death ignited the nation, but what happened to Breonna hit close to home. If there were to be demonstrations or riots, I was determined to be there to see them for myself. I could not trust national news networks and corporate journalists to tell me about my community.

 Demonstrations began as I visited my sister. I was frustrated. I should have been there. On the third day, a shooter opened fire on the ground, killing three people. 

 I did not feel relieved to have not been there. I had an obligation to witness this event myself. Afterward, the crowds only got bigger, and the next day I asked a photographer to join me in the streets.

My father grew up not 20 minutes from where we lived in Finchville. He is simple but not dumb. Hardworking. A good man who loves his family. Not afraid to cry. When I told him my plan to buy supplies and gear before attending the demonstration, he stopped me.

 “Like hell,” he said.

 For all the good he is, my father is a stubborn bastard at times. 

It surprised me that he expected me to be any different. I protested, something I rarely did to my parents. I told him it’s my job to be down there, and that I would be there regardless.

 He took my car keys and my phone, and said if I wanted to, I could walk. I don’t think he expected me to walk, and I imagine his anxiety only grew as he saw me disappear down the road in my uncomfortable sneakers.

 I tried to stay calm, but I could feel my hands shake the same way they’ve always done when disobeying my parents. I still felt like the little kid who, around the age of 5, said he was running away only to turn back at the end of the driveway. 

However, now I’d be damned if I didn’t make it further.

 I walked about four miles along a country road, carefully watching for cars so I could move to the ditch along the pavement, before a friend and her mother picked me up. They agreed to give me a ride and drop me back at home, if I didn’t tell my father who’d given me the ride.

I walked back down my gravel driveway, bags of snacks, water, protective gear and face coverings in hand. My father sat in his garage — his “man cave” as he calls it — and said nothing as I walked up and sat next to him. I made no attempt to hide the frustration and anger on my face.

 His expression conveyed a strange mix of emotions that I did not expect — sadness and pride.

 “I’m sorry,” he said, sullenly but strongly.

 He had called my mother after I left, who I imagine to his surprise laid into him instead of me. He said he understood why I needed to go down there, but that his job as my father was to protect me. He said he could not do that forever.

 “Honestly, I’m kind of proud of you,” he told me. “I did that to my dad when I was your age. Your reason is a lot better though.” 

He said he’d walked off because he wanted to drink with his friends.

We hugged.

 It was a moment in which I realized my parents were not the deities my young mind had imagined them to be. They were good, caring people, but they could not tell me what was best for me. It taught me that authority, even with good intentions, must still be combatted from time to time.

 That week, I saw lines of riot police beat peaceful protestors with clubs, driving them from the downtown area of Louisville into the historically black West End. I felt my eyes sting and my lungs seize as the tear gas wafted down Broadway. 

 I saw crowds hundreds-strong sit in silence as a woman sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” next to a photo of Breonna. 

She is still singing.

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