My great-grandmother Helen Hambrick was born in 1858 in Rocky Mount, Virginia. Before she died on my fifth birthday in 1946, she told me how as a little girl she had to hide under quilts from the Yankees when they ransacked her house.
Helen’s father, Giles Hambrick, and his brother, Joseph, were recruited at the beginning of the Civil War by Col. Jubal Early to wage war on the federal government.
On Jan. 6, 2021, 160 years later, two other men of Rocky Mount, fellow police officers Jacob Fracker and Thomas Robertson, took part in a second insurrection against the government of the United States. Unlike their predecessors, they made it inside the Capitol and photographed themselves with obscene gestures in front of a marble statue. They were recruited by Donald Trump,
No one’s motives can be fully understood, even by oneself. Peer pressure surely incited the passions of these men, along with the excitement of armed conflict and the thrill of marching off cheered by adoring crowds.
If pressed, both pairs of insurrectionists probably would have said their fight was about states’ rights, or local rights, or gun rights, about resistance to anyone from outside “telling us what to do,” a matter of protecting “our way of life.”
None of these four, so far as I know, said it had anything to do with race. Indeed, Fracker and Robertson had been photographed earlier at a Black Lives Matter event in Rocky Mount, smiling happily with the organizers and holding protestors’ signs.
Both insurrections had everything to do with race.
The elections of two earlier presidents, both of them brilliant lawyers from Illinois, show why. All of the Articles of Secession passed by Southern states immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 make clear that the defense of slavery was their primary objective.
Mississippi is typical: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world.”
Texas declared its decision to secede to be based on hostility to the Southern States and “their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery.”
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many people, mostly white, assumed that America had finally put racism to rest.
Many Blacks experienced it differently.
A canvasser for Obama in a Charleston neighborhood was told by an elderly Black woman that she would never vote for Obama because if he were elected, “they would kill him.”
Isaac J. Bailey, a professor at Davidson College, describes in a Politico opinion piece (March 14, 2021) the change of demeanor in members of his mostly white evangelical church in South Carolina after Obama became president-elect.
He explains, “I wasn’t Black in their eyes before Obama was elected . . . What I saw was white neighbors, friends and colleagues clinging more passionately to their racial identity. Confederate flags, always in abundance, became even more so.”
Black citizens of Rocky Mount concur that the atmosphere changed with the election of Obama.
David Finney, a retired Black police officer said to the New York Times, “For years, I thought people hated Obama because of Obamacare, but at some point, I realized it didn’t have a damned thing to do with no insurance. White people hated Obama because he was a Black man who became president and elevated the Black race. Obama leveled the playing field.”
Both recruiters were obsessed with Africa. Jubal Early was a crank but a brave soldier. After the War, he spent the rest of his life as a radical proponent of White Supremacy, often referring to former slaves as “barbarous natives of Africa.”
The second recruiter, who persistently claimed that Barack Obama was a native of Africa, lacked Early’s courage. After promising at his Jan. 6 rally to march with the crowd to the Capitol, he quickly fled back to his bunker.
As to the fate of the four young insurrectionists in these tales, Joseph Hambrick died in 1864 from wounds suffered at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff.
My great-great grandfather Giles Hambrick fought with Jubal Early at Gettysburg, survived the Civil War without a scratch, and died in Dallas in 1934 at the age of 99.
Thomas Robertson and Jacob Fracker were fired from their jobs with the Rocky Mount Police Department and are presently under federal indictment.
Susan Ford Wiltshire, a native of Texas, is a retired Classics professor in Nashville.