Monday, February 8, 2010

Sharon Davies' "Rising Road"

Sharon L. Davies is the John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Designated Professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race and Religion in America, and reported the following:
Rising Road is a nonfiction account of the 1921 killing of Father James E. Coyle in Birmingham, Alabama. An ordained Methodist minister named Rev. Edwin R. Stephenson shot and killed Father Coyle for marrying Stephenson’s 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, to a Catholic migrant from Puerto Rico named Pedro Gussman. Stephenson was a Klansman during the time that the revived KKK had expanded its portfolio of targets to include Catholics, Jews and ‘Fern’ers,’ and had successfully rebranded itself as a “patriotic” fraternal organization. Catholics were not “True Americans,” the Klan fumed—they owed their allegiance to a foreign leader (the Pope) whose plot was to “Make America Catholic.”

To the horror of Ruth Stephenson’s parents, Ruth had been attracted to Catholicism from an early age. Edwin Stephenson had tried unsuccessfully to beat the idea out of the girl, and Ruth had run away several times, but she was always forcibly returned with the help of local lawmen sympathetic to the Stephensons’ battle for their daughter’s soul. Page 99 describes one of those failed escape attempts, and Ruth’s decision to marry Pedro as the way out of her troubles:
It is hard to think what the Sisters of Charity must have thought when the companionless youngster arrived unannounced, only to be followed not long after by a group of lawmen and her furious mother. The authorities made it clear that the teenager was to be turned back over to her parent, Ruth told a reporter later, and Mary Stephenson dragged her back to Birmingham more convinced than ever that she could not be trusted. For the next two weeks, Ruth recalled, she was “mistreated many times” and kept “under constant watch,” until finally her parents relented a bit and allowed her to return to her job. But even then it was clear that they believed she would run off again. Every morning Edwin Stephenson walked her to the front door of the department store just to be sure.

That was why Ruth and Pedro had agreed to make August 11, 1921 look like a normal workday. They had agreed to meet at noon, with a plan to take the streetcar to Bessemer where they would apply for their license to avoid running into Ruth’s father at the courthouse in Birmingham. But when the time came for Ruth to meet Pedro that day and she moved toward the front door of the store, one of her uncles was just walking in. She was sure she would be caught, she said later, but by some act of heaven the man failed to see her, and Ruth willed her feet to keep moving until she reached the spot outside where Pedro was waiting.

In Bessemer, they were nearly foiled again. After they had obtained their license from the probate judge, they walked the few blocks to the local Catholic church, St. Aloysius, and asked to speak with Father Callahan, its presiding priest. But the priest was out. He would not be back in time to perform their rites, they were told. How strange the things that can unravel a plan—the possibility that Father Callahan might be away had obviously not occurred to them. After formulating a secret meeting place, dodging Ruth’s relative, sidestepping the place her father was most likely to be, and obtaining the state’s official permission to wed, the last critical ingredient need to accomplish their plan—a priest!—was missing.

It could not have been easy for the couple to decide to return to Birmingham. The Bessemer marriage license authorized any official pastor in the state to marry them, so if they could make it to St. Paul’s unseen, they could ask Father Coyle for his help. But the rectory was terrifyingly close to the courthouse where Ruth’s father conducted marriages in the hallways.”
Read more about Rising Road at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue