Several years ago, one of my favorite aunts began to share the brief story of the Unknown Man with me. I don't recall my parents or my grandmother telling me anything about him.
Apparently, he was a drifter of sorts. During the summer of 1932, he traveled the railroad tracks of the mid south and wound up walking the rails through the small town of Whiteville, TN. For reasons that my aunt or anyone else, to our knowledge, were unaware of, he did not hear the train behind him and he and his little dog departed this world together.
No one in town had any idea who he was. He was a stranger to all. But, back then, despite a society that was not always equal for all and one in which a great number of people barely had enough food to eat or a place to live, the people of Whiteville, both black and white, came together to provide a funeral for this unknown man and his dog. Today, they are buried at the far northeast corner of the cemetery on the way out of town, far from most of the loved ones of many of us who are buried there today. Like my aunt, my daughter and I still take flowers to him when we visit the relatives buried there. Sadly, almost no one has heard of him or his story. Worse still is that many people will never learn of him or the greater story of kindness and empathy the former residents of our little town had for someone who wasn't part of their group. How much we could all learn from our ancestors and their neighbors.
This past year has brought a declining little town into a negative light in many ways. Some falsely blame it on me and to a lesser extent, on a former judge, and anyone else that seemed to be on our mayor's "enemy list". But, what exactly has caused it is difficult to say. Some say the town began to decline once the private prisons came to town, others say it is because of the drugs and changes in the overall ethics of our society at large. Maybe it is because the town is fairly isolated and jobs, even in a good economy, don't really exist. I know that many women are afraid to walk down the street at night in a town of about 1400 people. A place where few businesses thrive and where there seems to be no pride or attempt of gentrification in a once thriving little downtown area.
It is now a place where those who are different and who question are easy targets for the reigning few who prefer to consider the town their little kingdom. If you are an outsider, there is never any acceptance or tolerance. Those in the elite here may be nice to your face, but one can never be certain about sincerity or true kindness. Back-stabbing and hateful gossip are a way of life for them while nepotism and cronyism rule. There are double standards and disparities in how the laws are applied to the citizens of this little town. It is their way or the highway. It is run like a kingdom and the silent majority are oppressed in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Recently, some posts on other sites have stated that things "will only get worse" for me. We are waiting to see what happens next. It is not uncommon for those who question or in disfavor to suddenly be accused of disorderly conduct despite no complaints or even a police officer being present. They just show up at your door and take you. Sure, they let you go later and nothing comes of it. It is just their way of telling you to shut up or move away (well, they will vocalize the move away part, even on television). No town or city is perfect, but there is an incredible level of hostility here toward anyone unacceptable. How much we could learn about being accepting of one another from a story like that of the Unknown Man. I hope someday the silent majority in our town who would like our community to be a friendly place to live will have a voice.