Big Thicket Hideaway, 2018
oil on canvas
36 x 36 in
Location: Big Thicket State Park near Beaumont
As a young artist just starting out I read a comment by Andrew Wyeth about his Pennsylvania works being proxy portraits of his father, the great illustrator, N.C. Wyeth. That has lingered in the back of my mind ever since.
This year marks a century since an atrocity happened in Dodge. On June 1st, 1918, a posse that included Sheriff T.E. King from the county seat in Huntsville, but also Justice of the Peace Sam Roark and other residents from Dodge and Huntsville, engaged in a lynching that resulted in the deaths of an entire black family, the Cabiness family, but for one member. The fallout from the event became an international embarrassment for the whole nation, even being trumpeted by Germany in its propaganda war against the Allied Powers in W.W.I. I am convinced that my neighbor in Dodge, Edwin "Baby" Roark, either witnessed the event itself as a three-year-old or witnessed the damage the fallout of the lynching did to members of his own family.
My experience of my deep East Texas country neighbors was a revelation to me. Baby Roark could, on one hand, say proudly that he had never sat at table with a black person and on the other say with the deepest conviction of which he was capable that he never wanted to be anyone's enemy. He could face this contradiction entirely without irony. Yet in all my experience in Dodge the only people who ever told me they hated the man were white. Not one of many black folks, especially the old ones, I spoke to who knew Mr. Roark had ever had a cross word to say about him.
Mr. Roark's passivism was so visceral that even in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor he could not bring himself to kill. As a non-clergy Southern Baptist he could expect no consideration as a conscientious objector, so when the draft came he fled to the deep cover of the Big Thicket. He spent the entirety of the war there, living off the land and getting occasional visits from his young wife, Vennie Mae. In this retreat for conscience, though, there is irony. Because if I'm right and the young Baby Roark learned his disgust for killing as a result of a community mass murder, what precipitated it all was a young black man who was resisting the draft.
According to Dr. Jeff Littlejohn of the History Department at Sam Houston State University the Cabiness lynching came about because the local draft board was unable to prove a birth date for George Cabiness, whose family claimed he was too young for the draft. For some reason this became an issue for the Sheriff and another Huntsville man, whereupon there was deemed to be cause for an armed confrontation that erupted into the slaying of the family.
This, then, is my proxy portrait of Baby Roark, a man who paid lip service to ancestral hate, but would not kill.CALL FOR PRICE