Levi Branham was born a slave in Murray County in 1852. His mistress (owner), who he stated treated him well, would frequently gather the slave children together and talk to them.
On one such occasion young Levi asked her “Why do we little negro children have to work for you?” She replied “That’s the way our forefathers fixed the matter.” He said to her “When I get grown I am going to change the situation somewhat.”
We know the story of Levi from the book he wrote circa 1929 called “My Life and Travels." I’ve been reading a 2000 reprint of it from the Whitfield-Murray County Historical Society. It’s not a big book, but every sentence is packed with information and insight.
Last week we covered much of his boyhood as a slave, but in 1863 with the Civil War drawing close to North Georgia, the Edmondson family, who owned Levi and who lived in the Chief Vann House, refugeed south to Terrell County. On the way they watched Bragg’s Confederate Army march by. In Terrell County they grew a type of sugar cane and peanuts which they were not used to. When shelling the peanuts they would pop some in their mouths as they worked when the master wasn’t watching.
Ten years later, in 1873, Levi returned to Murray County. Here his life would be centered as he gained his own farm and success as a farmer. He became well known both in Murray County and all the way to Dalton, having good friends both Black and white. When he got back to Murray County he first went to work for a lady he had done work for as a slave, Mrs. Keister. He chopped wood and tended the horses. During their time together she started teaching him how to read and write and also arithmetic, geography and history. Years later he would go back to visit her and take her fruits and vegetables and they would sit and talk.
We read about crime in the papers all the time today, but things were pretty rough back then as well. Levi goes through a litany of shootings he was witness to over his lifetime.
The first was when he was in Terrell County and a young man leapt from a tree where he had been hiding and shot the crew leader of a bridge building company. Levi was plowing nearby and had no idea anyone was around until the shooting. The shooter was captured the next day and put in jail. About two days later the jailer came running into the street firing his gun and saying a mob had gone in and killed the prisoner. Inside, the handcuffed inmate was found with his throat slit and no evidence of a mob.
Everyone suspected the jailer. The jailer left for Texas and in a deathbed confession admitted to killing the prisoner for $1,000, but it was never discovered who paid the money for the killing.
Another time, at a circus, Levi saw a shootout between two drunk men trying to force their way into the show. One of the men was killed as was the doorkeeper and one of the ringmasters. Levi states “... old corn liquor was the cause of it all.”
In 1903, he saw another showman killed in Dalton; in 1908 he saw a gallows built in Spring Place to hang the man that killed the sheriff there; and he saw another man shot in Spring Place. Levi believed in “what will be, will be” as another time he saw two men about to shoot each other down and both their pistols misfired. No one was even hurt.
Making money, witnessing tragic history
Levi made money different ways, from doing work for others to working on a railroad project. One way he made a payday was when he cashed out a 20-year insurance policy which brought him a windfall of $1,100 dollars. He put the money in a bank but a white friend of his, who obviously had some connections, told him to take the money out of the bank and use it to pay off his land, and if he needed any more the man would loan him the extra. This Levi did and two months later the bank went under. Levi only lost $50 instead of the whole amount. One time working on a railroad project, the workers were paid in notes from a bank, but that bank went under and Levi lost about $100.
Levi always had good friends, both Black and white over his lifetime, and everywhere from Chatsworth to Dalton he was known and befriended. But in the late 1800s the Ku Klux Klan, or the White Caps as he also calls them, were active in Murray County.
He relates a story of a man thrown into a pit on June 11, 1894. He remained there for eight or nine days before he was rescued. He was believed by the Klan to be a reporter. Levi was friends with him but doesn’t say if he was Black or white.
Levi then recounts some tragic history as he relates three Black men being hanged in Murray County by the White Caps. In 1874 a Black man, Carter Griffin, was hanged in Spring Place. John Ward was hanged for rape in 1875. That night Levi was actually in the store when the Klan came in and bought 40 feet of rope for the hanging. Levi had to get past them through the one door and to race home. In 1878, John Duncan was shot by the Klan and killed.
After Duncan was killed, a Black man by the name of Walker Dwight got wind that they were going to raid his house. He and his wife went to the corn crib, hid inside and locked the door. They were safe when the Klan raided the empty house and found the crib locked. In 1891 there was battle between the Klan and John Bently Davis, a Black man. Davis was shot but not killed. The White Caps had pistols, Davis an ax and a shotgun. He managed to cut two of the Klansmen as he fought back and survived the fight.
One time a group of armed men came to Levi and said they were taking him to jail. A Black man had been accused of a crime and they were going to take all the Blacks they found in so as to make sure they got the guilty party. Levi said he would not go alive and went on with his horse. The men let him go as they had identifying information about the alleged culprit.
A new chapter
In 1877, a new chapter was about to start in Levi’s life. After it became known that he could read and write, a Black man named Blank Rivers and a white man named Major Wilson both begged Levi to start teaching the Blacks.
On the third Monday in July 1877, he started a school in a building that had no wooden floors and where the benches were only planks. He taught a three-month session in which he was paid $62 (that’s about $1,550 today, which comes to the equivalent of about $500 per month). Levi then went to Dawson for three months to continue his education at a three-month school, and returned to teaching in Murray County in 1878, then continued his education again at another three-month school in Dalton. In Murray County he had about 25 or 30 students, or scholars as he called them, and some were adults wanting to learn to read. In one case, mother and child both attended classes. Levi also taught Sabbath school (Sunday school) and two of his students went on to become preachers, one in Dalton and one over in LaFayette.
In about 1879 he met the school commissioner in Dalton who asked him to teach in Cohutta. Levi initially turned it down having heard they were teaching in Greek and Latin there, but Commissioner Berry told him it wasn’t so. He taught at least two sessions there and made friends both Black and white. He was also good friends with Hardwick of Hardwick Bank and Trust in Dalton. He says they would sit and talk for hours and Hardwick would warn him off co-signing security for other people’s debts. But Levi frequently did so to try and help others and lost hundreds of dollars over the years. As of the time of writing the book he was still working to help the needy or those whose homes had burned for example.
As Levi finishes his book he writes “I have had lots of ups and downs, but by the help of the good Lord I have come out more than unconquered.” The closing chapter is a testament to his Christian faith as he puts in some of his favorite Bible passages.
He lived from 1852 to 1944, went from being a slave to the owner of the land he grew up on, saw four wars and the growth of Dalton, the reduction of Spring Place and the birth of Chatsworth. He taught generations of Blacks at school and at Sunday school. He is buried next to his beloved wife Amanda with whom he raised a family that continues on in our community, and on his tombstone it reads “Historian."
Levi Branham knew it because he lived it.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.