My maternal grandmother introduced me to the history of the Second Amendment and busted the myth of gun control. Her annual ritual of celebratory gun fire gave me the true origin of Watch Night.
Grandma was not a gun rights advocate, or a politician. She and my ailing grandfather lived in poverty about 500 yards from the Virginia border of North Carolina on a small farm. Historically it was the same location that Nat Turner ran through and hid after becoming a fugitive for fighting slavery and leading a four-day rebellion of both enslaved and free black people in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. It was remote, rural and poor.
Grandmas was the orphanage for our family. Her barn was the storehouse for baby items, and furniture. Instead of selling stuff, our families brought it here if it could be reused by a new parent, newlywed or member of the family needing to start out. Except for the baby cribs, most of it was never reused. It was just junk.
My grandparents raised hogs, chickens, ducks, and rabbits and had a garden. Only two neighbors. The closest was 500 yards down the road on one side. The other was the hunting lodge a mile in the other direction.
No indoor toilets, (we had an outhouse and chamber pots) no showers, drafty in the winter, blazing hot in the summers, it was going back in time.
My grandfather suffered a stroke early in my life and walked with a cane. He was slightly disabled, but still worked the farm when able, and then there was grandma who took care of us all.
It was the best time of my life.
A small pond / swamp also was connected to the property which was my playground growing up. Dish and bathwater were dumped into this place. There was a grapevine at the end of the property that was the home of bees, and all manner of creeping things.
It was in this home that I first saw my grandmother use the shotgun that sat behind the wood burning stove in the kitchen all my life.
My understanding of the Second Amendment, and gun ownership began with that shotgun. It was naturally camouflaged by rust, age and dirt. It was probably a Sears Roebuck 12-gauge 101 shotgun for the collectors.
It was that shotgun that became the base of my pro-gun stance. For people that are ignorant about guns that was what I was exposed to because of my grandmother. It was unlocked, loaded and accessible gun in a kitchen, with 3-10 grandchildren in the house at any time. No accidents, no fear of it. We respected our grandparents. We respected their home, rules and gun.
One summer that I spent there as a child amped up my appreciation of arms and my grandmother. While playing near the swamp, a four foot water moccasin came out of the water to dry itself and warm up. I was just standing there when it came out of the water. Water moccasins are an aggressive species of poisonous snake also known as the Cottonmouth. When it found its spot on the bank, it didn’t want any crap from a young kid like me. It hissed, bared its fangs and stood up to make itself look bigger.
It worked because it scared the crap out of me. I screamed. SNAKE! Grandma- Snake! It was then that I saw the marksmanship of my grandmother.
Except for New Year’s, which I will share with you next, I didn’t know if my grandmother could use the gun. I don’t remember my age but I know when she came to the screen door and saw the snake about six feet away from me, she went into mama bear mode.
“What do you want boy” she said looking through the screen door on the back porch. She saw me, she saw the snake and went back in the house.
Grandma I yelled again, not wanting to be left alone. I didn’t know she saw my predicament.
She came back in seconds. I was a first relieved and then I got worried. She had that old shotgun and started walking toward me.
The first thing I thought of was, she is old. What if she can’t shoot? She ain’t the Rifleman. She might shoot me. But that is how she walked. Like the rifleman straight at me.
No grandma no I said quietly,
Steadily walking toward me…
She mounted the shotgun into her shoulder like a soldier, looking down the barrel and without warning fired a shot which expertly disintegrated the black snake. Parts of which went back into the swamp.
The noise of the shotgun made me jump. After I looked at where the snake should have been all I saw was the back of grandma going back into the house, going back to whatever grandmas do, not even phased or concerned.
I just stood there, mouth opened, still in shock from the whole event. I wasn’t shot, she kept me from being bit, she had fired an old shotgun from what I realized today was a good distance on the move.
The second time I saw the shotgun move from behind the stove was during hunting season. It was a cold morning, during my Christmas break and a truck load of white men drove onto the farm unannounced. By the time a couple of them approached the outer door, Grandma had the shotgun in hand as she opened the door to greet them. They never knew it but she was armed.
With practiced “sweetness” she answered the door, ready to defend us if necessary. The white men were just as polite and apologized for the interruption and offered “Ms Mary” some venison should they be lucky today. It was in exchanges like that I saw examples of how an armed society was a polite society. I think that is a podcast somewhere.
And then finally the annual event that reminds me of my grandma’s shotgun was watch night otherwise known as New Year’s Eve.
For some people making noise, and popping corks is the extent of celebrating the New Years’ revelry but I want to share with you what it meant to an African American woman born before women were allowed to vote, the Titanic sank, and during the time when people of color were discouraged from voting. Someone who was a child during the conflict of WWI, and Virginia’s alcohol prohibition.
My great grandparents where the first generation to celebrate the experience what was first called Freedoms Eve.
You see, New Year’s Eve used to be a special occasion in African American culture. Celebratory gunfire meant more than noise making. Freed men owned guns, slaves did not.
Let’s go back to December 31, 1862. After the Union Army was victorious at the Battle of Antietam on September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation that declared that all slaves in “any state or designated part of a state . . . In rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Many blacks in the North and South as well as both free and enslaved blacks anxiously waited for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to become effective on January 1, 1863.
Wide eyed with anticipation, many African Americans dared not sleep throughout the late night hours because they wanted to watch “the night turn into a new dawn.” As they watched, many slaves reflected on their hardships and toils, mourned the memory of their ancestors and loved ones who died in slavery, and spent time thanking and praised God for allowing them and their descendants to watch the night of captivity pass.
The chains of poverty, racism, and discrimination have acted as constricting shackles for many African Americans throughout the course of the century following emancipation. Being only quasi-free and given the illusion of equality, many African Americans derived hope from the well spring of their faith as they struggled for the realization of God’s perfect will for true liberation and justice
But this wasn’t universal. Many African Americans want “to distance themselves from the more painful and degrading aspect of the race’s collective past,” as they feel that celebrating emancipation kept the memory of slavery alive. After 1870, and even continuing into the twentieth century, many African Americans advocated halting Freedom Day commemorations. It is rarely even mentioned in church services.
Shooting a gun wasn’t allowed for many of us. We have culturally added prohibitions on ourselves to prevent our children from being lynched, or jailed. This self-inflicted behavior is from the Black Codes. The first gun control law in Virginia was circa 1639 where the General Assembly of Virginia specifically excludes blacks from the requirement of possessing arms.
Black codes were restrictive laws designed to limit the freedom of African Americans and ensure their availability as a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished during the Civil War. Though the Union victory had given some 4 million slaves their freedom, the question of freed blacks’ status in the postwar South was still very much unresolved. Under black codes, many states required blacks to sign yearly labor contracts; if they refused, they risked being arrested, fined and forced into unpaid labor. Outrage over black codes helped undermine support for President Andrew Johnson and the Republican Party.
The end of slavery in 1865 did not eliminate the problems of racist gun control laws; the various Black Codes adopted after the Civil War required blacks to obtain a license before carrying or possessing firearms or Bowie knives; these are sufficiently well-known that any reasonably complete history of the Reconstruction period mentions them. These restrictive gun laws played a part in the efforts of the Republicans to get the Fourteenth Amendment ratified, because it was difficult for domestic terrorist aka night riders (KKK) to generate the correct level of terror in a victim who was returning fire. It does appear, however, that the requirement to treat blacks and whites equally before the law led to the adoption of restrictive firearms laws in the South that were equal in the letter of the law, but unequally enforced.
High Court rules has no power to stop KKK members from disarming blacks. In United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. at 548-59 (1875) A member of the KKK, Cruikshank had been charged with violating the rights of two black men to peaceably assemble and to bear arms. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal government had no power to protect citizens against private action (not committed by federal or state government authorities) that deprived them of their constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment. The Court held that for protection against private criminal action, individuals are required to look to state governments. “The doctrine in Cruikshank, that blacks would have to look to state government for protection against criminal conspiracies gave the green light to private forces, often with the assistance of state and local governments, that sought to subjugate the former slaves and their descendants… With the protective arm of the federal government withdrawn, protection of black lives and property was left to largely hostile state governments.” (GLJ, p. 348.)
When I was a kid, all my heroes had guns. Around Christmas time that was all I wanted. All the popular TV shows had guys with trademarked guns. Cowboys, spies, cops, cartoons, and soldiers all had cool guns.
Oh yeah and my grandma.