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Arts & Life

'I Had To Tell The Truth' — Kansas City Artist Exposes His Family's Role In The Racist South

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Logan Action
Kansas City Art Institute professor Hugh Merrill has a new memoir about his family's ties to the Jim Crow South.

Artist Hugh Merrill, who is white, had troubling memories from what he saw growing up in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and '60s. And when he started looking into his family history, he was shocked by what he found out.

"It's a little bit like finding out that not only, if you were German, that your ancestors, that your uncles, were guards at Auschwitz — it's like finding out they ran Auschwitz," he says. "I had to make a decision about what to do with this. And it was absolutely clear what had to be done. I had to tell the truth."

A printmaker, community artist and writer, Merrill has taught at the Kansas City Art Institute since 1976, but his family’s roots run deep in Alabama.

Until 1965, racial segregation was enforced across the Southern United States through Jim Crow laws, which separated people by race in waiting rooms and at water fountains, restrooms and public pools. Merrill's family was in the thick of it. 

"Once I began to know the depth and darkness of my family's history," he says, "I simply began to try to come up with a mechanism to tell it."

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That mechanism is a new memoir, "Whiteout," and a companion zine with collages of photographs and newspaper clippings.   

Merrill and his daughter, Rebecca, have been digging into family research for the past several years.

Merrill's grandfather, Hugh D. Merrill, served as a judge in a 1918 trial that resulted in what Merrill calls the "legal lynching" of a black soldier, Sergeant Edgar Caldwell, who sat in the white section of a streetcar in Anniston, Alabama. After a conductor accused him of not paying and a fight broke out, Caldwell fired his revolver and killed a white man. Five days after the shooting, he was sentenced to death by hanging despite appeals by the NAACP and a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

A few decades later, in 1961, an attorney uncle, also named Hugh Merrill, defended a Ku Klux Klan member who attacked a Freedom Riders bus in Alabama.

Merrill's parents, he says, were "part of the upper-crust of the Democratic party." His mother worked for U.S. Senator John Sparkman of Alabama, and his father headed up an oils and peanut division for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"As a child, I grew up traveling through the violent segregated South of the 1950s and '60s," Merrill writes in the memoir. "I saw the Southern system of apartheid ... I saw the white-only signs on drinking fountains and bathrooms, on hotels and in cafes and stores."

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Credit Hugh Merrill
A page from the graphic zine, a companion to Hugh Merrill's memoir, 'Whiteout."

According to Merrill, his family met and socialized with notable figures and politicians such as Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert and John F. Kennedy, as well as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

"And the list goes on," he writes, "like a 'Forrest Gump' narrative, only true." 

Merrill admits to KCUR that "memory is faulty." But, for him, "this is close, this is truth, its own importance."  

And the problems he writes about are still relevant.

Nearly 60% of Americans, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, say that "race relations in the U.S. are bad, and ... few see them improving." The people surveyed also were not certain that "black people will ever have equal rights with whites."

Merrill's editor, the Kansas City poet Jeanette Powers, encouraged him to expand the book release into a community dialogue.

"I'd say that Hugh and I really share a drive to be constantly creative and are always folding in real life into our work," said Powers. "But this project was particularly exciting because it is so open and vulnerable and direct."

The event will include music and poetry from Jose Faus, Sheri Purpose Hall and Glenn North, as well as staged readings and discussion of Merrill's book.

"And we're very, very, hopeful that this is not the end of this," Merrill says, adding that his goal is "to expand and keep this conversation moving forward."

Whiteout, a book release and panel discussion, Tuesday, December 10, 6:30 p.m., Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W. 47th Street, Kansas City, Missouri. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer

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