My friend Sam Anderson died today. I knew that this day would come—he was fighting lung cancer—but still it is a hard day.
I first met Sam about twenty years ago, through my parents, but I really got to know him in 2015, when our bishop tried to sell our church to a developer for $15 million, and then locked the doors of the church while the legal issues played out. Our little Episcopal congregation was forced to worship in the nearby park and to fight in the courts, both civil and ecclesiastical. Sam helped keep the church alive with generous donations. I recall one financial meeting at his house, around his kitchen table, when he looked each of us in the eye and said more or less “if we want to save St. James, each of us needs to do more.” We did.
When Sam learned that I was going to Mississippi in 2017, to speak there about my new book on Edwin Stanton, he suggested that we should go together. Sam had attended Mississippi College, a small private school in Clinton, and he wanted me to speak at “his college.” I readily agreed, knowing I would learn a lot from a few days in the South with Sam.
When we arrived in Clinton, our first stop was not our hotel, but one of the several apartment complexes Sam owned there. He wanted to check on the progress of a renovation while the workers were still on the site. I was struck by Sam’s warm relations with those who worked for him there in Clinton: he knew them, knew their families, and they knew him, knew his family.
As we drove around, over the next couple of days, it seemed that Sam owned half the apartments in Clinton. He took pride in keeping them in good order, keeping the rents reasonable, providing a place for working people to live. We do not generally praise landlords, but Sam was a good landlord, perhaps because for much of his life he was a tenant.
I knew that Sam was involved in Mississippi College: but I had no idea how involved until we were there together. He had served on the board of trustees, his name was on a large student center building, he was on a first name basis with not only the president but with faculty members and assistant football coaches.
Perhaps the most interesting event at the college was the barbecue before the football scrimmage. When Sam was a student at the college, in the 1950s, there were no Black students. Indeed, the college generally did not play against teams with Black athletes; that was “not done” in the South at that time. Sam told with relish the tale of playing in a football game against Rutgers, a team with two black running backs. The coach reassured the Mississippi team before the game that they should not worry about their Black opponents “because you will not catch them.”
But now, at this barbecue and pep rally, there were many Black students, chatting and sharing tables with white students. Later, when we watched the football scrimmage, about half the players on the team were Black.
Not everything has changed, however. The “small event” at the college was a sit-down dinner, for perhaps forty people, mainly trustees and donors. After dinner, I spoke about Edwin Stanton and the Civil War, including a brief reference to “the infamous Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Fort Pillow Massacre.” Afterwards, an older white woman came up to me and said that “here in Mississippi, we do not call him the infamous Forrest; we call him the famous Forrest.” Sam loved to tell that story in California about our time together in Mississippi.
We spent a day in Jackson, where I spoke at the Mississippi Book Festival, held in the state’s capital building. One of the other speakers was Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, a speech attended by a group of Black middle school students, a group to encourage more Black children to read more books. The portraits on the walls were all white male southerners; and here was this African American woman, in a powerful position in the federal government, talking with Black children about how books change lives.
We also spent a day in Vicksburg, touring the battlefield and town. The park was almost deserted, and the grass was growing faster than the park staff could mow it down. We visited not only the National Park, with its “neutral” perspective, but also the Old Court House Museum, which had a considerably more “southern” view. One of the items on display was a bullet which supposedly passed through the scrotum of a northern soldier before hitting and impregnating a southern woman. Sam loved that story, although he knew it was fiction.
We talked, as we traveled, about racial relations in Mississippi, from Sam’s childhood, during the Second World War, through the present. Sam was always sympathetic with the plight of his Black neighbors, and recalled keeping his opinions to himself, as white leaders expressed racist views they assumed all whites shared. A year after our visit, in 2018, when Mike Espy ran for Senate, Sam supported his candidacy, telling me that it was “about time that Mississippi sent a Black senator to Washington.”
I last saw Sam a couple weeks ago, right after the publication of my Salmon Chase book. We sat in his living room and talked for an hour. We talked about my father, whom he praised for his civic work. We talked about my own civic work, opposing the proposed change to the city charter to increase the power of the mayor. Sam apologized that he had not made much progress in reading the Chase book, admitting that chemotherapy made it hard to concentrate. He assured me that his treatment was going well, however, and praised the nurses at Hoag. He wanted to hear about my next book, about William Howard Taft, and he made me go through Taft’s life “chapter by chapter.”
Sam closed his memoir with a quote from a poem he learned in ninth grade, William Cullen Bryant’s poem Thanatopsis, that seems the best way to close this post.
“So live, that when the summons comes to join,
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chambers in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry slave at night
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him and lies down to pleasant dreams.”