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By Sam Perry
The man closed his eyes and listened to the doxology that rose, like incense, from the men, women, and children standing in front of him. Their angelic voices, united in common prayer, were comforting, and he felt the presence of a God who knows no rich or poor, no strong or weak, no male or female, no black or white. He stood quietly, his arms wrapped tightly around his most treasured possession, a book whose worn leatherette covers bore evidence of frequent use. The book was filled with assurances that whoever placed his trust in the words contained within it would never be without the tools necessary to win over the forces of evil that plague the world. Yet, despite those assurances, the man was apprehensive, and a bit nervous.
Thomas Logan had every right to be apprehensive and nervous, but he believed in the words in his book and he used them to guide him along the paths of righteousness. After all, did they not promise him that he could walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil? That was why he had not refused when asked to deliver the Good News to the congregation of New Liberty Baptist Church. He had regarded the request as an honor and an obligation, one not to be taken lightly. The Board of Deacons had taken his reputation as a soul-saving minister of the Gospel into serious consideration and for that, he was thankful. He would not make them regret their decision. So, he stood and he listened and he prayed and when the refrain of the hymn faded away, Thomas Logan, a man of African-American ancestry, opened his Holy Bible, walked reverently to the pulpit, and into the pages of McCreary County history.
How Thomas Logan, a black man, came to be preaching the Gospel to an all-white congregation in McCreary County, Kentucky at a time when oppressive Jim Crow laws forced racial groups to live under an umbrella of separation and distrust is as revealing of our people as it is amazing. It shows that our ancestors, while living in a land that fought back constantly and who were denied many of the amenities of a more modern existence, were a remarkably tolerant people. And, for that, we have much to be proud.
The early life of Thomas Logan is not well documented, but the late historian Robert E. Stephens believed him to be the son of a slave who belonged to Griffin Morgan, a wealthy landowner in Whitley County. Others claim that he came to what is now McCreary County as an employee of John Davis, for whom Davis Hill is named. What is known, however, is that on the Whitley County Census of 1910, he is listed as being a mulatto and a widower and living in the Pine Knot district. His identification as a mulatto and his uncommon literacy lends itself to speculation regarding his paternal origin. This speculation is enhanced by the testimony of early residents of McCreary County that he owned a 300 acre farm on Marsh Creek.
As a single father, Thomas Logan devoted most of his time to the rearing of his children and in the almost incessant demands of the life of a farmer. Plowing, planting, cultivating, and harvesting of crops left him little time for other pursuits. Visits to the grave of his wife, Martha, who was buried on the farm, brought a measure of solace, but his was, undoubtedly, a lonely life.
Logan was, apparently, a very good farmer. Each week, during the growing season, he filled his wagon with fruits and vegetables and took them to Newtown, a segregated community in Stearns, populated by people of color. It was in Newtown that he met the woman who would become his second wife.
Lilly May Simpson was the daughter of Joseph Simpson and sister of the Rev. William “Bill” Simpson. Like most of their neighbors in Newtown, the Simpsons labored underground in the labyrinth of coal mines operated by the Stearns Coal and Lumber Company. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to claim that the influence Bill Simpson had upon Thomas Logan was life-changing, for, at some point after their meeting, Logan was ordained to the ministry himself. He then embarked upon a crusade to bring the Gospel to anyone who would listen. It was a crusade that would, eventually, lead him to a populace that bore no physical resemblance to himself or his kin, but which would hold him in high regard, not as a simple man of color, but as an esteemed man of the cloth
Thomas Logan’s marriage to Lillie Simpson was of short duration. She was not well and suffered from consumption, a colloquial term for pulmonary tuberculosis. She passed away on November 7, 1913 and was laid to rest on a hillside in Stearns. Widowed for the second time, Logan retreated to his farm, his children, and his Bible. However, he did not return to a life of seclusion.
Early residents of the Marsh Creek area recall a man of uncommonly good manners who traveled the dirt roads radiating from his farm to the neighboring communities. With a wagon load of farm produce, he sold to customers unable to grow their own food and at a reasonable price. That he gave much of it away can be presumed. Highly respected, he was a frequent guest at the dinner table of white families. According to legend, he always asked that the hostess place as much on his plate as she wished him to eat. Invariably, he received the best portions of whatever came out of the kitchen. And, when asked, he was always eager to share the Gospel. For many, a blessing from Brother Tom was enough reward for a meal well prepared.
The circumstances of Thomas Logan’s death are unknown, as is the certainty of his burial site. His memory has almost been erased by the passage of time and the migration of his descendants to other places, but one cannot but ponder the legacy he left behind. Was the failure of the Ku Klux Klan to establish a foothold in McCreary County in the 1920’s the result of attitudes fostered by Thomas Logan? Is it mere coincidence that the first public school in Kentucky to integrate following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was at nearby Griffin School? The Pine Knot Job Corps Center, a center that, at one time, was eighty percent African-American, did well in McCreary County when such centers did not in other places. Was the acceptance of this institution influenced by the work of an African-American evangelist in the formative years of McCreary County? We will never know, for sure, but the most logical explanation for this high level of tolerance may well be found in the seams of bituminous coal that underlie McCreary County, for, as my coal miner grandfather once observed: “We were all the same color when we came out of the mines.” Mining, like other forms of hazardous labor, tends to overlook differences in skin color, religious practices, and ethnic origins in favor of the common goal of making it through a shift without getting hurt or killed.
It would be absurd to imply that all McCreary Countians are free of racial prejudices. They, obviously, are not. But, the statistics show that we have been, historically, light-years ahead of most of our neighbors. Let us keep it that way. Let us preserve, and pass on to our grandchildren, the values of our ancestors who understood that the measure of a man is not based upon his racial, religious, or ethnic background, but upon how much love he has for his neighbor.