Two people

1,500 years between them

Some years ago in a history of Western civilization, I found a reference to a princess of the West Roman Empire—daughter, sister, and mother of emperors—Galla Placidia. In 410, the Goths, led by Alaric, sacked Rome, captured 20-ish Placidia, paraded her in chains through the streets, and took her with them when they left.

Placidia a few pages later turned up as the wife of a Gothic king. Her husband was killed and she was ransomed by her brother, the emperor, from her captors and returned to the palace apparently hale and hearty. I suspect she had had an incestuous relationship with her brother when they were young. Eventually she became the de facto ruler of the West Roman Empire when her 6-year-old son was named emperor, and she died in 450.

I was intrigued by this woman for whom “resilient” is a mild word. I spent many hours at the Minneapolis Pubic Library downtown looking for books, reading the ones I couldn’t borrow, and now and then copying microfiche.

I thought at first of writing a screenplay about her but that would take another life, although I did write just enough to show me how much I don’t know. I still have a folder full of photocopies and a half-dozen books I found at used bookstores.

Lately I’ve been editing a memoir by a former student at Piney Woods Country School, in Rankin County, Miss. Piney Woods was founded in 1909 and run for many years by Laurence C. Jones, a black man who refused lucrative offers in music and business in order to struggle for the poor colored students at Piney Woods. He seems to have been altruistic, selfless and steadfast, and an event in his life that stands out happened during World War I.

One Sunday in 1918, some young white men heard Jones talking to a group of negroes in a church about the necessity of putting on armor and fighting to survive. A rumor was alive in that part of Mississippi that the Germans had been inciting the local colored people to rebellion. The words “armor” and “fight” so close together meant danger to these young men, and their fear of Jones and ignorance of metaphor caused them to put a rope around him, drag him a mile, and stand him up on a pile of faggots with a rope around his neck. They were gonna burn Jones and hang him at the same time.

First, though, they gave him a chance to speak, and when he finished they let him go and gave him money for his cause.