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As I’ve learned more about my ancestors I’ve also taken some time to follow the branches of the tree down, learning about their siblings’ descendants. I’ve come across some interesting stories; this is part of a recurring series of diaries about distant cousins I never knew.

In an off-schedule post yesterday, I wrote about my 3x-great-grandmother’s brother, Zebedee P. Churchill, and his three marriages. This week I’d like to look at a great-great-grandson of Zebedee P. who, long before I realized he was my distant relative, made an impression on me.

The longest of Zebedee P.’s marriages by far was his second, to Emily Ordway. After Zebedee P.’s first wife, Orlena, died in 1854, leaving him with three young daughters, he married 19-year-old Emily, whose family lived on the same road. They had six children of their own and were together 40 years before Emily died.

Their first child together, named Emily Maria Churchill after her mother, was born in 1856. She married a man named Frank Hoisington and they had two daughters before Emily died in 1880 at only 34. Their older daughter, Etta, married a man named George Weaver in 1904. They had two children, Constance and Sherman. In 1932 Constance married a young doctor named Jonathan Brock Daniels, and they in turn had two children, a boy and a girl. Their son was named Jonathan Myrick Daniels, and he’s been one of my heroes since I was a kid. Click on to learn why.

I’ve already written about how I grew up with a strong Irish Catholic identity. As a small child I was interested in history and, particularly, the Presidents of the United States after seeing the White House on a visit to DC. Most of all, I wanted to learn more about President Kennedy, who looked so young and different from the other Presidents. My grandfather showed me the photo of President Kennedy he kept in his den. Soon I learned that he was the only Irish Catholic President in our history, and at the time he was elected Irish Catholics were discriminated against in some circles. I also learned that he was from Massachusetts and that he died tragically. I wanted to know more. A lot more.

When you learn about the Kennedy era, you quickly learn about the Civil Rights movement. I remember being furious, even at six or seven, about the way the racists and segregationists were treating people just for the color of their skin. It just seemed wrong. I wanted to know more about the movement. I read whatever I could find about it, and watched documentaries on civil rights whenever they came on TV. And that’s how I first learned about Jonathan Myrick Daniels.

President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meet
Jon Daniels was born in Keene, New Hampshire, on March 20, 1939. His father, a local doctor, was the founder of a local health clinic and much loved in Keene. In 1959, when Jon’s father turned 55, the Keene Sentinel wrote: “Nothing we could say here about the quiet kindness of Doctor Daniels has not already been said at one time or another by his associates, friends, and the host of parents whose children he has brought into the world during his many years of faithful practice in Keene.” Jon’s mother was a junior high school French teacher. According a family friend, his father set an example of much laughter and compassion for people, while his mother provided religious fervor and a passion for social justice.

Jon graduated from Keene High School in 1957 and entered Virginia Military Institute. He had always admired his father’s military service as a medical officer during World War II, when Jon was a boy. VMI, known for its Southern military tradition and its hazing, might seem an unlikely place for a small, thin New Hampshire Yankee to thrive. But Jon graduated first in his class in 1961 and was popular there.

Jon's class portrait at Virginia Military Institute
During Jon’s time at VMI, however, he had begun to question his strong religious faith. In 1959 Jon’s adored father died at only 55, and his sister, still in high school, suffered through a lengthy illness. A high school friend later said that Jon was charming but a brooder, always thinking about big issues and pondering his place in the world. It seems that only after Jon was freed from the rigors of VMI did he confront his pain about his father’s death.

In 1961, shortly after his graduation from VMI, Jon entered Harvard for graduate studies in English. He soon sought counseling for his grief and what he called “a related work paralysis involving vocational indecision.” Having been raised in his parents’ Congregationalist faith, Jon started attending Episcopal services. On Easter 1962, he said, he experienced a sudden realization that he wanted to devote his life to the church. Jon returned home to Keene and started preparations to enter the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jon entered the seminary in September 1963. In March 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for northern students and clergy to march in Selma, Alabama. Jon Daniels and a friend answered the call. When they missed their return flight, Jon said, he realized how much the Civil Rights workers who were in Selma full-time must be frustrated that so many people had come only for a few days. He returned to Boston long enough to get permission to continue his studies on his own in Selma, then bought a powerful car to “outrun the rednecks,” as a friend put it. Friends tried to convince him not to go, but he would not be deterred.

Back in Selma, Jon Daniels started to tutor black children and integrate the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, simply by showing up for services with black people. Some members of the congregation, including the rector, were hostile to his efforts, but others quietly offered him support.

Jon tutoring in Selma, 1965
Even if he had wanted to, Jon couldn’t stop doing what he was doing. In a letter to a friend back home, Jon wrote “The road to Damascus led, for me, back here…Though I have many misgivings, though at the moment I can't imagine that I have anything to give of any significance, I knew with heart, mind, and soul that the Holy Spirit had picked me up by the scruff of the neck...Though I cannot guess precisely where I am being driven, I have the haunting feeling again and again that I am flying with the mightiest Wind in the world at my back ...”

Jon returned to Cambridge to take his exams, but in July 1965 he was back in Selma, where he created a guide to government assistance for those in need, helped poor locals apply for aid, tutored children and attempted to register voters. On August 13, just one week after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, Jon and Stokely Carmichael were among the 29 SNCC protestors picketing whites-only stores in the small town of Fort Deposit, in Lowndes County southeast of Selma. As Yankee magazine put it in 1992:

In 1965 Lowndes County, Alabama, the piney hill country between Selma and Montgomery, was known among civil rights workers as "Bloody Lowndes." It was one of the poorest counties in America, a place where 80 percent of the population was black, and not one black had ever voted. The official motto of the Lowndes County Democratic party was "White Supremacy." After civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was murdered, bumper stickers reading "Open Season" appeared on cars in Lowndes County. "Selma was scary enough," said one civil rights worker, "but Lowndes County was the edge of the civilized planet."
The protesters were arrested and taken to the county seat of Hayneville. Five juvenile protesters were released within a day, but the others all refused bail until everyone was bailed. They were held a week, and released suddenly on August 20, without bail being offered and with no transportation back to Fort Deposit offered.

As they waited at the side of the road for their ride, Daniels went with two black teenagers and a Catholic priest to the only store that would serve nonwhites. At the front of the store, they were met by Tom Coleman, a state highway construction engineer and unpaid sheriff’s deputy, who had a shotgun. Coleman told them the store was closed, and to leave, before pointing the gun at 17-year-old Ruby Sales. Jon Daniels pushed Ruby to the ground and threw himself in front of her. He took the bullet Tom Coleman fired and died instantly. The Catholic priest with him, Rev. Richard Morrisroe, put himself between the gun and the other black protester and ran. Coleman shot him in the back, wounding but not killing him.

Jon Daniels, only twenty-six years old, died on his mother’s birthday. Three days earlier he had written her from jail:

an eminently peculiar birthday card, but ... I have been in jail ever since Sat. — the Lowndes County jail in Hayneville, after being transferred from Fort Deposit, where a bunch of us were arrested for picketing ... The food is vile and we haven't been allowed to bathe (whew!), but otherwise we are OK. Should be out in 2-3 days and back to work. The card I bought and the present will have to wait, I guess ... But I sure will be thinking of you with love and prayers! Have a martini for me and a birthday that is gay in some fun way. With much, much love, Jon.
Ruby Sales would later remember an eerie quiet on the street when the protestors were released, with no black faces in sight in that very black county, and telling Jon she had a bad feeling.
A memorial to Jon in Hayneville, Alabama, where he died, erected by VMI
Tom Coleman was acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white jury, and lived in Hayneville a free man until his death, at 86, in 1997. It must be said that he later spent many years secretly helping John Hulett, Lowndes County's first black sheriff, do his job in the face of obstruction from much of the community.

At the time of the Coleman trial the Lowndes County prosecutor said publicly that Jon would be alive if he’d chosen to mind his own business. Jon’s hometown newspaper, the Keene Sentinel, wrote “White Southerners and Northerners who hold (that) view… simply do not understand that, to men like Jonathan Daniels, all men are brothers, and skin color means nothing ... In dying, not only was Jonathan Daniels minding his own business, but he was also attending to His business."

When Tom Coleman was acquitted, the attorney general of Alabama, Richmond Flowers Sr., called the verdict the “democratic process going down the drain of irrationality, bigotry and improper law enforcement.” Richmond Flowers was a strong opponent of Governor George Wallace’s segregationist stance, fighting for voting rights and integration of schools, and prosecuting Klan members despite threats to his own safety. After the Coleman trial, he successfully fought to reform jury selection methods in Alabama that excluded women and people of color, before his progressive views on race cost him his political career. Due to Flowers’s bad treatment in Alabama, his son, a football star, refused to play for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. The former attorney general watched from the stands as his son, playing instead for Tennessee, scored the winning touchdown against Alabama.

Jon’s funeral was at St. James Episcopal Church in Keene and he was buried in town, next to his father. In 1969 Keene named an elementary school for him. Upon hearing the news of Jon’s death, Dr. King said, "One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career was performed by Jonathan Daniels. Certainly there are no incidents more beautiful in the annals of church history, and though we are grieved at this time, our grief should give way to a sense of Christian honor and nobility.” Jon’s death also served as a wake-up call to the Episcopal Church about the urgency of civil rights.

Jon is buried with his parents in Keene, N.H.
Many people, myself included, still visit the gravesite and leave small tributes
Ruby Sales, who never forgot what he did for her, was so traumatized she could not speak for seven months. She resolved to testify at Tom Coleman’s trial, and did despite more death threats. Ruby Sales went on to a long career as an activist, one that continues to this day. She attended Jon’s school, the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, and played a role in founding many organizations to promote equality in America, including Atlanta’s Jonathan Daniels and Samuel Young Institute for Racial Justice.

Shamefully, Jon’s native New Hampshire for a long time refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day and would in fact be the last state in the union to recognize the holiday. New Hampshire, the most conservative state in New England by far, with a very small black population, was for decades dominated politically by a few old reactionaries who considered Martin Luther King a communist agitator. Twenty-five years after his death, however, Jon Daniels resurfaced to assure one more win for racial justice.

In 1990, a documentary about Jon’s life was screened in Keene and his story was back in the news. In 1991, Jon was one of fifteen “modern-day martyrs” designated by the Episcopal Church, and August 14 was designated as a day of remembrance for Jon and all martyrs of the civil rights movement. The same year the New Hampshire passed legislation marking “Civil Rights Day” in January. Finally, in 1999, long after the City of Keene had taken the lead, the holiday was officially recognized in New Hampshire as “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-Jonathan Myrick Daniels Day.” That same year Ruby Sales was given the key to the city in Selma, Alabama.

A tribute to Jon by the Episcopal Church
Their work goes on. The Episcopal dioceses of Alabama and New Hampshire sponsor a pilgrimage in Jon’s memory each summer. The rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma noted, in 1992, that many black members of the congregation had come to the church for the first time with Jon Daniels and were still coming. He added, “Jon Daniels was a catalyst for change inside the Episcopal church and especially this church. He touched this place profoundly, and it has been in a state of recovery ever since.”
Jon's hometown of Keene, N.H. named an elementary school in his honor
Jon Daniels has been gone for nearly fifty years. If not for the violent act of a man filled with hate, he might well be alive today. I’d like to wish him a happy 74th birthday this week in heaven, where I’m sure he is. Thinking about Jon, his courage and selflessness in devotion to the cause of justice, I think about the accidents of history that led all of us to be. Jon Daniels never would have existed if his great-great-grandfather Zebedee’s first wife, Orlena, hadn’t died. That’s what made it possible for Zebedee to marry Jon’s great-great-grandmother Emily; their first child together was his great-grandmother. I’m happy that he did exist, and proud to be his cousin, even if he was a fourth cousin, once removed, that I never knew.

To learn more about Jon, you can read Outside Agitator, a biography by Charles Eagles, American Martyr by William Schneider, or the play Six Nights in the Black Belt by Lowell Williams. All are about his life and sacrifice. Jon also was a character in the film Selma, Lord, Selma (1999). More information is also at:


Yankee Magazine profile

VMI alumni profile

A Look at Two Men

In Jon's own words

In the spirit of the Open Thread, please tell the stories of relatives, near or far, who inspired you, be it through public activism or more private good works.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Mar 22, 2013 at 07:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Headwaters and History for Kossacks.

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