3 out of 4 stars
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In the dark early morning of April 26, 1909, the lives of two southern Georgia families were forever changed. In Death Waits at the Depot, author Warren Robinson reaches into this family’s early American past to assemble a real-life account of the fateful night when his grandfather’s stolen gun was used to commit murder.
By the early 1900s, our author’s grandfather J.D. Robinson had made a name for himself as a banker and entrepreneur in Lenox, Georgia. South Georgia was envisioned as a refuge for debtors and the poor, and was valued for its good farm land and access to fresh water. In 1888 the railroad was developed through the South Georgia frontier, running from Macon, Georgia to Florida. The area grew quickly as towns sprang up along the railway line. The Lenox railroad depot was a hub for travel and commerce, and is the setting where this drama unfolds.
Marshall Lewis, a black railroad worker with a past, gathered up some buddies one night to burglarize various businesses in Lenox. In the midst of robbing the train depot, Lewis shot and killed Clifford Rutherford, a white postmaster who was trying to foil the crime. Lewis was later executed for the offense in a macabre, botched hanging.
When Georgia was first settled, large plots of land were granted to white male settlers. By the time the Robinson family arrived in Georgia, slavery had been abolished. But, this was the Jim Crow South, an era which denied African Americans basic social, economic, and civil rights. Evidence of this is seen throughout the book. The focus of this non-fiction story is understandably the Robinson family’s drama about the stolen gun used in the murder rather than a comment on race relations. But, the story of a black man killing a white man during this time period is innately about race. I found myself wanting Marshall Lewis to be explored more deeply, but I understand the challenges in researching African Americans from this period.
Robinson writes of Lewis’ parents, “The Lewis family raised their ten children to be hard-working, God-fearing Christians, taking them regularly to the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oakfield. Little else is known about the Lewis family except that they lived in a small sharecropper’s home near Oakfield.” Sharecropping was an alternative to the harsh discipline and other misuses of power present in the gang labor systems that prevailed at that time. But, some sharecroppers turned to crime to escape the exploitive labor practices that were not much different from slavery. This comes from my research as a reviewer, and is not something gleaned from reading the book.
I chose to review this book because I am currently researching my roots in the Early American South. I appreciated the book on several levels. The writing flowed well, and the tone was engaging. I enjoyed learning about South Georgia history and the railroad boom that set the stage for this story to unfold. The historical photos were a nice feature. They added interest and context to the story. Marshall Lewis’ repentant confession letter was a spellbinding inclusion. He sold the letter to the local newspapers as a way to raise money to transport his soon dead body back to his family in Oakfield. His reverence for his parents and for his God touched me and left me feeling he was genuinely remorseful.
The whereabouts of Lewis’ unmarked grave is unknown. Clifford Rutherford was remembered with a large, elaborate funeral. His grave is marked with a substantial carved granite monument.
Warren Robinson’s Death Waits at the Depot is well-written, and the story is easy to follow. The book was professionally edited, and I found no errors. At just forty-eight pages, it is really more of a short story, easily digested in an evening. I rate the book 3 out of 4 stars. I did not choose 4 stars because ultimately the book lacks a historical sensitivity to the racial backdrop of that time and place. I recommend this intriguing book with that caveat.
Death Waits at the Deot
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