John T. Edge
A visit to my old stomping grounds turns up some dark shadows
I arrived at the University of Georgia as a seventeen-year-old freshman in September of 1980. The night before classes began, I pledged a fraternity, shotgunned a six-pack of Country Club malt liquor, and gulped down a pint of Pepe Lopez tequila. Around two that morning, in the company of my new brothers, I went carousing through the narrow streets of Athens, bound for an all-night diner known as Blanche’s Open House. Once there, I scarfed a platter of eggs and grits, before excusing myself to vomit in the direction of the toilet. I missed. When I walked to the counter to tell someone what I had done, a middle-aged woman with a tight henna bouffant threw me a rag and screamed, “Don’t give me that; I don’t want to hear it. Clean up your own shit!” This, I learned, was Blanche Guest.
Blanche fascinated me. I remember her as a cross between Minnie Pearl and Daisy Mae with a fondness for wearing silk tops and a tremulous voice that sounded like a buzz saw. I never recall seeing her without a lit cigarette dangling from her bottom lip. And I swear that I never heard her utter a sentence that was not punctuated by an expletive. Yet strange as it may seem, there was something maternal about her manner: When a friend of mine, for reasons I still cannot fathom, tried to climb on top of the glass-fronted jukebox, she screamed, “Get down, goddamn it, or you’ll cut your damn fool legs off.”
Six or eight years back, I read a book, The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg. The author examines how communal bonds are fostered, not at work, not at home, but at “third places” like taverns and coffeehouses and cafés, where unrelated people relate as equals. I have a peculiar affinity for such institutions, but until I read The Great Good Place, I had never been quite sure why. Emboldened by his theories and a budding interest in the Civil Rights Movement, I began exploring the role of third places in the public life of the South. In the name of research, I ate smoke-charred ribs at Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. and his lieutenants plotted marches and sit-ins, kneel-ins and wade-ins. I wolfed a pig ear sandwich at Jackson, Mississippi’s Big Apple Inn and listened as the owner regaled me with stories of the days when the NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers kept his office upstairs. And I made a trip to Washington, D.C., to sup at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the U Street hot dog joint that served as a de facto community center and SNCC command post during the riots that followed King’s 1968 assassination.
I do not have to wait long for answers. Early into my research at the University of Georgia library, I find a photocopy of an FBI teletype dated July 19, 1964:
Accounts of the summer of 1964 almost invariably mention the Open House. In June, Klansmen from the local 244 terrorized the residents of an Athens housing complex, firing shotguns, first into the air and then later into the back door of an apartment, striking a nineteen-year-old black man in the eye and a thirteen-year-old black girl in the lip. Herbert Guest -- described by the journalist William Bradford Huie as a “282-pound garage operator with a first grade education. . .blackhaired, with several front teeth missing” -- was arrested in the first round of shootings and charged with disorderly person. He paid a $105 fine. Paul Strickland, one of the triggerman dredged up an alibi: he claimed to be drinking coffee at the Open House when the shots were fired.
The FBI knew Herbert Guest to be a Klansman, and they listed Blanche as one of eight members of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time of Penn’s murder, Blanche and Herbert worked together at Guest’s Garage, four blocks away from the Open House on West Hancock Street. The Open House was a regular stakeout sight. On the evening of July 19, FBI informants observed the following patrons at the restaurant: a filling station employee, a drive-in theater worker, several college students, a midget, two state patrolmen, one Athens policeman, and a man who bragged of “ hitting and killing a nigger with his car.”
On August 6, suspect James Lackey confessed to FBI agents that he, Howard Sims, and Cecil Myers were on “security patrol” the morning of Lemuel Penn’s death. Lackey was driving, with Myers in the passenger seat and Sims in the back. Sims and Meyers were armed. According to witness interviews, they spent the majority of the evening shuttling back and forth between the Open House and Guest’s Garage until around four in the morning, when they spotted Penn’s car. “The original reason for our following the colored men,” Lackey told investigators, “was because we had heard that Martin Luther King might make Georgia a testing ground with the new Civil Rights bill. We thought some out-of-town niggers might stir up some trouble in Athens. . . . I had no idea they would really shoot the Negro.”
That same day, on the strength of Lackey’s confession, FBI agents arrested him along with Sims, Myers, and Herbert Guest -- who at the time was pegged as the ringleader of the group -- on federal charges of violating Penn’s civil rights. A state murder indictment followed for Lackey, Sims and Meyers. Guest, who was arrested as an accessory after the fact, corroborated Lackey¹s statement. Conviction seemed inevitable. But by the time of the murder trial, Lackey and Guest repudiated their testimonies. On September 4, an all-white jury found the defendants not guilty of murder. Almost two years later Sims and Myers were convicted on the civil rights charges, but as far as the courts are concerned, the murder of Lemuel Penn remains unsolved.
Before I departed for home on Sunday, I drove by Blanche’s old spot on Hancock Street one more time. There were no reminders of her tenure in the redbrick building. No beer cans littered the parking lot like they once did. Gone was the Coca-Cola sign that advertised OPEN ALL NIGHT. Instead, a hand-painted sign hung above the entrance. It read: FOUNTAIN OF LIFE MINISTRIES. It was around eleven o¹clock in the morning when I drove up in front of the adjacent beauty shop and climbed out. There was a crowd milling about in the parking lot of the storefront church. As I moved closer, I heard music. Every face I saw was black. Since I was a little underdressed for church, I hung back at the edge of the crowd, unsure if I should join them inside.
A quick check of the phone book tells me they are both alive. When I call Blanch to set up an interview, I am rather vague about my intentions. I am not disingenuous, but I also am not keen on letting Blanche and Herbert know that this reformed frat boy has been leafing through their old F.B.I. files, trying to make sense of their past and, by extension, my own.
Soon after I take a seat at the dining room table, Blanche hands me a tumbler of sweet tea and launches into a serial recollection: “We were known for our barbecue goat omelets.” And, “Did you realize that I always bought fresh eggs, I never did take to store bought eggs.” And, “ I can’t remember when we installed bars on the men’s bathroom window, but we had to do it. There were just too damn many drunks crawling out and not paying.”
On two separate occasions Herbert begins a story about a past indiscretion, only to have Blanche cut him off, redirect my line of questioning, and plunge headlong into another tale. As she talks, my mind begins to wander. I concoct a daydream in which I return to my car, grab my file of F.B.I. clippings, dump them on the walnut tabletop, and shout something akin to ‘J’accuse!’
Instead, I smile and nod and swallow hard. This is not one of my prouder moments: Rather than give Blanche and Herbert a chance to explain themselves, rather than lay claim to the bully pulpit for myself, I defile the hospitality of my hosts, and deny the empirical truth of my research.
Later that afternoon, I return home from the library to find that Blanche has left a message on my answering machine. “I found an old matchbook from the restaurant,” she says. “Stop by the house tomorrow and I’ll give it to you as a souvenir. Ain’t too many of these left, you know.”