My wife Tricia’s great-great grandfather, Augustus Octavious Bacon, was the first graduate of the school of law at the University of Georgia, class of 1860. At that time, law school consisted of a one-year curriculum. There were 14 young men in the first graduating class, and the law school assumes that the graduates walked across the stage to receive their diplomas in alphabetical order, so Bacon is recognized as being the first graduate.
He went on to have an impressive career as a lawyer in Atlanta and Macon and as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives for 15 years, where he served two terms as speaker pro tempore and as speaker for eight years. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1894 and served until his death in 1914. He is recognized as being the first senator in the nation elected by popular vote, following the passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which abolished the practice of state legislators selecting the senators. At his death, his body lay in state at the Capitol in Atlanta, and an estimated 10,000 people filed by to pay their respects. He is buried in beautiful Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, where many of the city’s favorite sons and daughters have been laid to rest, including Duane and Gregg Allman.
All that is well and good, but here is the rub: At the time of his death, Bacon owned a very large tract of land directly across the Ocmulgee River from downtown Macon. He left 100 acres for the creation of an orphanage, another parcel which became a public elementary school (which Tricia attended), and the remaining 75 acres to the city of Macon for a public park. That acreage was developed by the city as Baconsfield Park and for years contained athletic fields, clay tennis courts, flower gardens, a wading pool and a small zoo.
So, what is the issue? In his last will and testament, Sen. Bacon specifically provided that the land donated for the park was for “the use, benefit, and enjoyment of the white women and children of the City of Macon to be by them forever used and enjoyed as a park and pleasure ground.”
To simplify a long and complicated legal history, in 1964 the city of Macon decided that it could not enforce the racial restrictions in the will, and after lengthy litigation that went to the United States Supreme Court twice, the property eventually reverted to Sen. Bacon’s heirs and was commercially developed.
The painting, which is in our home, is of Sen. Bacon as a boy, and the question which Tricia and I have been wrestling with for the last few years is what to do with it. We don’t have any children, and there are no family members particularly interested in receiving it. So, what is to become of it? At first blush, one might think the UGA law school would appreciate receiving a portrait of its first graduate, but given the history of Baconsfield Park, the painting would no doubt end up gathering dust in a closet. I did make a half-hearted inquiry of the law school some years back to see if they were interested in the painting, but the impression I received was that the school was a lot more interested in financial contributions than in a portrait of another dead alumnus.
Another thought we have had is to donate it to the house museum of Sen. Bacon’ s father–in-law, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, in Oxford, MS. L.Q.C. Lamar was Tricia’s great-great great grandfather. Lamar, whose father was a superior court judge, was born in Putnam County, GA but moved to Mississippi after marriage. He served in the U.S. Congress both before and after the Civil War and was serving as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court when he died in 1893.
Lamar is perhaps best known from John Kennedy’s book, Profiles in Courage. Kennedy included him as one of eight historical figures whose courage deserved special recognition. This respect from Kennedy emanated in part from a moving post-war eulogy that Lamar gave in the Senate upon the death of Charles Sumner, the staunch abolitionist senator from Massachusetts. Even though Lamar knew that this speech would be very unpopular with voters in Mississippi, he spoke, attempting to heal the wounds of the nation. He concluded the eulogy with the words, “My countrymen! Know one another, and you will love one another!”
But Lamar was also a slave owner and worked tirelessly on behalf of the Confederacy. Even Mississippi is finally attempting to rid itself of its racist past, as indicated by removing the Confederate emblem from the state flag. Does this mean that the days of Lamar’s house museum near the square in Oxford are numbered?
In a way, I don’t see a lot of difference between the statues that were dedicated to the Confederacy, which are now being torn down and removed, and this portrait of Sen. Bacon. They both are tainted by the past. So what becomes of the first graduate of the UGA law school? Is his destiny to be shuttled off to some closet somewhere?
Perhaps so. Perhaps it is his karma.
John Lyndon is a local attorney.
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