A new book brings a lesson on six degrees of separation

Published 10:25 am Tuesday, May 30, 2023

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We have a running joke in our family that we like to call “six degrees of Natchez.”

It started years ago, on vacation as we battled the crowds in Disney World with two little Star Wars fans in tow.

“I think I know that person,” their father said. “He’s from Natchez …”

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And sure enough, a Natchez connection was made.

Those connections continue to surface. Thomas covering a gala event at Ole Miss or a random sporting event outside the state? He’s certain to meet someone new from Natchez.

Traveling out of town? You can bet there’s at least one person at the conference who has a tie to Natchez.

When I arrived in Troy, Alabama, as the fresh-faced new publisher, a gentleman walked up to me at a welcome reception and asked, “Graning? Like Chick Graning ….”

And just like that, the community’s resident historian, former football player and die-hard Alabama fan launched into a commentary about a game between Alabama and Georgia Tech, which is known in Bama lore as the “Chick Graning incident.”

Another six degrees of Natchez, just to keep us all connected.

So, it was hard to stifle my smile this week when I received an email about a Troy University history professor – one who had taught Wright – and a new connection to Natchez.

“Dr. Timothy Buckner, a history professor at Troy, is receiving the Jules and Frances Landry Award for 2024 for his upcoming book on the life of a free man of color in the 19th Century …” the announcement read.

“Surely, it couldn’t be?” I thought.

But yes, it is.

Buckner’s book, titled “The Barber of Natchez Reconsidered: William Johnson and Black Masculinity in the Antebellum South,” revisits the history of one of Natchez’s most prominent and influential residents: a man born into slavery who was eventually freed by his white father.

Johnson’s history is well-known: He trained as a barber, eventually became a slave owner himself, and kept a detailed diary that provides incredible insight into his life in Natchez before being murdered by another free man of color. The 2,000-page diary spans 16 years and, according to the release, is in part what piqued Buckner’s interest in the story.

For his part, Buckner is well regarded throughout the university community as an intelligent, engaging professor. I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on several of his recorded lectures as Wright would study, and I’ll admit he almost made me want to audit a history class, just for fun.

And the Landry award Buckner is receiving is a prestigious honor. It is given annually to the best book on a topic related to southern history or southern studies published by the LSU Press.

“Any time I’ve ever won anything I just assume that it’s a mistake, and that was my initial reaction here,” Buckner said in the release. “Turns out it was true. I had to read the email a few times before it sank in.”

I confess that I’ve never made it through William Johnson’s original diary, although it has a permanent spot on my to-be-read list. But Buckner’s new book is already listed as the “No. 1 new release” in history for Kindle devices, with hardcovers available for pre-order on Amazon. You can bet it’s in my current reading cue.

And the delight in reading about a part of Natchez history, written by a professor I knew in Troy, Alabama … well, that’s six degrees, indeed.

Stacy G. Graning is regional editor of The Democrat. Contact her at stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com.