Was the Old South really so intolerant?

While visiting my friends in Kentucky recently, we spoke of local folklore. They told me of a “spook” who lived in a nearby town. This “spook” was not a ghost or any other type of supernatural being. In fact, he was just a man. A man who was in the habit of peering through windows at attractive young women. He was a peeping tom.

When I asked what they did with him after he was caught, I was told, matter-of-factly, that nothing was done with him; he “wasn’t right.” In other words, he wasn’t right in the head. He was mentally ill. The local folk realized, after a while, that he posed no threat and they chose to let him be. This is an example of what we may call “tolerance.”

Ask the Yankees, whose impressions of the Old South were shaped by television and public school propaganda, how a black cross-dresser might have fared during the days of jim crow in Lexington, Kentucky. “Are you kidding?! He would have been taken out and lynched!!” This is the sort of reaction you’d probably get. After all, we all “know” that black men were lynched for even the slightest offenses, right?

But consider the case of Sweet Evening Breeze. I read about him while perusing a book called “Weird Kentucky.” According to Art Beat Lexington:

Yep, this little Southern town of ours has a drag grandmommy who played a huge role in building tolerance and encouraging self-expression that set the stage for the experience being presented at Buster’s this weekend.

James “Sweet Evening Breeze” Herndon was born in 1892 in Scott Co., suffered an eye injury as a boy that brought him to Good Samaritan Hospital, and was abandoned by his family the next day…

The charm of one of Lexington’s most colorful characters won over a wealthy white benefactor of the hospital, and Sweets was given a room to live in and a job handing out mail to patients and entertaining them with his ukelele. His unique styling evolved out of these creative exchanges and soon he was adorning men’s clothing with women’s accessories. A broach, makeup, dresses… all were part of Sweets’ design, and on Halloween, the one day it was legal for me(n) to dress as women, he’d grace the public in full drag…

Jeff Jones, an assistant professor at UK’s College of Public Health, wrote an article about Sweets in Chevy Chaser Magazine‘s September 2002 edition that explains other roles that endeared this gender-bending black man to his Southern society:

Having never learned to drive, Sweets would regularly wave down or call the police for a lift. He hated birds, and once a year, the local firemen would come and wash down his roof to remove any bird droppings. During the doctors-versus-nurses basketball games at Good Sam, Sweets filled the role of cheerleader…

Every fall he would buy shoes and leave them on the doorsteps for needy Pralltown children. When a neighborhood family or friend was having financial difficulty, he would buy food and have it delivered anonymously by taxi. Sweets also would report any neighborhood drug dealers to the police and helped put a young girl he liked through college.

By all accounts, Sweets was an excellent cook, sharing famed pastries all over town, and his parties with their fine china and silver were legendary.

Picklesimer, who now lives in Los Angeles and does parties for Elton John among others, drew inspiration and courage from his friendship with Sweets, who Bradley remembers would redo his house with the changing seasons.

Sweets considered himself the epitome of Southern grace and those who knew him say he never would have proclaimed himself a drag queen. But the courage of his expression and the stewardship that he demonstrated to his community established a foundation for the drag culture that exists today.

The story of Sweets is usually told in such a way as to draw attention to his courage. But it can just as easily be used to illustrate the tolerance Kentuckians had toward those who were different.


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