Where White People Are Scarier Than Monsters: The Hidden Black History of Lovecraft Country

Illustration for article titled Where White People Are Scarier Than Monsters: Thei /iHidden Black History of iLovecraft Country/i
Photo: HBO/Lovecraft Country

On Sept. 16, 1968, 51 years before HBO aired the first episode of its groundbreaking horror series, Carol Jenkins found herself in Lovecraft Country.

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Jenkins, a 21-year-old door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman, sprinted away from a pack of bloodthirsty monsters chasing her through the tiny streets of Martinsville, Ind. She ran for the first home she could find and banged on the door. A white couple answered the door and called the police. When officers arrived, they assured Carol that there was nothing to worry about; there were no monsters in their town. Breathing a sigh of relief, Carol decided to walk the few blocks where her fellow encyclopedia salesmen would meet her and take her home.

This time, the monsters caught Carol.

One of the beasts held her arms, while another pierced her heart with a screwdriver. Police found Carol’s body but wouldn’t bother to arrest Carol’s killer for four decades, despite the Jenkins family’s pleading with the Martinsville Police Department to enlist the FBI in their search for the monster.

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Thirty-four years later, Carol Jenkins’ family would discover that the monster’s name was a longtime Martinsville resident with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. The alleged culprit was Kenneth C. Richmond, a man with a history of “bizarre behavior” who lived on a sprawling farm just outside the town. According to Richmond’s daughter, who later admitted to witnessing the brutal murder, Richmond said Jenkins “got what she deserved.” Richmond was later declared “mentally incompetent” and never faced a trial. His accomplice was never identified.

Carol Jenkins died in a sundown town, where the white people are scarier than monsters.

Yes, Lovecraft Country is a true story.


One of the most striking themes of HBO’s genre-hopscotching series Lovecraft Country is the juxtaposition of the existential threat posed by racism in a world where actual monsters exist.

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In the first four episodes, the protagonists manage to vanquish poltergeists, vampire blobs, zombies, and other assorted supernatural horrors with logic, intelligence and research. But white supremacy is the inescapable, ever-present ghoul that haunts the show. The show’s not-so-subtle subtext is that trauma inflicted by white people is infinitely more dangerous than any metaphysical menace we can imagine.

While the monsters in Lovecraft Country are reportedly based on racist writer H.P. Lovecraft’s science fiction novels, many viewers aren’t aware of how the show references real history to illustrate the horrors of white supremacy (A character named “Bobo” makes cameos in two episodes, a reference to Emmett Till, who would have been a 12-year-old living in Chicago during this time).

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Here are some of the other true stories that were subtly referenced in the show:

The Negro Travelers Guide

In Lovecraft Country, George Berry travels across the country documenting which places are safe for Black travelers. George’s Safe Negro Travel Guide is a fictionalized version of the Negro Motorist Green Book.

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As The Root previously reported:

During the Jim Crow era, black travelers faced a number of concerns: Many hotels, inns and restaurants didn’t allow black customers. White-owned businesses in the South often refused to service vehicles driven by African Americans. Even stopping to use gas station restrooms was fraught with peril across the Southern United States. In 1956, only three hotels in the entire state of New Hampshire offered accommodations to black travelers...

In 1937, a mail carrier named Victor Hugo Green published the Negro Motorist Green Book—a guide for New York of places that welcomed black travelers. He relied on information from fellow black postal carriers, and the book became so popular, many referred to it as “the bible for black travelers.” By the time the last edition of the Green Book was published in 1966-1967, it had expanded from a 15-page guide for New York to 99 pages of information indicating safe harbor for blacks traveling all over America and internationally.

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While George traveled the country himself to create the Safe Negro Travel Guide, the Green Book was cultivated by reports from Black postal workers around the country.

The Real Ardham, Mass.

No one really knows where the real Ardham is located but, according to the book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of Racism, by the end of the 1960s, more than 10,000 towns forbade Blacks from entering their city limits after dark, including Glendale, Calif., and Warren, Mich. Over half the incorporated towns in Illinois were “sundown towns” like Anna, Ill., which expelled its entire Black population in 1909 and had the unofficial slogan “Ain’t no niggers allowed.”

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In 1973, residents of Ashby, Mass. voted 148-79 against inviting racial minorities into their town. It is still 96.8 percent white and .06 percent Black, according to census data, which is still higher than the population of Westwood, Mass., which is only 0.3 percent African American. In 1970, nearly 95 percent of Westwood’s citizens held negative views of Black people, including not wanting them in their town, according to researchers. Westwood was originally part of a larger town where a millionaire built an exquisite mansion after his original home mysteriously burned down.

The mansion is located in Dedham, Mass.

The Real Hiram Epsteins

The third episode of Lovecraft Country features the ghost of Hiram Epstein, a fictional medical doctor at the University of Chicago who performed medical experiments on Black children.

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This is a real thing.

The journals of Dr. Robert Jones in Petersburg, Va., described how he poured boiling water on slaves to cure them of typhoid fever. Children in Black communities, mental facilities and orphanages have served as unknowing or non-consenting subjects in medical experiments since the 17th century.

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Todd L. Savitt wrote in the Journal of Southern History:

Further investigation into this subject indicates that southern white medical educators and researchers relied greatly on the availability of Negro patients for various purposes. Black bodies often found their way to directing tables, operating amphitheaters, classroom or bedside demonstrations, and experimental facilities...But blacks were particularly easy targets, given their positions as voiceless slaves or ‘free persons of color’ in a society sensitive to and separated by race. This open and deliberate use of black for medical research and demonstrations well illustrates the racial attitudes of antebellum white southerners.

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But this practice outlasted slavery. American medical research is replete with stories of medical experimentation on Black bodies.

Beginning in 1948, the U.S. government paid researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital to give 582 Baltimore schoolchildren free adenoidectomy. The doctors were actually inserting radioactive rods in the children’s noses. From 1960 until 1971, 88 poor Black cancer patients at the University of Chicago were exposed to whole-body radiation treatments without their knowledge or consent, according to the book America’s Nuclear Legacy.

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But the real Hiram Epstein is undoubtedly J. Marion Sims. Between 1845 and 1849, Sims performed experimental backyard surgery on at least 12 enslaved Black women with no anesthesia. Aside from having a hospital named after him and monuments erected in his honor in Alabama, New York and South Carolina, Sims earned a distinct title for his unethical practices:

The Father of Modern Gynecology.”

Leti’s New Neighbors

The racist neighbors’ attack on Leticia Dandridge’s new house mirrors several incidents from Chicago’s past. The writers’ decision to have Atticus protecting the house in his military uniform has an important historical significance.

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In 1946, white mobs attacked temporary veterans housing located in Chicago’s West Lawn and West Edelson neighborhoods, according to Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago. And, from August 13, 1947, to August 16, 1947, between 500 and 5,000 angry white people rioted and attacked Black veterans and their families moving into the Fernwood neighborhood of Chicago. Historians estimate that 10,000 people rioted when white homeowners thought that Black union workers attending a meeting in the Englewood area of the city were looking to buy a house.

But the scene outside of Leticia’s house party is eerily reminiscent of the night of July 11, 1951.

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When Harvey E. Clarke, a Black World War II veteran and Fisk University graduate, moved into an apartment in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Ill., police officers were waiting for his moving van and put a gun to his landlord’s back. Twenty more officers dragged Clarke into an alley and beat him to a bloody pulp.

A crowd of more than 6,000 took care of Clarke’s family.

Burning Down the Master’s House

Atticus, the protagonist in Lovecraft Country, is saved in the second episode by the ghost of his ancestor, an enslaved woman named Hannah. The history of slave revolts in America contains so many stories of arson that “burning the master’s house” has evolved as a metaphor for black rebellion in the face of white supremacy.

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On March 8, 1741, someone set fire to New York Gov. George Clark’s Manhattan mansion. The fire eventually enveloped the entire city and when they spotted a black man named Cuffy running away from a fire, the residents blamed the blaze on a conspiracy between slaves and poor whites. Nearly 100 people were arrested and hanged in a farce of justice that made the Salem Witch Trials look like an episode of Judge Judy.

Marie-Joseph Angélique was tortured, hanged and then burned at the stake for starting a 1734 fire that burned down the entire merchants’ quarter in Montreal, Quebec. Angélique has since become an international symbol of rebellion and freedom. According to local legend, people walking the streets of Old Montreal will sometimes spot a figure in all-white clothes with an “Arsonist” sign around her neck.

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It is supposedly the ghost of Marie-Joseph Angelique, still seeking revenge.

At San Miguel de Gualdape, Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón brought 300 people, including captive Africans, to build the first European settlement in the continental United States. Located in present-day South Carolina, the settlement contained a church, homes and a community farming area. In November 1526, less than four months after the gold-seeking colonizers arrived, Black prisoners joined with indigenous natives and burned the entire town to the ground. Ayllón immediately hightailed it back to Spain, but no one knows what happened to the Africans. Some speculate that they assimilated with their Native American co-conspirators but one thing is for sure:

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The first American slave revolt happened nearly a century before the White Lion’s arrival in 1619.

Sons of Adam

In the show, the Sons of Adam is a group of powerful white men who practices a weird mix of politics, magic and racism. This part of the story is pure fiction.

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But not really.

Yale’s Skull and Bones (pdf) has operated since 1832. Its list of members boasts some of the most powerful men in the world, including three presidents. And interestingly, “The Order” owns a secret island and an actual underground tomb.

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One of the items reportedly kept in the secret society’s tomb is a historical artifact that closely resembles the contents of the hidden lair in the fourth episode of Lovecraft Country—the skeleton of indigenous medicine man Geronimo.

A few years ago, a couple discovered a satchel buried on a California farm. When they opened it, they were shocked to discover $10 million in gold. Since then, some have speculated that the buried treasure belonged to a secret society of white supremacists that secretly plotted a civil war.

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In the mid-1800s, a doctor and “adventurer” organized the Knights of the Golden Circle, a group of influential Americans whose goal was to create a white supremacist empire that would extend slavery into Mexico and Central America. The secret society built its own army and formed chapters called “castles” across the country. Members were willing to do anything for the cause and included Jesse James, Jefferson Davis and Chicago Mayor Buckner Stith Morris. KOGC operated by a coded secret ritual with 100 “degrees” and temporarily ruled over an entire state in 1861 when they forced the Union Army to surrender in New Mexico.

After the Civil War, many of the Knights of the Golden Circle moved to Brazil and established a community that still honors the Confederate flag. They were forced to leave the country because of the actions of one of their most famous members:

John Wilkes Booth.

Arguably, Booth is not the Knights’ most influential member. Another member, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, based his new organization around the Knights of the Golden Circle—the Ku Klux Klan.

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Or, as I call them:

Monsters.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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DISCUSSION

ionithus
Mr Boomman

I know about driving through sun down towns. They still existed in my youth. We had to travel through one to get to my home town. They’re still racist as hell. Unfortunately, those towns now have an influx of biracial children. I find that more horrifying nowadays than riding through those towns.