By Stephen D. Bowling
Henderson “Hense” Calamese was born on July 4, 1828, in Lee County, Kentucky to slave parents owned by the Calomese family. The names of his father and mother are not known. During his lifetime, he was known by many different names such as Henderson, Hense, Henson, Hanson, and possibly others. The spelling of his surname is just as varied with Calomese, Calamese, Calomus, Calamus, Calmese, and other phonetic spellings of the original Calomese surname of George Calomese, his previous owner.
The rumors that he was fathered by the man who owned him are most likely false. Calamese was listed consistently a “Black” on all federal censuses while his wife is identified as a “Mulatto”, a distinction strictly noted on Federal census records. Very little is known of his early life.
Family lore stated that he was able to buy his freedom from the Calomese family for $1,000 in gold script. No manumission information has currently been located. Another family story relates to the effort he took to escape his owners by floating with a log down the Kentucky River to Clay’s Ferry to join the army. No verification of these stories can be found and a return to the community from which he escaped would be unlikely.
He enlisted in the United States Colored Infantry in July 1864. He was soon transferred and mustered into Company D of the 12th United States Colored Heavy Artillery at Camp Nelson, Kentucky in 1864. For nearly two years, he served under the command of Colonel Andrew H. Clark as a member of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division of the District of Kentucky under the command of the Department of the Ohio. Command of Calamese’s artillery unit was transferred to the Military District of Kentucky in 1865. Henderson was assigned to artillery duty at Bowling Green guarding railroad bridges, Camp Nelson, guarding refugees, and other military locations around the state of Kentucky. On April 24, 1866, the 12th Colored Heavy Artillery was officially disbanded and the soldiers were discharged.
Calamese returned to the area after the war and soon moved on to Jackson. He appears to have married Anna Eliza South, who had just observed her 16th birthday and was some 20 years his junior, in 1867 possibly in what is now Lee County, Kentucky. By April 1870, Henderson, Anna, and a house full of children and other relatives had moved to the Panbowl Branch section of Jackson and established a home. It is believed that he was hired to work for the Hargis family who owned most of the Panhandle and its sprawling acres of wide, rich bottomland. He also helped cut timber for the South family to which Anna Eliza (South) Calamese belonged and was then associated. Henderson, listed as a farmer, quickly gained a reputation as a fair and honest man who was generous to a fault.
The 1870 Federal Census taker recorded Henderson, age 28, and Anna, aged 19, with daughters Amanda Jane, age 2, and four-month-old Sarah. Henderson’s sisters Jane (10) and Lavisa (20) with her daughter Mary were also living in the home in the Jackson Precinct.
By 1880, Henderson remained in the home that he now owned on the Panbowl Branch in Jackson Precinct No. 1. Listed as a farm laborer, Henderson lived with Anna E. (28), Amanda J. (12), California (10), William (7), Peter (4), and Annie (1). Julia Cockrell, a black, 25-year-old female, was living with the Calamese family and working as a domestic servant.
During the 1880s, Henderson Calamese used saved money and some investment from the Hargises to establish a general and dry goods store on the Panbowl. The store operated for years and served the needs of local residents, especially the large African-American community in Jackson. The store prospered and Calamese used his financial gains to help build the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Highland Avenue in the Ewe Hill section of Jackson.
Henderson Calamese joined and was an active member of one of the secretive community organizations that flourished in the years after the Civil War in Breathitt County. These organizations, often identified incorrectly as the Ku Klux Klan, were established as ad hoc community violence and social mores enforcement groups that operated outside the bounds of the laws of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. As a prominent and influential merchant, Henderson started to ride with the elite of these societies often referred to as the “Organization.”
As a mixed-race man, Henderson joined an organization dominated by former Confederate officers and enlisted men, many of whom had owned slaves prior to the Civil War. The hooded men rode through the night on horseback with the intent to intimidate and punish those who violated the accepted behaviors as established by that organization. At its peak, the “Organization” boasted more than 200 members, including Henderson, who made regular visits to known drunkards, family deserters, ne’er-do-wells, adulterers, fornicators, those who abused their wives and children, and those who would not work the fields to provide for their families. The most common practice was to strip the “guilty” party and whip them with long, limber switches. Although not all of their exploits are known, an occasional small black coffin was left on the porch of a person that was being watched as a reminder of the possibility of a visit.
The most prominent and the most violent raid that Henderson and the Organization perpetrated was the removal from jail and lynching of Henderson Kilburn and his associate, Ben Strong, who happened to be an African-American. Kilburn and Strong were in the Breathitt County Jail and charged with the January 15, 1884 murder of William Taylor Tharp. Tharp was reputed to be the second in command of the Organization and had recently argued with two members of the rival “Red Strings” organization who patrolled to protect former slaves and former Union soldiers.
William Tharp, Henderson Kilburn, and William Butler were commissioned by the Breathitt County Court on May 21, 1883, to survey a road from Cane Creek above Alex Wilson’s to Marcum’s Ford (Dry Bread today). A disagreement about the exact location of the new road led to a fistfight during which Henderson Kilburn was knocked to the ground by Tharp. Several days later, William Taylor Tharp was shot from ambush near his home on Cane Creek by Henderson Kilburn and Ben Strong.
The Organization met and determined to attack the jail and have their own justice for Kilburn and Strong. On the night of April 9, 1884, more than 150 men wearing small white masks knocked at the jail door and demanded the keys from Jailer William M. Combs. The raiders took the keys but found the door barricaded by Strong and Kilburn. The members of the raiding party started to chop through the door with a broad ax and nearly amputated Kilburn’s arm with several of the last blows. Both were dragged from the jail and severely abused before being lynched from the banister of the Breathitt County Courthouse. Their bodies remained in the courthouse doorway on public display for more than 24 hours.
News of the raid appeared in numerous papers around the state and Breathitt County was again at the center of attention. Calamese and the Organization stopped their nightly enforcement raids in the months following the lynching as the state and county investigated and “looked” for those who committed this crime. (Many needed only to look in the mirror). Although Henderson remained a member of the group, their activities slowly ceased.
In late 1889, Anna Eliza (South) Calamese took a fever and died a few days later. The respect of the people of Jackson for her was great and she was buried in the Marcum Heights Cemetery as a show of respect. Henderson continued to live on Panbowl with his children and several members of the extended family.
He continued to prosper as a merchant and his reputation grew. By 1900, Henderson’s household included sons, William (born May 1873), Thomas (born December 1883), Peter (born December 1887), and granddaughter Nora Collins (born January 1884). Others living in the house were Allen Reed (born May 1828) and Leah Reed (born April 1834). Amanda Jane married Elmer Brown in 1888, and Edward Carter on May 30, 1896. She divorced both these men and by 1905, Henderson had a new son-in-law.
Amanda Jane (Calamese) Brown Carter married John Henry Stevenson on November 26, 1905, at Jackson and he quickly became an important member of the Calamese family. With the help of his new son-in-law, Henderson expanded his store and work to service several communities outside Jackson with a wholesale delivery service and he invested in a rock quarry in on Marcum Heights in Jackson.
By 1920 and in his later years, Henderson, then 84, showed signs of dementia. He was often confused and wandered away from his home near the mouth of Panbowl Branch only to be brought back by his son-in-law and grandchildren, especially grandson Leonidas Carter. On February 1, 1924, he suffered an episode that rendered him bedfast with what may have been an undiagnosed stroke. Dr. Daniel Fortner was called after a few days and he diagnosed Calamese with bronchitis and ordered him to not be moved.
He remained bedfast until his passing. Shortly after noon on March 7, 1924, it was apparent to those gathered around the bed that the final struggle has commenced. At exactly 4:00 p.m., Henderson Calamese opened his eyes and looked for the last time directly at his daughter, Amanda Jane. He reached for her then closed his eyes. Death came peacefully to the old warrior. Word of his death spread across Jackson and the community’s most respected citizens visited the home or sent items of comfort to the family.
His body was washed and dressed at the home on Panbowl. Stevenson and family members placed him in the painted casket and arranged the front room of his home for a traditional mountain wake. Visitors came and went until well after midnight and resumed their visits the next day.
On Sunday, March 9, the body was taken by wagon across Millers Branch and to the Jackson Colored A.M.E. Church on Highland Avenue for services. Years before, the people of Jackson had granted Calamese permission to bury his wife in the “white” town cemetery out of respect and through their fraternal ties. He joined her there in the Marcum Heights Cemetery high above Jackson. Today he rests beside the unmarked grave of his wife, Anna Eliza, and several members of his family.
The soldier, businessman, civic leader, clansman, and anomaly rests forgotten among the elite families and tall weeds on Marcum Heights.
© 2022 by Stephen D. Bowling
So sad that all this Breathitt County history is lost in mounds of wild rose an overgrowth. Marcum Heights was a beautiful historic cemetery but now lost. I’m thankful for family who can keep their section mowed and respected.
When I visit there, it is very sad. So many important figures in Breathitt County’s past are buried there- forgotten.
Fascinating Stephen. 200 organization members. What percent was that of the town population
In 1880, there were only 7,742 people in the entire county. Not all the members were from the city, but I suspect that the numbers were also inflated.