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Volume XVII, Issue 3 - January 15 - January 21, 2009
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Bay Reflections

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Milestones on January’s calendar page

by Doug Kamholz

In this season of civil rights milestones, one new headstone in Southern Maryland will make a good marker for half a century of race progress.

The same January calendar page that holds Barack Obama’s inauguration as well as the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., now also dates the death and burial of William Devereux Zantzinger, 69, late of Chaptico in St. Mary’s County.

Just where this stone will rest seems somewhat of a secret. Zantzinger’s family felt it had reason to instruct Brinsfield-Echols Funeral Home, in Charlotte Hall, to stay mum on such details.

That reason is Bob Dylan.

In the caldron and crucible of civil rights that was the early 1960s, songwriter Dylan, then 22, recorded a Maryland-based tune called “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” In it, he offered his version of what happened inside Baltimore’s now-razed Emerson Hotel in the early hours of February 8, 1963. There was indeed a Hattie Carroll, and she died on that date. She was 51, had 11 children and attended Gillis Memorial Christian Community Church. The tale’s villain was one William Zantzinger, then of West Hatton, the 630-acre family farm at Mount Victoria in Charles County. It’s said by Dylanologists — a larger group than one might guess — that the t in Zantzinger was dropped to make his name sound more like hissing.

William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gatherin’.
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him …

Some facts and fiction born of this drama have played in papers from here to Italy this past week. The funeral home in Charlotte Hall rebuffed requests for information from The New York Times and many others. Most of the case is found in the same August 1963 article that those Dylanologists say a friend gave to Dylan, the account that set him putting ink to paper.

A 24-year-old Maryland tobacco farmer from a prominent family was tried for manslaughter in Hagerstown, a change of venue. The court found he had verbally abused several black service workers and struck them with a cheap carnival cane. Barmaid Carroll told co-workers Zantzinger left her feeling “deathly ill.” She fell unconscious. A hotel employee called for an ambulance. It took her to Mercy Hospital. The medical examiner said she died later that morning from brain hemorrhage, perhaps due to her history of hypertension. Zantzinger was found guilty, fined about $600 and sentenced to six months. However, Judge D. Kennedy McLaughlin gave him a couple weeks’ freedom to harvest his tobacco.

Just one day before some newspapers reported the verdict, Dylan heard King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” from just a few feet away. He had performed on that same stage moments earlier, singing of another racism-stoked death, the shooting of civil rights worker Medgar Evers in Mississippi just 10 weeks earlier. Two weeks later, four young black girls would die in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.

Standing close to the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, King reached back to the Civil War and said, “the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

Almost three decades later, Zantzinger himself provided proof for King’s admonishment and reignited his own infamy. The Maryland Independent ran a front-page story by Kristi Hempel saying Zantzinger continued to collect rents on Patuxent Woods property he had lost to foreclosure five years earlier. Though his poor black renters had no toilets or running water, Zantzinger had even raised rents and successfully sued one tenant for non-payment. In November 1991, he pleaded guilty to 50 misdemeanor counts, was sentenced to 18 months in jail and fined $50,000. Prices for preying on minorities had gone up manyfold.

But back at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, King saw something beyond the nation’s nightmare of racial injustice. He had, famously, a dream. And, he said, “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He also had a promise: “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Before January’s page turns, President-elect Obama, who accepted his nomination on the 45th anniversary of King’s speech, will take the oath of office. That will widely be seen as a bright day of justice emerging. He will likely also have a promise, something akin to the one described as shamefully missing in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” where Dylan sings, “And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom.”

Dylanologist Doug Kamholz reads his Bay Weekly online in Springfield, Illinois.
© COPYRIGHT 2009 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.