Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Kid (Almost) Next Door


We probably give little thought to the childhood acquaintances from the neighborhood in which we spent our earliest years. Chances are that seldom did any of our elementary school chums grow up to be someone famous (although it does, rarely, happen).

As we explore the connections who might reveal something more about the life of King Stockton—the former slave on the McClellan plantation in Wellborn, Florida, whose story ignited my own childhood curiosity—it turns out that there was a "kid next door" who grew up to be someone whose name became part of the state's history.

Even so, that man, judge James Dean, is someone whose history had been hidden due to the unfortunate injustices which befell him at the height of his career. There are, however, a few articles written about his life from which we can glean the basic facts of his life. The earliest resource—which I do not own, owing to its eye-popping price tag—was a 760 page tome published by a Howard University law professor in 1999 entitled Emancipation: the Making of the Black Lawyer 1844-1944. Within that volume, James Dean merited mention on a mere two pages.

Though one would think such scant coverage would have buried the story of James Dean, apparently someone, reading his Howard University professor's book, learned that James Dean was the first black judge elected anywhere in the South after Reconstruction. That someone was attorney Calvin Allen, whose goal became to have the unjustly disgraced name of James Dean restored to honor.

As one would suspect, the backlash to Reconstruction had many impacts, one of which was a wrongful accusation against the recently-elected judge, James Dean, which had him removed from office within a year of his election. Well over one hundred years later, attorney Calvin Allen mounted a campaign of his own to have James Dean's record cleared, and in 2002, then-governor Jeb Bush signed a proclamation to posthumously reinstate Judge James Dean to the bench.

James Dean, who in 1884 graduated first in his law class at Howard University, had served in Monroe County, deep in the southwestern tip of Florida. There, in 1888, he won the election to the position of judge against two white candidates. Within the year, an unsubstantiated accusation led to his removal from that position without benefit of the required senate hearing prior to being removed from office.

As prominently as he had risen in his chosen field up to that point, it is James Dean's early years that I am most interested in. Apparently, James Dean was born in 1858 in the recently-established Florida city of Ocala, where many plantations dependent on slave labor were located. However, by the time of emancipation, the Dean family was living near the McClellan plantation in Wellborn, the same place where King Stockton was once enslaved.

By the time of the first census after emancipation, the Dean household was recorded only five households removed from that of King Stockton, and three from other members of the extended Stockton family. Whether the Dean family moved from Ocala after the Civil War, or were sold as slaves prior to that time, I can't tell. However, keep in mind that King Stockton's wife, though taking the surname Lewis, actually had a father who had the surname Dean. Could it be that James Dean's family made the move to be closer to family?

By the time of the 1885 Florida state census, the Dean household showed only Kelly and Minta; their son James had by then completed his studies at Howard University and was likely living in Monroe County, though I can't find any entry for him there. Much of the detail of James Dean's life and career are best recounted in the Summer 2008 Florida Historical Quarterly, in the article by Canter Brown and Larry E. Rivers, "The Pioneer African American Jurist who Almost Became a Bishop: Florida's Judge James Dean, 1858-1914." 

That, as it turned out, was the resource in which I had found the footnote revealing the connection King Stockton had had with James Dean who was, at that time, literally the kid next door. In the Brown and Rivers article, King Stockton was portrayed as "a local AME minister who filled Wellborn-area religious needs in the absence of a regularly organized church and who lived in close proximity to the Deans."

Before James Dean went to Howard University, though, he had left the rural setting of Wellborn to seek educational opportunities in nearby Jacksonville. There, I was interested to learn, he attended Mount Zion AME Church. I quickly checked to see if that was where paths crossed with Dr. A. L. Lewis, but as it turned out, the latter man's church was called Mount Olive—not to mention, A. L. Lewis would have been a much younger man.

Following the name-dropping in the lengthy article on James Dean's life in the Florida Historical Quarterly, while I could see he had again returned to Jacksonville later in life, at no time did I spot among the many names that of A. L. Lewis. The only connection I could see was in the closing comment, quoting from a funeral notice, that Judge Dean's remains were to be transported back to Wellborn, where he would be buried "by the side of relatives in the family burial ground."

Other than the early mention of King Stockton, nothing I could find in articles on James Dean's life led me to determine any family connection. However, there is one more research attempt I'd like to make, though it will step outside the bounds of all the usual places where genealogists tend to look.


  1. Perhaps the family connection was distant enough that they were not aware of it.

  2. I can't believe the obscure things you uncover with your research. You are amazing.


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