On the Rise
In a new book about a 1920s murder trial, Sharon Davies ’87 highlights a seldom-discussed period of anti-Catholic sentiment in the American South
In 1921, 18-year-old Ruth Stephenson, the white daughter of a Methodist minister in Birmingham, Ala., secretly converted to Catholicism and married a 42-year-old Puerto Rican man named Pedro Gussman. Several hours after the wedding, her infuriated father grabbed a gun, stormed up to the rectory of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and fatally shot the priest who had conducted the ceremony.
Five years ago, Sharon Davies ’87, the John C. Elam/Vorys Sater Designated Professor of Law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, learned of the murder and subsequent trial while doing research for an article on law and marriage. “This particular story really grabbed my attention because it happened at a time when criminal law was being used as a way to police marriage partners,” recalls Davies, who recounts the controversial case in her new book, Rising Road: A True Tale of Love, Race, and Religion in America (Oxford University Press: 2010). In reviewing her first work of historical nonfiction, critics and legal historians have praised Davies’ use of intimate detail and accurate historical context. The strength of the book is attributable to her expertise in the field of criminal law, as well as her commitment to the project, which demanded five years of painstaking research
At first, Davies assumed the case epitomized the racial bigotry that fueled early 20th century anti-miscegenation laws—a subject that has long fascinated the widely published professor. Davies was born to an Irish-Catholic mother and a half–African-American, half-Caucasian father at a time when certain states still considered interracial marriages illegal. “My parents’ union was outlawed in the state of my father’s birth,” she explains. “And even though it was legal in the state of my mother’s birth, it still took them four different stops to find someone willing to
As Davies continued to delve beneath the surface of the 89-year-old crime, she learned that the man who shot the priest hated Catholics, not Puerto Ricans.
“That was the big surprise,” notes Davies, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
In Alabama in the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan reorganized and rebranded itself as a fraternal organization dedicated to defending the American way of life, which its members heartily believed was increasingly threatened by, among other groups, Catholics. Those who owed their allegiance to the pope in Rome, they argued, could never be patriots. “This was a time when very effective anti-Catholic campaigns were being waged in Birmingham and elsewhere,” Davies explains. “Catholic communities were truly under siege.”
The Klan mobilized in support of the man accused of murder and raised enough money to hire defense attorney Hugo Black, who ironically went on to become a civil rights champion on the U.S. Supreme Court. As his defense strategy, Black relied on a plea of temporary insanity, hoping that a Birmingham jury would sympathize with his client.
The ensuing trial drew nationwide attention and ample press coverage, leaving a trove of information for Davies to uncover in researching and writing her book. She made multiple trips to Birmingham to sift through heaps of historical documents. She interviewed Catholic men and women in Alabama who had been children during the heyday of Protestant supremacy. And she transformed her writing style to produce a work of historical nonfiction, instead of drafting an academic article.
“The story was so powerful,” Davies explains, “that I thought it had the potential to educate a broader audience about [a part of history] we have largely forgotten.”