by Dr. Reve' M. Pete
After the Civil War, life changed for both John Whattel and James. Now young men, James began life as a free man of color. John Whattel now owned what was left of the plantation. Hard times brought on by the war had greatly diminished the holdings of the Matthews family, and without slaves, John Whattel was forced to work as a bookkeeper to make ends meet. James, a skilled craftsman, found work as a welder. Samuel Whattel had seen to it that James learned this trade. With welders in the area being far and few between and James being the best at this skill for miles around, it was possible for James to survive in a time when freed slaves worked for low wages and were housed in cabins with poor conditions and fuel.
Although he was doing well, James was troubled by the racial oppression that was present all around him. One night while making his way home from work, James walked up on some Caucasian men harassing a free man of color. Seeing this injustice, anger burned within him. It was the type of anger that causes men to act without thinking. However before he could move, strong arms gripped him from behind and a large hand covered his mouth. Pulled back, he was brought to the ground out of sight of the evil Caucasian men who were whipping the free man of color. James thought he would smother as he felt the full weight of this person on his back pinning him to ground with his face in the dirt. This person held James down until the Caucasian men left the free man of color, unaware of James’ presence. Once the evil men were gone, James was released. The person holding James down was John Whattel.
After leaving the bookkeeping office, John Whattel had seen James making his way home. He too had seen the confrontation between the evil Caucasian men and the free man of color. Anticipating James’ anger and possible actions, he had come behind him to get him out of the way. John Whattel’s actions saved James’ life. The evil Caucasian men were not from the area where the boys lived and therefore, not knowing the value of James’ skill to the area, would not have hesitated to shoot him on the spot or kill him by some other means for interfering with what they were doing.