The Prodigal Cane

The unlikely solution to an old mystery

On a sunny weekday morning last week, Ned Arter, a 67-year-old bus driver from Louisville, Ky., drove into town with his wife, Mary, and stopped in at the Beck Center. With a mustache and longish graying hair swept back, Arter bears some resemblance to Quincy Jones. He carried with him an unusual bit of luggage. It's an old-fashioned cane, about three and a half feet long, made of reddish wood, with a light-colored tip, perhaps of horn, and a gray metal handle. Though much worn with decades of use or polish, the handle shows a little detail, a bit of fancy scrollwork, and some words you might notice only on second look.

On one side there's a name so faded you wouldn't notice it at first. But if you tilt it in the sunlight you can read the block letters: WILLIAM ANDREW JOHNSON. On the other side, a little more deeply etched, is another name: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT.

I had never seen the cane before. I recently argued that it probably no longer existed.

I first heard of that cane about 15 years ago. In a used-book store, I picked up a battered hardback, an old collection of Ernie Pyle's journalism. Before the famous war correspondent was killed in the Pacific, near the end of World War II, he had been a civilian newspaper columnist, and filed several stories datelined Knoxville.

In 1937, Pyle caught wind of the fact that Weaver's Cafe, in the old Sprankle Building on Union Avenue, employed a pastry chef with an unusual resume. "Uncle Bill" Johnson, as he was known to customers, was close to 80 years old, and he had been born a slave. His full name was William Andrew Johnson. His family had belonged to his namesake, Andrew Johnson, the political anomaly from Greeneville who became president unexpectedly in April 1865, the month after he became vice president. Though freed, William Johnson's family followed Johnson to the White House. In 1937, Johnson believed himself to be the last surviving slave of a U.S. president.

William Johnson was fonder of Andrew Johnson than most white people were, and had interesting memories of the White House. When President Roosevelt visited Knoxville and paraded down Gay Street in 1936, the old man hoped for a chance to meet the executive mansion's current resident. Local Chamber honchos assured him the president would be far too busy to spend time with a pastry chef.

Pyle wrote up Johnson's story in his regular Scripps-Howard column. It caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who passed it on to Franklin. Almost immediately, the president sent William Andrew Johnson, of Mechanicsville, an official invitation to visit the White House, with a personal ride courtesy of the Secret Service. Johnson marveled at the old joint, which had gotten a lot fancier in the 68 years since he'd last been inside it. He got to chat with Roosevelt, who presented him with a silver-handled cane inscribed with both of their names. Pyle wrote another story about him. The New York Times ran a story with a photograph of him posing with his cane.

Johnson returned to Knoxville a celebrity, and for the last six years of his life was never seen without his cane. But after his death in 1943, announced with another round of national headlines, the cane vanished, at least insofar as local historians or the mainstream media were concerned. Johnson didn't have any children or siblings to inherit his favorite possession.

I've learned not to be optimistic about these things. I assumed the cane was long since lost to the anonymous netherworld of pawn shops and city dumps.

Enter Bill Murrah, familiar community organizer, recently retired from Legal Aid of Tennessee. For the last few years, Bill's been on a personal quest to learn the origins of an obscure holiday. In odd pockets around the Mid-South, like here, Paducah and Hopkinsville, Ky., plus a few other small towns, blacks celebrate August 8 as a cultural holiday. The assumption, all these years, is that it's the date in 1863 that Andrew Johnson, lately allied with the Great Emancipator, freed his slaves. But there's no documentation. The first known celebration was in 1871, in Johnson's home town of Greeneville, and the ex-president approved the proceedings with a visit.

Retirement has afforded Murrah time to look around more comprehensively. During the summer he was looking into an older member of William Johnson's family, his uncle Samuel. Murrah suspects he's key to the whole August 8 mystery. With the assistance of McClung Collection genealogical researcher Danette Welch, Murrah found the name of a likely living great-great grandson of Samuel Johnson, one Ned Arter.

Some Googling disclosed exactly one Ned Arter in America. Murrah gave him a call, hoping he might have some clues about the holiday. Arter, a retired Louisville policeman, was interested, and talked with Murrah at length. Until now, Arter's claim to fame was that he knew Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, as a kid. He'd heard of the August 8 holiday, which is not celebrated in Louisville, but is in a small town nearby. He did not know that his ancestors had been among Andrew Johnson's slaves. "I do have this old cane in the back of my closet, with Franklin Roosevelt's name on it," he said. He had never noticed a fainter, less familiar name on the handle's other side, the name of a distant cousin who died just before Arter was born.

By a crazy coincidence, Arter and his wife had been on a motorcycle trip through the mountains early in the summer. Thirsty and hot, they'd stopped for the first time ever at the Andrew Johnson Museum in downtown Greeneville. They went back last week with a different perspective. Arter is thoroughly enjoying this unexpected development.

"I was just completely amazed," he says. "I had no idea at all."

Representatives of Knoxville's Beck Cultural Center and Greeneville's Johnson attractions have approached Arter about donating or loaning the icon for display. For now, Arter says, "I'm gonna enjoy it, and let my kids enjoy it."