Renowned rural church approaches 260th anniversary

The current iteration of Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, a looming Greek Revival structure which shows surprising little wear and tear, dates to 1846.

The church, Basilican in plan, with walls and ceilings of plaster and heart pine floors, has a slave gallery and boxed pews. It has played an important role in the development of the surrounding area, including the town of Mayesville, which today has approximately 700 residents, essentially unchanged over the past 125 years.

The congregation dates to 1759, with congregants first worshiping in a log cabin, then moving to a framed structure shortly before the American Revolution. A third church was built in 1804 and used until the current building was erected.

Its full-time first pastor, from 1773 until 1792, was Thomas Reese, a Princeton-educated churchman whose doctoral thesis was titled “The influence of Religion on Civic Society,” likely an unusual topic for an 18th century Colonial American theologian.

The makeup of the church’s antebellum congregation reflected the rural region’s growing dependence on cotton and the need for slaves to sow, tend and reap that crop.
In 1804 the congregation totaled 89: 45 whites and 44 blacks. In 1840, that number was 160, with 42 whites and 118 blacks. By the beginning of the War Between the States, the church’s rolls showed 67 white members and 389 blacks.

Many of the black congregants, who no doubt attended the church because they were required to, left Salem Church shortly after the war’s end to join Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church.

Goodwill

Goodwill Presbyterian Church, just down the road from Salem Church, was begun in 1867 by black members of Salem Church.

Goodwill Presbyterian went on to become the mother church to many African-American churches in South Carolina, according to the blog Everything Happens at the Crossroads, which recounts a history of the Mayesville area.

Today, Salem Church has just 30 members of its roles and averages active attendance of 14 for its services, according to a 2015 article in the Darlington News and Press.

Among noted members of Salem Church have been Robert Witherspoon, a US Congressman who served during James Madison’s first term; Matthew Peterson Mayes, who served in the SC legislature and signed the SC Ordinance of Secession; and James M. Dabbs Sr., who, despite being born in 1896 and growing up on 10,000-acre plantation, was a Civil Rights leader who also served as a professor, farmer, author, church leader and Penn School Community Services trustee.

Dabbs deserve special attention. He took up the civil rights cause in the mid-1940s when he began writing about segregation and racial injustice in Southern culture. Dabbs served as president of the Southern Regional Council from 1957 until 1963, during which time he endorsed a petition requesting executive clemency from President John F. Kennedy for imprisoned civil rights activist Carl Braden. His wife Edith Mitchell Dabbs was also active in the Civil Rights movement.

Salem Church, despite the declining health of the surrounding area and the size of its congregation, continues to hold services twice a month, and both the church and graveyard are kept in immaculate condition.

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Discarded peel cruelly unnerves school’s student leaders

It’s a cliché as old, it would seem, as humanity: Each generation feels the one that follows isn’t doing its bit to uphold civilization.

That, of course, is questionable, as society has ebbed and flowed over the millennia. However, we would seem to be on a downward swing at present.

Consider: A randomly discarded banana peel at a University of Mississippi weekend event “designed to build leaders” resulted in “tears and frustration” as organizers “didn’t feel safe.”

Yes, Ole Miss Greek Life leaders cut short a three-day leadership retreat the weekend before last after black students discovered a banana peel dangling in a tree outside of one of the camp’s cabins.

“And then of course came the inevitable university action plans, flurry of letters exchanged, and sensitivity meetings,” the blog Zero Hedge reported. “Bleary-eyed and shaken students had to text friends and family to come pick them up early (sounds like Kindergarten carpool pick-up time).”

The banana peel was later spotted by Alpha Kappa Alpha President, Makala McNeil, a leader from one of the campus’s historically black sororities.

The Daily Mississippian, the campus newspaper, reported that McNeil had just left a group discussion about race relations when she spotted the banana peel in the tree.

“The overall tone [of the meeting] was heavy,” McNeil told the newspaper. “I mean, we were talking about race in Mississippi and in the Greek community so there’s a lot involved.”

She added that she and her friends were “all just sort of paranoid for a second” after noticing the banana peel, calling its appearance “so strange and surreal.”

The culprit turned out to be senior accounting major Ryan Swanson, who said he put the banana peel in the tree when he could not find a trash can nearby.

“Although unintentional, there is no excuse for the pain that was caused to members of our community,” Swanson said, in a response that would seem to have been taken from the transcript of a 1930’s Soviet show trial. “I have much to learn and look forward to doing such and encourage all members of our community to do the same.”

An open forum was held after news of the banana peel had spread throughout the camp.

“As the staff member responsible for the wellbeing of our community, I felt it was imperative to provide space immediately to students affected by this incident to allow them an opportunity to voice their pain and concern,” Alexa Lee Arndt, interim director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at Ole Miss told the campus newspaper.

After the open forum, Greek Life leaders decided to cancel the remainder of the weekend.

In a letter obtained by The Daily Mississippian, Arndt was quoted as saying that “members of our community were hurt, frightened, and upset by what occurred.”

“Because of the underlying reality many students of color endure on a daily basis, the conversation manifested into a larger conversation about race relations today at the University of Mississippi,” Arndt reportedly added.

Another sorority president reportedly told the newspaper that the incident was especially painful, because “bananas have historically been used to demean black people.”

The newspaper reported that many of the students left the retreat “in tears.”

As one columnist opined on the matter, “This idiot country is losing its damn mind. Our universities are training students to be total neurotics. If you are an actual adult who wails and gnashes her teeth at the sight of a banana peel, you ought to question whether you are mature enough for college.”

New book ponders long-lasting effects of Reconstruction

If social media has a redeeming quality, it may be the ability to learn the unvarnished truth regarding the true feelings of others.

Within the past month I’ve come across numerous comments in the middle of Facebook conversations that were startlingly narrow-minded, yet because they singled out a group deemed OK to bash, no one uttered a peep.

The first came in early July, amid debates concerning the South’s ongoing educational deficiencies, specifically the overall low ranking many Southern states register on nationalized tests. Within a short time, the cause was identified solely as “Jim Crow.” Finally, one individual, located in the Northeast, stated bluntly, “I hate Southern white males.”

A second conversation dealt with the threat of radical Islam within the US. One individual countered that he had been to Islamic countries and that the Deep South, for example, was “way scarier” than Indonesia “in his experience.”

This individual lives on the West Coast, so it’s difficult to determine whether he’s ever set foot in the “Deep South.” I also understand that as a relatively tall, fit white guy, I may have an easier time than a black man or woman in the South. Still many blacks I speak with in the South – but by no means all – say that while issues certainly remain related to racism, they’re not specific to the South.

But unfortunately many of the South’s biggest detractors appear to have little to no actual experience with the South of today. It is certainly not perfect, but it’s vastly different from what it was 50 years ago, and it is a far friendly place, at least in my own experience, than New England, New York, much of the West Coast and the major Midwestern cities.

Still, the image persists, at least if one goes by the New York Times, Slate or other Northeastern-centric media outlets, that whites in the South are largely bigots, rural regions are populated almost exclusively by extras from Deliverance and blacks and other minorities live in constant fear, with some whites eagerly awaiting the return of “Judge Lynch.”

My experience has been largely the opposite: Whether on the West Coast, or the East Coast north of Richmond, no one will so much look at you when you pass them on the street, never mind say hello. Down South it’s unusual if you don’t wave when passing someone on a country road, whether you know them or not.

I can’t imagine standing to cross a street with someone in a Southern town and not saying hello and asking how they were doing, or vice versa. And anyone who knows me will tell you I am an introvert’s introvert.

While I may be a hermit in the making, my mother didn’t raise me to be rude. When I talk with strangers it’s not out of simple duty; I do have a genuine wish that their day goes well.

So why does a significant percentage of those outside the South feel white males in Dixie are a bunch of ignorant knuckle-draggers who keep white sheets and hoods in our closets?

A recently released book by Philip Leigh called Southern Reconstruction concludes that no small part of the problem is the result of Reconstruction, the period following the War Between the States.

However, Leigh doesn’t limit the term “reconstruction” to the 1865-1877 period that is generally used to designate the post-war era but expands it to include the decades afterward, when the former Confederate states lagged far behind most of the rest of the nation, stricken with higher rates of poverty, lower lifespans, poorer diets and reduced access to health care.

Leigh’s superb work points out that many of today’s mainstream historians focus solely on white racism in the South as the reason for Reconstruction’s failure, and that Reconstruction’s failure greatly aided the spread of white Southern racism.

Yet, as progressives like to point out, hate is a learned behavior. In other words, the racism that blacks experienced during Reconstruction and Jim Crow didn’t materialize out of nowhere – and it was different from that which existed during slavery. There was a root cause, and like many root causes, it was financial.

“The harmful effects of Reconstruction were more substantial, multiracial, and protracted than commonly understood, with poverty being among the most devastating,” Leigh writes.

Stereotypes play a role in how we see Reconstruction today: “Although Southern poverty and cotton culture is commonly associated with blacks, in 1940, whites made up two-thirds of the region’s farmers who either rented their lands or were sharecroppers,” Leigh writes. “According to a 1938 presidential economic report, about half of Southern white farmers were sharecroppers ‘living under economic conditions almost identical to those of Negro sharecroppers.’”

Unfortunately, post-Civil War Republicans were more interested in holding and building on political gains than actual advocating for black civil rights.

Even though blacks represented less than 2 percent of the population in the Northern states, compared to 40 percent in the Confederate states, most white Northerners wanted blacks concentrated in the South. Some white Northerners were concerned with increased competition for jobs if freed slaves moved North, while others likely were motivated by a dislike for people different from themselves, much as they disliked foreigners just off the boat from Europe or Asia.

Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon Chase, thought emancipation would motivate Northern blacks to move to the South. In 1862, when blacks comprised less than 1 percent of the Illinois population, the state’s soldiers voted 3 to 1 to deny the blacks the right to vote, and Massachusetts and Illinois each refused to resettle contrabands (slaves behind Union lines) in their states during the war, according to Leigh.

Reconstruction was probably doomed to failure given the corruption that took place immediately following the war. Budgets in Southern states mushroomed, even if residents rarely got anywhere near their money’s worth as politicos, some Northerners who’d moved South after the war and others opportunists from the region, lined their pockets in many states.

Once the states were “redeemed,” a term which meant that Democrats effectively ousted Republicans for control, often by dubious means, the first goal of the new administration was to reduce the cost of operating state government, Leigh said, adding that segregation and disfranchisement of blacks didn’t begin to pick up steam until Populists were elected in the 1890s.

Leigh writes that white Southerners resented the financial burden associated with educating ex-slaves. Given that abolition was a national policy, many felt that the federal government should at least partly assist with the effort. Southern states were already poor to begin with and ultimately slashed education spending for both races.

There was certainly unequal treatment before the law and a general animus toward blacks in the South, particularly in the late 19th century and early 20th century. But Leigh argues that efforts to raise the South were hindered by the economic serfdom it was held in by northeastern economic interests.

He cites as an example the artificially high costs imposed on Southern steel by Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, who created the U.S. Steel monopoly, recognized that the South, specifically the steel industry around the Birmingham, Ala., area, represented the biggest threat to his Pennsylvania operation.

By 1895, he had bought up the major Southern steel mills and imposed discriminatory pricing on Southern production.

“Thereafter,” Leigh writes, “steel from the company’s Alabama’s mills included an incremental markup … of $3 per ton over the Pittsburgh quote.” In addition, “buyers of Birmingham steel were required to pay freight from Birmingham plus a phantom charge as if the shipments originated in Pittsburgh.”

By the time the Federal Trade Commission got around to investigating the matter, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, it was discovered that Birmingham’s steel costs were the lowest in the country and 26 percent below those of Pittsburgh.

For 80 years, the South suffered from burdensome tariffs and monopolistic rate charges, costs that kept wages down, stymied progress and contributed greatly to the poverty that helped create dissention between races.

But Reconstruction and the decades that followed it remain little understood among much of the population. In secondary schools, if it’s taught at all, it’s narrowly defined as a period when Southern whites sought to not only disfranchise blacks, but essentially place them back in the fetters of slavery.

White Southerners weren’t blameless but there was plenty of criticism to be leveled at others, as well.

As our nation currently tangles with the ghosts of the past, perhaps we would do well to seek out the reasons why the South has struggled economically and educationally for much of the past 150 years.

The reason, as Phil Leigh demonstrates clearly in Southern Reconstruction, isn’t simply that Southern whites didn’t like Southern blacks. History is rarely that evident.

(Top: Sharecroppers pick cotton in Arkansas in 1938.)

Redefining the problem as a means of remaining viable

I pass the above billboard, paid for by the National Fair Housing Alliance, each day on my way to work. It brings a number of issues to mind.

(Begin disclaimer.) As a caveat to keep the easily offended from being seized with apoplexy, I understand discrimination still exists. It likely always will. This is not an attempt to diminish or disregard the impact of discrimination in housing. (End disclaimer.)

That said, the billboard is an appeal to emotion, and not a very good one at that.

The average 6-year-old boy’s “dream home,” at least from what I can recall, is a pillow fort made from couch cushions.

Any bank making a loan to a 6-year old would, of course, be hauled before regulators and hit with sanctions, unless the 6-year-old was a pop music wonderkid, ala Michael Jackson, 1965.

Finally, I know of very few recent instances of individuals or organizations discriminating against others when it comes to selling homes. It seems illogical to turn down someone else’s money when you’re trying to sell your home.

A glance at the website for National Fair Housing Alliance – a Washington, DC, operation which touts itself as “the only national organization dedicated solely to ending discrimination in housing” – shows very little actual activity in this area. And it’s safe to say that this organization, begun in 1988, would be promoting such cases in order to rationalize its existence. Under “enforcement” is the following:

That means over the past year, the only activities that this entity has seen fit to post to the “enforcement” section of its website are lawsuits that it has filed. No resolutions of cases. And filing a lawsuit hardly qualifies as “enforcement.”

If one looks at the NFHA’s “news & media” section, one finds press releases for the following:

There are also press releases announcing a settlement between Bank of America and the National Fair Housing Alliance Reach in a mortgage loan case, and the Supreme Court upholding the right of cities to sue banks whose practices harm the municipalities and their residents.

The last two have a direct tie to the NFHA’s mission; the first two seem a bit off the reservation for an organization dedicated to ending discrimination in housing.

Finally, consider this from the NFHA’s annual Fair Housing Trends Report, issued April 19, 2017, which documents “continued patterns of discrimination and segregation and highlighting fair housing trends in 2016.”

“We are one year away from commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act which was passed just seven days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April, 1968,” said Shanna Smith, president and CEO of NFHA. “Some advances have been made in opening up neighborhoods to everyone; however, people of color, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups continue to be unlawfully shut out of many neighborhoods that provide quality schools and health care, fresh food, employment opportunities, quality and affordable credit, small business investment, and other opportunities that affect life outcomes.”

Some advances? There were many, many neighborhoods from which minorities were excluded in 1968, either de jure or de facto, and there wasn’t a great deal they could do about it. Those that fought against such discrimination were often harassed, and those who dared move into white neighborhoods were many times treated extremely harshly, even violently. Those actions, as near as I can tell, are largely absent today.

Were such actions taking place, the media would highlight them in great detail.

If people of color, persons with disabilities and other marginalized groups are unlawfully shut out of neighborhoods today, there are remedies that authorities are more than willing to employ, and rightfully so.

If, however, groups such as the NFHA feel the need to downplay success in opening up housing opportunities for all so that they can continue to garner funding and have a viable reason to remain in operation, that doesn’t speak very highly about it as an organization.

Glimpses of universes where the sky is a very different color

My parents, both born in 1940 and having grown up in the California Bay Area, were in their mid-20s during the so-called countercultural revolution which occurred in Berkeley, San Francisco and other locales during the 1960s. As a not-too-astute teenager, I recall once asking my dad if he or my mom had ever taken part in any “hippie” activities. The response was short and swift: “Heck no; we had to earn a living.”

For most young Americans, the 1960s wasn’t about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, it was about working, getting an education and raising families. It’s only because the media has chosen to portray the period as one in which all young adults participated in the Summer of Love that the former image exists.

I reminded of this type of myopia when I come across odd concepts that seem to sweep academia and other insular professions with regularity. While the rest of the world goes about working and trying to make do, these sorts, who seem to have a good bit of time on their hands, are hell bent on stirring the pot in trying to convince outsiders that their eccentric ideas are cutting edge, rather than on the fringe.

Consider a recent post in the blog of the American Mathematical Society by Piper Harron, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Hawaii. Titled “Get Out of the Way,” the first three paragraphs read thus:

Not to alarm you, but I probably want you to quit your job, or at least take a demotion. Statistically speaking, you are probably taking up room that should go to someone else. If you are a white cis man (meaning you identify as male and you were assigned male at birth) you almost certainly should resign from your position of power. That’s right, please quit. Too difficult? Well, as a first step, at least get off your hiring committee, your curriculum committee, and make sure you’re replaced by a woman of color or trans person. Don’t have any in your department? HOW SHOCKING.

Remember that you live in a world where people don’t succeed in a vacuum; most success happens on the backs of others who did not consent. You have no idea how successful you would have been if you were still you, but with an additional marginalization (not white, or not male, or not cis gender, or with a disability, etc).

Right now, I want to talk about gender equality because the fact that women aren’t actually a demographic minority makes certain arguments easier, but please know that actual solutions require women of color and trans people. Remember having white cis women run the world is no kind of solution.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harron is a black female. What’s more unusual is that this appears on a blog for a math society, rather than one of academia’s more “activist” areas, such as gender studies, law or political science.

I can’t say whether Harron is a competent mathematician or a competent professor, but I do know that she would not be my first choice to teach my children were they to attend the University of Hawaii. I’m leery of those who wholeheartedly engage in identity politics.

Here’s another tempest that’s apparently been swirling about for the past year or two: the question among literary sorts whether they should take a year-long sabbatical from reading “white, straight, cisgender male authors.”

No, really.

The goal is to focus on “marginalized authors to support them and broaden readers’ horizons.”

Heina Dadabhob, in a 2015 story about the movement for The Daily Dot, was aghast to realize that she was “reading fewer than 50 percent non-male authors.”

“Despite being an outspoken feminist, I was not reading or supporting many female authors,” she wrote.

I confess to not understanding this line of thinking. It seems incredibly narrow-minded, not to mention condescending, particularly the part about the need to “broaden readers’ horizons.”

And is it not a method of banning books – if only for a year – of authors who do not fit certain racial and gender categories.

I don’t need holier-than-thou sorts to tell me of the pleasures of Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Annie Proulx, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Lise Funderburg, David Sedaris or Pearl Buck, all of whom I’ve read recently. I also am not going to listen to some busybody tell me that I shouldn’t pick up Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Henry James and James Fenimore Cooper, all of whom I’ve also enjoyed recently.

Anyone who chooses not to read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors is as foolish as someone who chooses to only read the works of white, straight, cisgender male authors.

Good literature is good literature, no matter who writes it.

Dadabhob finishes her piece in The Daily Dot with the following: “… almost everyone, regardless of gender or race, could stand to enjoy more literature from a broader range of authors.”

I would amend her statement to simply say that almost everyone, regardless of gender or race could stand to enjoy more literature – period.

(Top: the Bonfire of the Vanities, Feb. 7, 1497. Supporters of Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collect and burn thousands of objects, including art and books, in Florence, Italy.)

School board strikes a blow for the timid and fainthearted

Among memorable lines from the 1985 classic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one in which protagonist Pee-wee Herman tells admiring love interest Dottie that he doesn’t need anyone: “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Were that movie made today, it would seem likely that last word would have to be substituted, most likely with something bland and insipid, such as “nonconforming dissenter” or “quirky eccentric.”

The word rebel scares people.

Consider that the South Burlington (Vt.) School Board recently voted to drop the “Rebel” name at South Burlington High School for the coming school year. For more than 55 years South Burlington High School has used “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before. In its early years, the school had an old-style Confederate colonel mascot, but that was dropped decades ago.

Superintendent David Young told the school board in February that it had become “crystal clear” to him that the nickname “is interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included in our schools.”

No details were provided on how a word – one associated with individuals such as George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi – was “interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included … ”

According to an Associated Press story, the move to change the name came about because of a gradual shift in the largely white school, whose population is now nearly 20 percent nonwhite, said South Burlington High School Interim Principal Patrick Phillips. He said the nickname has created discomfort for some students.

I’m not aware of the racial makeup of South Burlington High, but according to the 2010 census, South Burlington itself was 90 percent white, 5.4 percent Asian, 1.9 black, 1.9 percent Hispanic. Two percent were classified as two or more races, and Native Americans, Pacific Islander and “other races” made up one-half of one percent or less of the town’s population.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that a significant percentage of non-white students haven’t moved into the school in recent years.

However, it seems somewhat condescending to assume that non-whites are automatically offended by the word “rebel.”

There had been a push to allow the community to vote on the mascot issue, but that was rejected by the school board.

South Burlington resident Sandy Dooley was among those opposed to a public vote.

“I think that every student, every child who participates in our education programs here in South Burlington has a right to be in an environment that in every respect supports his or her opportunity to take full advantage of what we’re offering here. And I think there’s ample evidence that the ‘Rebel’ identifier interferes with that,” she told the Associated Press.

Again, no evidence was provided on how the “rebel identifier” interferes with participation in education programs.

South Burlington students will vote today on three names to replace “rebels”: Huskies, Pride and Wolves. Inspiring. Jellyfish would seem more fitting, although it seems unfair to punish students for the sins of their lily-livered fathers, mothers and administrators.

No word on when the South Burlington School Board will take aim at striking Ethan Allen from its textbooks. After all, Vermont was founded by Allen and other “rebels” who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York.”

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

Others who could be in the South Burlington School Board’s crosshairs include the Founding Fathers, most certainly considered “rebels” by Great Britain; Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led a rebellion against colonial powers and helped Haiti to freedom in the early 19th century; Martin Luther, who rebelled against the Roman Catholic church and helped usher in the Protestant Reformation; Nelson Mandela, famed anti-apartheid activist; most any of the American Civil Rights leaders, who were considered rebels by Jim Crow advocates; and religious figures such as Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad.

Proof of Turkish complicity in Armenian genocide revealed

Genocide stains the annals of the 20th century like a macabre decoration – from the Holocaust to Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainians to Pol Pot’s killing fields to slaughter in Rwanda.

The first official genocide of the last century began with the organized killing of Armenians by the then Ottoman Empire in 1915, an event that claimed as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or about 75 percent of all Armenians in what is today Turkey.

The liquidation – carried out under the cover of World War I – was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied males through massacre and forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and the infirm on death marches to the Syrian desert in which victims were deprived of food and water, and subjected to robbery, rape and massacre.

Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman perpetrators, has long denied a state role in the killing of Armenians. Despite the testimony of thousands of Armenian survivors, it has resisted the word genocide, saying that the suffering of the Armenians occurred during the chaos of a world war in which Turkish Muslims faced hardship, too.

Turkey also claimed that the Armenians were traitors, and had been planning to join with Russia, then an enemy of the Ottoman Empire. That position is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture with a majority of Turks sharing the government’s position.

Recently, however, Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said he has discovered a “smoking gun” that implicates the Turks, an original telegram introduced as evidenced in the 1919-20 trials connected to the deaths of the Armenians, in an archive held by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, according to the New York Times.

Akcam, who has studied the genocide for decades by piecing together documents from around the world to establish state complicity in the killings, said he hoped the evidence would remove “the last brick in the denialist wall.”

“The story begins in 1915 in an office in the Turkish city of Erzurum, when a high-level official of the Ottoman Empire punched out a telegram in secret code to a colleague in the field, asking for details about the deportations and killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia, the easternmost part of contemporary Turkey,” according to the Times.

A deciphered copy of the telegram was used to help convict the official, Behaeddin Shakir, for planning the organized killing of Armenians in trials held shortly after the end of World War I.

Turkish officials attempted – successfully – to place blame during the trials on a small number of officials, rather than the deaths being correctly expressed as a statewide effort. Those found guilty were either in hiding or given light sentences.

Soon after the trial most of the original documents and sworn testimony disappeared, leaving researchers to rely mostly on summaries from the official Ottoman newspaper. Turkey has been able to deny the genocide partly because so many of the records of the court proceedings were destroyed or somehow vanished, leaving only historians’ accounts and journalists’ accounts, which could be dismissed as biased.

“What we were missing in Armenian genocide is the so-called smoking gun because all relevant documents were taken out from Ottoman archive or all these materials – telegrams, eyewitness accounts, they were all gone,” Akcam told National Public Radio. “We didn’t know whereabouts of all these documents. And mainly, the denial strategy was ‘show us the originals.’ So I discovered in a private archive this telegram.”

The telegram would likely have remained forever lost were it not for Akcam’s sleuthing.

As Turkish nationalists were about to seize the country in 1922, the Armenian leadership in Istanbul shipped 24 boxes of court records to England for safekeeping, according to the Times.

“The records were kept there by a bishop, then taken to France and, later, to Jerusalem. They have remained there since the 1930s, part of a huge archive that has mostly been inaccessible to scholars, for reasons that are not entirely clear,” the publication added. “Mr. Akcam said he had tried for years to gain access to the archive, with no luck.”

He did, though, find a photographic record of the Jerusalem archive in New York, held by the nephew of an Armenian monk, now dead, who was a survivor of the genocide.

“The telegram was written under Ottoman letterhead and coded in Arabic lettering; four-digit numbers denoted words. When Mr. Akcam compared it with the known Ottoman Interior Ministry codes from the time, found in an official archive in Istanbul, he found a match, raising the likelihood that many other telegrams used in the postwar trials could one day be verified in the same way,” the Times wrote.

For historians, the court cases were one piece of a mountain of evidence that emerged over the years – including reports in several languages from diplomats, missionaries and journalists who witnessed the events as they happened – that established the historical fact of the killings and qualified them as genocide.

While many countries, including France, Germany, Greece and the Vatican, have recognized what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the United States has refrained from using that term, not wishing to alienate Turkey, a NATO ally and a partner in its fight against terrorism in the Middle East.

Akcam told NPR that the Turkish government must now develop new strategies to deny the Armenian genocide.

“They cannot deny as they have been denying over the years,” he said. “It is over now. There is no way to escape. They have to face this reality. This is a telegram with an Ottoman letterhead and we with the Ottoman coding system.”

(Top: Armenian mother kneeling beside her dead child near Aleppo, Syria, one of many who died crossing the Syrian desert during the Armenian genocide.)