A Gentleman's Gentleman
Every now and then I stumble over a story that just sticks in between a few synapses somewhere and hides, resurfacing periodically so as to make sure I know its still there.
This is one of those stories.
I've mentioned in the last few articles that this is Confederate History Month. I think that each April, people with a passion for Southern History dive into stories that about the big names and perhaps their own ancestors that were involved in the bloody conflict that raged roughly between the Aprils of 1861 and 1865.
This is not one of those stories.
It involves some big names from that conflict. As far as Georgia is concerned, it involves two of the biggest names of the conflict. But the star of this story is more obscure. He's more than likely someone that you've never heard of.
And that's why I'm writing this.
Alexander H. Stephens and Joesph E. Brown had several things in common. Both served as Governor of Georgia, both served Georgia in Congress, both were lawyers, both had high-profile feuds with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, both were held as political prisoners at the end of the war and both were (at least temporarily) interred in Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery. They were also both attended to by a valet by the name of Alexander Kent.
Alexander Kent was born around 1850, most likely into slavery. The historical accounts about his life are sparse and hard to come by. But when getting a grasp of Georgia History, amongst the names like Stephens, Toombs, Cobb, Brown, Gordon and Colquitt you can sometimes find figures like Mr. Kent. These stories are important because a large percentage of the population was made up of obscure people who weren't elected to high office, didn't serve as military officers - people who shared last names, but not the same skin color as many of the movers and shakers of the era. Something tells me these people played a role that we don't read about and that the governors and generals may not have even noticed.
Take Mr. Kent. He is described as a "body servant" or a valet. It is easy to assume that this was just any servant's role and think of him as just a slave that got paid. But that is not what this job entailed. A valet in post-war times was a trained position. Such a man had to be knowledgeable in the customs and etiquette of the various settings of polite society. Serving a governor or congressman made it all the more important for this man to be on top of his game. A valet could select the right outfit for a dinner, know which set of cuff links, shirt studs, etc were appropriate and the way all these were properly worn as well as how to get their employer prepared and presentable, everything from dressing, shaving and details, for these events. And a valet, also known as "a gentleman's gentleman" had to be presentable for such functions himself because he usually attended them as well, to meet the needs of his gentleman or even to serve in the duties as a host to such events.
A valet was not merely a common servant.
As the valet to a congressman, Mr. Kent would have been highly visible in the halls of Washington D.C. As the attendant for two very outspoken politicians, he likely would have met many of the influential politicians of his day. He would have been privy to conversations of national importance on a regular basis. His duties would require him to spend considerable time with his employers in intimate settings such as bedchambers and private studies. During part of this service,Mr. Stephens was disabled due to a debilitating injury and Mr. Kent would have to help him accomplish even the most mundane tasks, in addition to his regular duties as a valet. I can only imagine what sorts of discussions we had or what topics were discussed. Someone trusted as much as a valet might even have some influence, conscious or otherwise, on thought patterns of such a man as he hashes out ideas and decisions in his mind. It is highly probable that the workings of government and the actions of politicians would have been known to him well before they became public knowledge.
Alexander Kent was able to amass quite an estate though his work. According to official records, Mr. Kent could read and write at a time when only 75% of white and 30% of black Georgians were literate. The will of Alexander Stephens included, "To my faithful servant, Alexander Kent, I give the sum of two hundred dollars for his kind attention to me." That was 1883. That sum would be over $4500 today. Mr. Kent's own will filed in 1903 left his entire estate, valued at about $4000 (over $105,000 today) to his sister, Dolly Auchman. The estate included a home on Rhodes St. in Atlanta that he owned free and clear.
The numbers, adjusted for inflation, are even more substantial in turn-of-the-20th-century Georgia. By any standards, Alexander Kent was a successful man. By the standard of his day he was an educated man. The shame is that by today's standards he's mostly a forgotten man.
I believe he is a man to be remembered for several reasons. I keep coming back to this man, as little as I do know about him. I think he's a picture of promise. His lot in life could have led him in other paths. He became successful at a time and in a place where failure was what society offered, even wanted for him.
In the era of the Black Codes and the infamous Jim Crow laws he was educated, employed and propertied. It's not to say that he was rich and powerful, but successful. Although I have no specific evidence to support my conclusion, I can only assume no one handed him this status. He had to make this happen, against the odds. Mr. Kent provides a role model for what's attainable.
Most of all, we have Mr. Kent the man. He himself, while witnessing the making of so much history, became a part of it. I'll continue to look for information on Mr. Kent. I don't expect to find much. Even an inquiry with A. H. Stephens State Historic Site turned up nothing. I would like to take the opportunity to thank Ms. Julia Ather for helping me find most of what I have listed here. Her memorial page for Mr. Kent can be found here: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=45079568
If anyone else finds anything about this man from Georgia History, please feel free to let me know.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire