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Barren County Biography

Steve Landrum, My Client

 

Source: Glasgow (KY) Republican, 26 Dec 1940 and quoted by Michelle Gorin Burris in Barren’s Black Roots, Volume 2, (c) August 1992. By permission. Sandi Gorin, Gorin Genealogical Publishing

 

“Old Glasgowians will appreciate the following article concerning one of Glasgow’s familiar old figures, the late Steve Landrum, who has passed to his reward. The article was written by Hon. E. H. Smith, local attorney, editor of the Kentucky Bar Journal and appeared in the current issue of that publication.

 

“For twenty years, Stephen Landrum was my client, and in all that time I never addressed him other than “Uncle Steve”. He could neither read nor write, and he kept no books. He could add and subtract and multiply, but not on paper with pencil. He did it all mentally. He was politeness itself, and he never came into my office except with his hat in hand, and he never addressed a white man without preceding the name with “Mister.” He never had a lawsuit, and often I have known him to surrender his rights to avoid a lawsuit. He had an ever present fear of litigation. He was extremely cautious and took every precaution to make sure that his trades were exactly understood. He trusted few people and had little faith in banks. This old colored man was worth a hundred thousand dollars, every cent of which he made. He did not now his age, but he must have been born of slave parents, if indeed he was not himself a slave. He was a benefactor of his race and very charitably inclined, but he would not loan money.

 

“I do not know that “Uncle Steve” had any rule by which he governed his life. If he did have, I am sure that he did not recognize it as such. He was full of eccentricities. Perhaps I can best let the reader know him as I knew him by reciting some of the incidents that came up in my practice for him.

 

“His wealth was almost all invested in real estate and his income was about five hundred dollars per month. Each year, after we had an income tax law, I made out his return for him. He would come to my office without a single written memorandum. I would procure an income tax blank, and our conversation would run something like this:

 

“Uncle Steve, how much did you collect for rent last year?” Then without the slightest hesitation, he would reply: “Five thousand eight hundred and ninety-six dollars and twenty-five cents.” “Did you make any repairs?” “Yes, sir, spent three hundred and forty-four dollars for repairs.”

 

“And, so it would go through each questions contained on the income tax blank, and before I could calculate the net income and the tax thereon, knew what it was. I have never known another man, white or black, who could keep his business in his mind like that.

 

“He came into my office one morning with a letter he had received for me to read it to him. I read it. It was from a niece, and just a friendly letter of family affairs. Incidentally his niece said in the letter that her children all had colds and the reason for this was that the roof leaked, and the floor of the house had holes in it, and she had been unable to get her landlord to make repairs. After I had concluded reading the letter, “Uncle Steve” thought for a moment, then said, “Could you go to Louisville for me?” I told him that of course I could go if he wanted me to. He then told me to go up there and buy her a house. I asked what kind of a house and what I should pay. He then said for me to be sure I got my money’s worth, and to pay, two, three or even five thousand dollars for the house. I paid $3,000 for a house for her. It was deeded to his niece, and “Uncle Steve” never saw that house. I remember that the house was on Zane Street, and I suspect his niece is living in it yet.

 

“He sold a business house in Glasgow for nine thousand dollars and demanded and got the money in cash. He brought this cash to my office and he and I divided it among his relatives, with instructions that each should buy himself a house.

 

“One time I helped him in his negotiations to purchase a house in Glasgow for which he was to pay forty-five hundred dollars. The deed was drawn and ready for delivery and it was time for “Uncle Steve” to pay. “Just wait a little while, and I’ll be back.”  He was gone some fifteen or twenty minutes, and when he returned he had exactly forty-five hundred dollars in a little split-bark basket with a napkin over the money. There was nothing larger than a ten dollar bill in the basket and there were many ones and several double hands full of silver.

 

“He came to my office once with the request that I go to the Court House with him. He was dressed in a pair of jean pants, a hickory shirt and a coat that as almost too ragged to wear. I did not inquire as to why he needed me but went. I learned that he was about to purchase some real estate from a fellow lawyer, for fifteen hundred dollars, and had agreed to meet him in the vault of the Clerk’s office to accept the deed and pay for it. “Uncle Steve” commenced to go through his pockets and the largest bank note he had was for five dollars. The denominations ranged from this on down to a dime. He brought forth fifteen hundred dollars from the many folds of his clothes. I stacked it into fifteen piles of one hundred dollars each, and then shoved it across the table to the vendor, who delivered the deed. “Uncle Steve” and I then left. It was not long before the vendor came to my office saying, “That old n___ has gyped me out of a hundred dollars." I asked how, and he then said, “Here is the money, and there is only fourteen hundred dollars. Then it occurred to me why “Uncle Steve” had wanted me to go along with him. If “Uncle Steve” had been there alone, it would have cost him just one hundred dollars. Incidentally, the vendor found his hundred dollars in one dollar bills on the floor of the vault where he had dropped it.

 

“One of the best citizens who knew of “Uncle Steve’s” wealth said one day, “Steve, why don’t you bank you a fine home and buy a good automobile and live comfortably for the balance of your days?” “Uncle Steve” in his polite, gentle way, replied, “Mr. Dickey, If I should do that, these n___s around her would say I was uppity and would associate with me, and the white folks ain’t going to associate with me anyway, and you know, Mr. Dickey, I just have to have somebody to associate with.”

 

“Uncle Steve” had a custom of calling on his tenants on Sunday forenoon. He carried an unpolished and unornamental walking cane. With this cane he would rap on the front door. The tenants knew that walking stick rap, and would meet him with the week’s rent in their hand. And, woe betide the luckless renter, who didn’t have it. He carried the cane only on Sunday morning.

 

“A revenue agent called on “Uncle Steve” once and claimed that there was forty dollars more due him in taxes. “Uncle Steve” did not think he owed this, and upon examination of the matter, I came to the conclusion that he did not owe it. I advised him that he could defeat the agent’s claim, but it would take a lawsuit to do it. “Uncle Steve” thought the matter over for a moment and then said, “Better pay him. I don’t want no lawsuit.” This always was his attitude, to let himself be misused rather than to get involved in any sort of litigation, even when he knew he was right.

 

“I have seen “Uncle Steve” take money to the bank in a half gallon tin bucket, and the money would literally be so old, worn, and dirty, that the bank would at once forward it to Washington for redemption. Before he died, he had given every relative he had a home. He bought the land at his own expense, built a very nice two-story school for the use of his people. In his will he provided for his estate to help in the support of a colored normal school, that was being privately operated with the aid of voluntary donations.

 

“Once he came to my office to get me to make a trip to Ohio to help some of his folks out of trouble. I figured the railroad fare, hotel and Pullman cost, and told him the trip would cost about a hundred dollars. He said that was all right and went out. After awhile he returned and handed me some bills. These I counted and found he had given me one hundred and fifty dollars. I told him that he had given me too much and he said, “That’s all right. When you travel for me, I want you to travel right.”

 

“I wrote my old friend’s will several years before his death. I charged him twenty-five dollars for this service, and he paid me two hundred and fifty dimes. After the will was written, whenever he either sold or bought any property, he promptly added a codicil, and at the time of his death, his will was right up to date. He made two provisions in his will that are unusual but were characteristic of him. One was, that if any legatee questioned his will or south to have it set aside, that his executors should pay that legatee nothing at all, and the estate legatees not protesting. The other was, that no unnecessary expense be permitted at his funeral. When I learned of my old friend’s death, at once I informed them of the provision for a modest funeral, but already they had purchased and placed his body in a twelve hundred dollar casket, so we let it go at that. “Uncle Steve” no more wanted to be buried in an expensive casket than he wanted to live in a fine home.”

 

PHOTO: "Traces", the publication of the South Central Kentucky Historical and Genealogical Society, Sandi Gorin, Editor. Volume 31, Issue No 1, Spring 2003. Cover