Dayton: A new statue and an answer to a challenge.

[June Griffin] wants to debate Darrow supporters publicly, face to face, she said.

“No lawyers,” she said, “only personal confrontation. Engage them in the debate right there.”

Chattanooga Times Free Press

Yes, I will debate you, June Griffin. Though face to face may be hard to arrange, I’ll lay out my point here.

First, an explanation, because we’re dealing with frequently misunderstood history.

The trial of John Scopes

June Griffin is an opponent of a privately funded statue of Clarence Darrow being put up in front of the old Rhea County Courthouse. She opposes it because, in her view,  and the views of others, it promotes secularism.

Darrow’s connection to Dayton comes from a near century old event.

The town of Dayton put its high-school football coach and science teacher on trial in 1925, attracting the big name lawyers Clarence Darrow for the defense and former presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution.  The crime? Teaching that humans evolved from “lower” animals. It was against the law at the time, but no one had enforced it before then. Or after.

I say, “put on trial” because “arrested,” while technically right, would give the wrong idea. In my experience, people in small Tennessee towns would never so much as sneeze in front of their football coach, let alone put him in jail. Scopes was no exception.

A group of businessmen and notable locals, including  the awesomely named Dayton Coal and Iron president George Washington Rappleyea discussed an ad from the ACLU offering to serve for the defense of anyone tried under the law over sodas at a drug store, because that was how small-town people did things in the 1920s. Along with wearing silly straw hats all the time.

Scopes and Rappleyea
Photo from Smithsonian Institution. Scopes, left and Rappleyea, right,  looking like they were on their way to a Harry Potter convention.

The mining industry, which founded the town in the first place, was failing at the time, having had much bad luck including deadly explosions, the worst killing 29 people. But now they could get the town on the map for something bigger: hosting the trial of the century.

Some of the businessmen supported the law, some of them opposed it like Rappleyea who said he wanted it to go on trial in order to be repealed, but they mostly just wanted attention for their town.

So, a boy ran over and found their man, out playing tennis. He came into the drugstore chatted with the folks there, and while it wasn’t clear whether he’d ever taught much about evolution, it was in the textbook the school assigned. The drugstore sold it, so they could easily check. To be fair, schools didn’t have many creationist textbooks to choose from back then. Anyway, Scopes never spent a single day in jail and never even testified in a trial that became more about Bryan and Darrow debating each other. That debate and evolution vs. creationism overshadowed all of Dayton’s previous history, including union strikes, the mine explosions, a company president’s suicide and its also awesomely named British founder, Titus Salt Jr.

The trial led to the founding of Bryan College, named for William Jennings Bryan, in Dayton. So, naturally, Dayton’s old courthouse had a statue, not of Scopes, Rappleyea, the copperhead who bit Rappleyea and forced him to stay in Dayton (leading to the trial), or Titus Salt Jr. but of Bryan, just by himself. Then, this year, they’ve added a statue of Darrow.

Scopes, 24 years old at the time, agreed to go on trial because his father said it was a good idea. I can relate. At about the same age, my own father, coincidentally a strong believer in evolution like Scopes’, convinced me to stay in Tennessee and work with him on a book.

My book, a collaboration with my father, called “Wildly Strolling Along” is about hiking, nature and history along the Cumberland Trail. A side branch of that trail goes past some ruins which include a mine ruin connected to the company that would become Rappleyea’s. I mistakenly identified as a coke oven for processing coal in my book. But I still stand by most of what I said about Dayton’s mining industry, unless anyone else has any corrections. Please send them to if you do.

The museum and why the statue fits

Because that history peaked with the Scopes Trial, it led to me visiting the museum at the courthouse back when it had just one statue of Bryan as I mention in the book. I was impressed by the fact that the museum, while focusing on the trial, had displays portraying creationism and evolution accurately and a great timeline of mining company history, to which I owe a chapter of my book.

The museum already had Darrow’s straw boater hat (yup, another one) so it wasn’t like it ignored him. The courthouse is known for its accurate reenactment of the trial based on transcripts, which serves as a correction to the fictional and never-intended-to-portray-reality play and movie “Inherit the Wind” which has shaped far too many people’s perceptions.

While Griffin’s statements as reported in the media have been provocative and sensationalist, a good statement of her side’s views can be found here by someone who spoke at Griffin’s rally. Note that he never mentions the real background of the trial (coal mining and a struggling town economy) focusing on the “clash of ideas.”

While I do believe in evolution and have endorsed it in my book, I also admire Bryan, and many of his positions were ahead of their time. Neither of those opinions, however, really matter here.

The structure is a museum. It’s meant to tell people an unbiased truth about what happened, which is what it does so well. Having both lawyers in front lends credibility.

People from both sides of the debate can come there and learn accurately what happened after admiring the representatives of the different sides. Darrow’s statue is in keeping with the spirit of the museum as it was when I was there and the spirit of its general mission. That, to me is more valuable than endorsing either side of the debate: endorsing learning.

So, yes, I welcome the new statue, even as I wish there might have been more information about the coal company history. I support a place where people of different views can come together. To me, that’s the real issue here. That and promoting my own book. Because after all, what could be more in keeping with the original trial than shameless promotion?



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