By LEON ALLIGOOD Staff Writer
GALLATIN — The birthday greetings piled up in a woven basket in her living room even as the Christmas cards were still arriving.
”Coming from everywhere,” exclaimed Lillie Harding Vertrees Odom, who turned 90 yesterday.
Inside the cards were handwritten notes of congratulations from women, most of whom she has never met, nor will, and, frequently, they included a dollar bill or a small check.
The well-wishers and Odom have a common union. They are members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization composed of women who can trace their family tree to an ancestor who served in the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
But in Odom’s case, she is held in highest esteem because she is a living, or ”real,” daughter of the Confederacy, one of only a handful still alive in Tennessee. Her father, Peter Vertrees, served with the 6th Kentucky Infantry from 1861 to 1865, where he witnessed the ravages of war at Shiloh and Vicksburg, among other engagements.
But there’s something else that separates the new nonagenarian from those sending birthday wishes.
Lillie Harding Vertrees Odom is black.
To be precise, her heritage is mixed. Her late father, a Baptist pastor who started nine churches and was a pioneer educator in Sumner County, was born in December 1840, the progeny of a black man and a white woman. Odom’s mother was black.
Not that labels based on the color of one’s skin matter to Odom, a retired hairdresser whose rambunctious cackle fills the room of the yellow house on Bledsoe Street where she was born and raised and married and nurtured a son.
”Color is only what’s on the outside,” she said, her head tilted back in contemplation, the long fingers of her left hand raised to her chin.
Yet, her UDC membership, which she sought two years ago, has led her to ponder yet again the words that have shadowed her family all these many years: race, color, white, black, mixed, mulatto.
These pigeonholing words mean so much to the rest of the world but are meaningless to her. She is the color human.
”I am what I am. My people are who they are,” she said. In the mid-19th century, when slavery was common across the South, the Vertrees, her father’s family, were indeed a rarity.
Odom’s father, Peter Vertrees, was born of a union between a white teenager named Mary Elizabeth ”Polly” Skaggs and a mixed-race Baptist minister named Booker Harding.
When Peter Vertrees was 5, his mother went to the local courthouse in Edmonson County, Ky., and indentured, or apprenticed, her illegitimate son to a white farmer named Jacob Vertrees.
At the time, the Commonwealth of Kentucky required that children of mixed race be given up for placement in a foster home when they reached the age of 5. In those days that probably would have meant the boy would have been raised as a slave.
However, Jacob Vertrees had special reason to accept the boy into his family. Booker Harding was his son, and young Peter his grandson.
”Now, you got that all straight?” Odom asked, her eyebrows arching high, twin dark scratches against her caramel-colored skin. She laughed loudly, her eyes closing as she threw back her head in glee.
”Don’t worry, honey, it is confusing. It was highly unusual,” she said. Odom would use those two words, ”highly unusual,” several times while telling her family history.
”It’s a fascinating story. There are not many like it,” said Kenneth C. Thomson Jr., a white Cross Plains man who is distantly related to the black Vertrees family. He has spent many years tracking down the missing links to the story that he had heard most of his life.
Thomson recalled finding Peter Vertrees’ indenture notice, recorded in the clerk’s office in Edmonson County, Ky.
”It was purely by accident that I found it. It wasn’t indexed. I about had a heart attack. I had no idea I would find that,” Thomson said.
Shortly before his death in 1926, Peter Vertrees made a handwritten account of his own life, of which only a few copies were made. It also corroborated much of the family anecdotes that had been passed down.
The white Vertrees family ”treated my father like what he was, a member of the family,” Odom said. ”They didn’t show any difference.”
Peter Vertrees credited the spiritual influence of his adopted grandmother, Catherine Vertrees, with leading him to preach the gospel. In his autobiography he called her ”my best earthly friend.”
Even after Jacob and Catherine were dead, the white children of the Vertrees family continued to associate with Peter and, later, his growing family. At the conclusion of the Civil War, Peter Vertrees returned from Georgia, where he had been dismissed, and rode a train to Nashville.
From there he headed for Gallatin, where an uncle had settled, and lived there for the remainder of his life. He died in 1926.
”The white Vertrees never tried to hide my father and who he was, and we didn’t hide who we were. We were all tied by something that happened before we were born and nobody could change it, so why hide it?” she said. Her statement was more declarative than interrogative.
Some of her African-American friends have questioned why she would want to join the UDC and associate herself with a time when most blacks were chattel, without rights.
For Odom, the issue is not, well, black and white.
To this 90-year-old woman it’s about relationships, with blacks, whites, ”all colors.” It’s about love. ”I was raised to care about others whether they were black or white. That’s not happening now. Folks don’t realize you’ve got to have love in your heart. You’ve got to have it if you want to be happy in the end. I don’t want to sit with the devil,” she said, her voice raising, hinting she, too, might have taken up preaching if she’d gotten the calling.
Bottom line: Her UDC contacts have filled a void created when the widow lost her last sibling, a sister, three years ago. If anybody doesn’t approve, that’s too bad.
”You know, I am most grateful for the relationships. I’m the last of my immediate family, and those people have filled the gap in my life because I had no one close.
”Don’t get me wrong, I have friends here, but these folks are more like sisters, every one. They’ll walk up and hug and kiss me, and that tickles me, too,” she said, a smile spreading wide across her face, followed by her high-pitched laugh.
”My family are who they are,” she reiterated. ”Highly unusual.”
Peter Vertrees served with uncle in the Civil War
In October 1861, two months shy of his 21st birthday, Peter Vertrees followed his white uncle, Dr. John Luther Vertrees, in joining the Confederate Army at Bowling Green, Ky.
Dr. Vertrees was an assistant surgeon of the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment.
The unit later became part of the legendary ”Orphan Brigade,” which fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and the Atlanta campaign.
Peter Vertrees’ assignment was to be his uncle’s cook and bodyguard.
Although he was never on the front line, he suffered the same feelings of homesickness and personal discomfort that all soldiers experience.
In his handwritten autobiography, written several years before he died in 1926, he recalled: ”Sometimes I was hungry, sometimes cold, sometimes drenched with rain, sometimes tired and footsore from walking, but I stayed at my post until the end.”
Although his white foster grandmother, Catherine Vertrees, had warned him against ”the outside world, its attractions and allurements,” he acknowledged that he fell under the influence of ungodly men while in the Army.
”I learned to attend balls and drink and curse and gamble,” he wrote.
At a dance in Georgia one night, Peter Vertrees related that he heard the chastening voice of Catherine and he rushed from the barn, vowing never to dance again and pledging to the Almighty to become a preacher of the Gospel.
Later he learned that Catherine Vertrees had passed away in Kentucky.
The war changed him, he said.
”Those days of conflict made a very great change in me. … The many, many things which I learned in the service helped me in the after years to know how to deport myself and bring credit to myself and those with whom I am cast.”
He added: ”Never can I forget Shiloh and Vicksburg.”
— Leon Alligood
There are only five Living Daughters, women whose fathers fought for the South, still alive in the state, according to the Tennessee Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
In addition to Lillie Odom, they are:
• Alice Gee Creswell of Covington
• Corinne Davenport of Nashville
• Marion Estes Cothran of Columbia
• Daisy Knight of Murfreesboro.
The UDC has about 1,200 members statewide.
© Copyright 2005 The Tennessean