Personal Sketch of
A. B. Amis, Sr.

A.B. Amis, III
6 December 2000

A B Amis, Sr.Dr. Luke Wright has asked me to write up a personal sketch about my Grandfather, and his Great-grandfather, A.B. Amis, Sr. I undertake the task cheerfully: I enjoy writing, as Grandpa did also, and I would hope to afford succeeding generations a bit of insight into this brilliant and strongly-motivated man, whose smart and self confident Amis genes they still carry.

Certainly there are other of my cousins still living who would have been better able to write from their own personal recollections of Grandpa -- cousins who spent most of their youth on "Grandpa's block" in Meridian and grew up seeing him daily and calling him "Mawka". He was never "Mawka" to me, so I'll be writing primarily about things I've heard and read about Grandpa. But because I'm his namesake, perhaps I've been a more careful collector and saver of things written about Grandpa.

Amis HouseAt one time during the 1930s Grandpa had populated a full city block running from 12th to 13th Streets and from 38th to 39th Avenues atop one of Meridian's higher hills, only a few blocks from Highland Park. I don't know exactly when Grandpa bought this property or started building on it, but I expect it was soon after he came to Meridian in early 1893 as a newly graduated and newly married 25-year-old lawyer just starting his practice. I've always had the impression that my Father and most of his brothers and sisters were born and raised in the large two-story house that still stands on that lot now, more than a hundred years later. Grandpa presumably had that house built, and probably expanded later to accommodate a growing family, as permitted by a successful law practice. Upstairs rooms later became "apartments" which were way stations where my Father and many of his siblings spent the early months or years of their marriages. Grandpa probably made the offer, and people generally didnt argue with Grandpa. Then later he presumably offered lots on his block to his three daughters, and they all dutifully built homes adjacent to his. The other two building lots on his block were occupied by homes owned by two of Grandpa's cousins -- one of whom became a caretaker and housekeeper for him in his last years.

I grew up seeing Grandpa somewhere between weekly and monthly, when Daddy would drive us the 30 miles from Newton to Meridian for Sunday afternoon visits -- a practice that continued until Grandpa died in 1949. Up until the time of Mammy's death in 1942, the whole Amis clan was expected to gather around her large dining table on special occasions like Thanksgiving or Christmas; then Grandpa would offer the simple "Amis blessing" (the one I still use and have passed on down to my children), make a ceremony of carving the turkey, and finally inquire about the "sweet by and by" (dessert) after the main courses were all completed. While others might opt for the ambrosia or ice cream, Grandpa usually seemed satisfied to just spread a generous layer of butter on a large slab of the delicious yellow pound cake Mammy always included in her dessert offerings. Apart from these ceremonial gatherings and Sunday visits, I've been told the story that I spent several days in quarantine with Grandpa once when both of us must have had something contagious like mumps or measles. Whatever it was, we needed to be kept away from bright light, so we stayed in Grandpa's dark bedroom, where I taught him to play a child's card game -- the only card game he ever learned, because he wasn't one to waste time in play.

Brilliant, yes; energetic, yes; motivated, yes; witty, enough; playful, no. My Father used to opine that Grandpas one shortcoming was that hed never learned to play. I expect Grandpa disdained adult play as a waste of time somewhat in the same category as politicking and much of purely social interaction. Even at the ceremonial family gatherings, the men would retire to the sitting room or porch, to be joined later by the ladies after the dishes had been cleared and the children attended to, and Grandpa would lead the conversation around to important issues of the day rather than personal talk about the children or family happenings. When my mother first came into the family, she said she felt very much intimidated by all the smart people and bright conversation, and confided this concern to one of the sisters, who advised her Just dont say anything and theyll think youre smart too. Grandpas preoccupation with productive, rather than time wasting, activities no doubt set him apart from most people and likely came across as aloofness and a lack of warmth. In a 1938 newspaper editorial endorsing Grandpas successful candidacy for a third four-year term as Chancellor, the editor had this to say:

God blessed this man with rare intelligence and a full understanding of the Law, and had the Maker of men given him the ability to acquire friends easily and a more full use of the tongue, he might have been one of the nations contemporary greats.

It was this man who fashioned the first commission form of government for municipalities in Mississippi. It was this man who dreamed once of a great and beautiful city administration building, and we know it now as the most attractive structure of its kind in the commonwealth. It was this man who made our present Mattie Hersee hospital a possibility. As he designed our city hall, so is his influence seen in the architectural plans of this medical institution.

In a paid advertisement in that same newspaper issue, Grandpa, himself, had this to say:

I was reared in Newton County.[1] Forty-five years ago I moved to Lauderdale County where I have lived ever since. During all those years I have been a part of the community life of the County. As a man, a lawyer and a judge I have walked among you and dealt with you. I have tried, as best I could, to live the life of an honest, sober, and industrious man and useful citizen. How well I have succeeded I leave to your judgment.

I know nothing of the arts or guile of the politician. All I know in that regard, is hard work and honest, faithful service. I am deeply grateful for the honor of serving you in the past and in return I have given to your service all the mental, moral and physical powers I possess. I desire the honor of serving you another term, and to that end respectfully solicit your votes.

In those 45 years referred to by Grandpa, he had raised a family (and meddled, benevolently by his reckoning, in their affairs), established a successful law practice, served as Meridian City Attorney for 19 years and Chancellor for 8 years, and participated in various civic organizations and causes where he felt he might contribute productively. Grandpa was supremely confident -- when he saw something that he thought needed doing, he undertook to get it done. When he saw something that he thought needed fixing, he undertook to fix it with never a doubt that he could, indeed, fix it: he would simply read everything he could about it, think hard about it, and then write down instructions for others how it should be fixed.

As Chancellor, Grandpa heard civil cases involving all manner of disputes relating to property, debts, damages, etc., but certainly his greatest expertise and contributions were in matters of divorce, probate, and guardianship. One of his early acts after taking the bench as Chancellor in 1930 was to write, publish, and distribute at his own expense three thousand copies of a pamphlet on the "Duties of Executors, Administrators, and Guardians." Quoting from a letter written some years later by an associate who had practiced law in his Court:

When he took office, he found the probate business of his district in a sad and derelict condition. Chancellor Amis went diligently to work to straighten out his probate dockets, to restore the estates to solvency where possible and to pursue the wasters and looters wherever practicable throughout the district.

His bar had so long neglected efficiency in this branch of their work that to aid them and himself in his efforts, he wrote and had printed at his own expense a paper bound booklet on probate practice which he distributed to the lawyers of his district.

I doubt that Chancellor Amis had any statute of another state which he followed. He didn't need any to show him the way or how to proceed. He was a statesman judge, with a creative and searching mind and he had the patriotic willingness to labor to correct such evils as these statutes and others he drew were designed to eradicate."

Grandpa then turned his attention to bank failures, which had become commonplace during the great Depression of the 1930s. Perceiving that there was nothing to guide lawyers in liquidating the failed banks and administering the assets, he again made a study of the banking system, thought hard about it, and then wrote and distributed to the lawyers of his district an outline of procedures to be followed.

In 1935 Grandpa published what he described as "A Brief on the Law of Divorce and Separation in Mississippi". This 500 page "brief" served as the preeminent reference on divorce in Mississippi for lawyers and professors for decades following its issue. In his "Foreword" to this book, he says:

"GENTLEMEN OF THE BAR: This book is a brief in fact as well as in form. The only excuse for its preparation and publication, if any be required, is that I felt that something of the sort was needed; and since no abler man, of whom there are many, would undertake the task, I assumed to do it. ...

... The brief was prepared in a sort of desultory manner, at times when I was not engaged in the discharge of my official duties. For that reason, as will be observed, there is more or less repetition in it, a fact of which I am fully conscious. But if that be considered a literary sin, my defense is, that law like religion cannot be learned in a moment, but must be conned by littles, precept upon precept, rule upon rule, line upon line, here a little and there a little, over and over, until it becomes an integral part of the mental and moral nature. And besides that the various subjects are often so blended that it is difficult to trace the line of demarcation between them. However well or ill the task may have been performed, it has been a pleasant and profitable one to me, in that it has greatly increased my own knowledge of a subject matter, concerning which my ideas had previously been very hazy and uncertain."

During this same productive period, the mid-1930s, Grandpa also researched and recorded quite a lot of material on his own and Mammys ancestries. In some preface material he cautions that some of the names and dates could be wrong, and then goes on to say, However, I can make the same plea the old fiddler did, who put up a sign in the ballroom, Dont shoot the fiddler, hes doing his best. It was Grandpas intention to publish these genealogical data also, but in his words "... The publication was delayed because it seemed that I could not well spare the money to have it done. So I kept waiting until I felt I could spare it, but financial matters do not get any better so I am making a number of typewritten copies of it for those who may be interested."

I believe Ive read that Grandpa had sandy brown or reddish hair as a young man, but by the time I have any recollection of him he was already in his mid-sixties or beyond, and projected a very distinguished appearance in his customary attire of a suit, with a black string bow tie and black high top shoes setting off his silver hair. Before stepping outside the house hed take a hat from a hat rack and select a walking stick from a china urn, both just inside the front door. A medium size man in height and weight, he usually smelled of cedar, for it was his habit to carry a small knife with a keen blade and a stick of red cedar, and while taking testimony in court or even just conversing, hed whittle small curly shavings from the stick. He explained that this helped him focus on what was being said rather than being distracted by other things going on around him. Grandpa never learned to drive as far as I know, and relied on trains or else getting a ride with his long time court reporter for travel to the various county seats in his district for terms of court.

Grandpa was 75 when he voluntarily stepped down from the bench in 1942 after three terms as Chancellor, and he received many public accolades for his distinguished service. While still sound of mind and body, age had nevertheless begun to take a toll on Grandpa particularly a facial skin cancer condition for which he finally resorted to surgery in the late 1930s or early 1940s. My Father accompanied Grandpa to St. Louis for the surgery, and then Grandpa remained there at the Biltmore Hotel for several weeks afterwards, recuperating. In a letter to Mammy he wrote:

As you know I dreaded the trip and its possible results more than anything in recent years. Yet it has not been unpleasant. Everyone has been uniformly kind to me and I have made a number of pleasing acquaintances. And the numerous letters I have received show me that I have many friends who love me with genuine affection. That has been a source of much joy. I am keeping them for you to read. But the greatest thing is the burden of apprehension that the doctor has removed by his assurances that I need not have any further fear of cancer. The spectre that I would have my face eaten off by a slow cancer and thus become an object of pity and disgust to all with whom I might come in contact was almost more than I could stand. The doctor assures me that will not happen. He also says my eye will close naturally. But even if it does not I am content to escape what I feared so much a cancer. I have been fighting it 20 years and I pray God that it does not recur. If it does not, I feel that I will live and work at least 10 years more. For I feel fine every other way and life seems good and sweet, among those whom I love and who love me of whom you, my dear, are the most beloved.

Grandpa probably figured right about living for another 10 years, but after stepping down from the bench and then Mammy slipping away in her sleep just months later, the two things that had made life most worthwhile for him were now ended. A place was made for Grandpa in a son-in-laws law firm, and he practiced a little law and agitated a little in the local city courts about issues that attracted his interest like lax and unequal enforcement of prohibition statutes, but in truth he was now redundant and he realized it. He continued to go to the office every day and became a figure recognized by the townspeople as he charged across the busiest intersections in the heart of Meridian, against traffic, with his cane raised in the air commanding everyone to make way for him to cross.

Grandpa knew his Bible and could quote Scriptures in support of any lesson he was trying to illustrate relating to how men should conduct themselves. But he wasnt a Bible thumper. Much of his faith was in himself, I think, and he probably had less need of Biblical interpretations of God than most. He revered the Word, but wasnt beyond making light of some of its institutions sometimes out of fear of being instantly struck down by a thunderbolt. In writing of a despised old Yankee school teacher named Rhodes who had mistreated him badly in his first years of school right after the end of the Civil War, he said:

And that old scoundrel whipped each one of us nearly every time we said a lesson, or rather tried to say it, for we were so scared of him we couldnt say what little we did know. And then to add insult to injury, he often kept us, six and seven year old boys, in after school until sundown, and we had to walk home, two or three miles, after dark. I believe he just hated every white skin in the south and tried to take it out on us children. When I get up before the bar of Judgment, if old Saint Peter asks me whether I have any hatred in my heart, I am going to inquire where old Rhodes is, and if I find out he is where I think he ought to be, then I will forgive him; but if he is inside the pearly gates, dressed up in a halo and a pair of wings, playing Yankee Doodle on a jews-harp, I dont believe I would enjoy going to Heaven.

Notes

[1] A. B. Amis, Sr., was born on February 7, 1867, in the Greenfield community along the Newton County-Scott County line, the first of four children born to Albert Gallatin Amis and Mary Augusta Petty Amis. Before he moved to Meridian, he married in 1893 to Mary Salome Langford, daughter of Dr. Thomas Davis Langford and Mary Frances Wilson Langford of Conehatta.

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