Linda Kenney Miller: Strong Family Ties

Linda Kenney Miller: Strong Family Ties

“Everyone has a story inside of them.”

Linda Kenney Miller’s family history is filled with 20th-century innovators and disruptors. Through her stories, she hopes to lift up and inspire current and future generations. Her book, Beacon on the Hill, tells the story of her grandfather, John A. Kenney, M.D., a black physician who had a tremendous influence on opening the gates for African Americans in the medical profession. The Kenney family’s success negates any harmful stereotypes used to make African Americans feel less than. They are the embodiment of excellence.

Linda grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, during the civil rights era. “Tuskegee was an alternate reality to the pervasiveness of the segregation around us,” she says. “It was like a little utopia in the middle of the chaos of Alabama.” There were two sides of Tuskegee, Alabama: The black side called “Tuskegee Institute” and the white side, simply called, “Tuskegee.”

1912 Postcard

According to Linda, they had all the tools needed to be a “separate, successful, independent and functioning society.” Plumbers, electricians, and painters lived on the same street as doctors, lawyers and composers. They all worked together to make great contributions in their community. Linda admits she took for granted the array of talent in her small community. On her way to school, she would see the famous composer, William Dawson, and the “Father of Black Aviation,” Chief Anderson, who once took Eleanor Roosevelt for a ride in the sky to prove blacks were just as capable of flying a plane as their white counterparts.

But things were different once leaving the racial haven of Tuskegee Institute and the community immediately surrounding it. Segregation was very real in the South. We’ve all seen the pictures—”white-only” or “colored-only” signs above water fountains, restrooms, restaurants, and every part of public life. When she was 13, Linda and a few of her friends were sent up North by their parents to attend boarding school and to escape segregation. Her parents wanted her to be a part of an integrated educational experience. Reflecting on her childhood, Linda is grateful for everything she’s learned. Those lessons influenced her work and life mission. “I know all too well the lifetime of emotional and psychological scars hate inflicts on its victims,” she says. “That knowledge inspires me to write about it, talk about it and expose how it affects our lives today. It’s my tribute to the ancestors who paved the way.”

“Tuskegee was an alternate reality to the pervasiveness of the segregation around us,” she says. “It was like a little utopia in the middle of the chaos of Alabama.”

Her father, Dr. Howard Kenney, was an early inspiration for Linda. She says, “He was a revered doctor and director of the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, founded by his father (John Kenney) and Booker T. Washington in 1912.” The hospital was a vital part of the school and community until 1967. He and his colleagues worked tirelessly to upgrade the health and longevity of the community. Some members of the community could only pay for their healthcare with chickens or eggs. It wasn’t about money for Dr. Howard Kenney, but service to his community. “Like his father, service to his fellow man was his mission. That was the mantra of so many of our black heroes growing up in that time: service to the race; service to human beings.”

John A. Kenney, M.D
Early surgery from Beacon on The Hill

Ten boxes…that was the number of boxes her grandfather left behind after his passing in 1950. These boxes contained his autobiographical papers, papers that would end up being the source material for Beacon on the Hill. “He saved everything. There were even notes on napkins. Everyone in the family was going to do something with the boxes. My father and my uncle said they would do something with the boxes but over the years…ended up not doing anything with them,” she says. Linda took the boxes with her to Atlanta many years later. In between jobs, she made the decision to open them and see what she could find. “When I opened the boxes, I was stunned at the history my grandfather and grandmother were responsible for.” She would write every day from sunrise to sunset. She says, “It was an amazing project because I found letters and correspondence from some of the giants in ‘negro medicine.’” She explains further, “There was correspondence from Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the ‘Father of Open-Heart Surgery,’ and Dr. Charles Drew, the developer of the first large blood bank. I also found correspondence from an ENT from Tennessee named Dr. C.V Roman.  He was an amazing scholar, writer and orator. In the middle of a medical paper, he would wax philosophical on many topics affecting the black community and humanity in general.”

Linda shared that she would love to someday write about Dr. James Arthur Kennedy and Cornelius Marion Battey. Dr. James Kennedy (her maternal grandfather) went from being a sleeping car porter to a pharmacist, then to a physician, ultimately becoming a general surgeon. He served in the 92nd Infantry Division in WWI. For his bravery, James was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The medal was placed on his uniform by General Pershing, himself. “During combat in France, Dr. Kennedy voluntarily moved his entire Aid Station from a protected dugout to an unprotected area nine miles from the front line and the Metz forts (German forts),” she explains. “In a partially wrecked shack with four of his black trained assistants, he personally attended to and evacuated 360 severely gassed and wounded men of his Battalion! He worked 55 hours without food or water helping the wounded and wrapping and tagging those left on the battlefield for burial.”

“When I opened the boxes, I was stunned at the history my grandfather and grandmother were responsible for.”

Cornelius Marion Battey, also known as C.M. Battey, was an influential photographer. Linda and her husband discovered almost 200 of his photographs while cleaning out her grandmother’s attic. At the time, she didn’t know who he was. They took the photographs back to Atlanta. A few years later, Linda visited the Tuskegee Archives to carry out research on Battey. There, learned that out Battey was one of Tuskegee’s first photographers, initially doing independent photography for Booker T. Washington. After Mr. Washington passed away, President Moton of the Institute, hired him to be the official photographer for the school. “Battey started the first school of black photography with a grant from George Eastman (Eastman Kodak) at Tuskegee. He taught a number of esteemed photographers like P.H. Polk and photographers such as James Van Der Zee who followed him and mimicked his style and experimentation,” she says. He even captured the Grand Canyon in 1895 and 1896 – in all of its grandiosity. How he managed to do this perplexes Linda. With wonder, she says, “How in the world did this man get to the Grand Canyon? In those days transportation was difficult and dangerous for a black man. The nature and size of photographic equipment (required at that time) also would be problematic. Battey took portraits of some of the most influential men of his time, including Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Linda’s career as a writer started when she was over 50 years old. She quickly began to understand the impact and importance of words. “Early in my writing career, I realized how powerful the written word can be, especially in telling our history that has been too often overlooked,” she explains. Linda saw how her words sparked the curiosity and creativity of her readers. Whether that meant telling stories of their own or unearthing the untold stories of African Americans throughout history, either way, it was inspirational to her.  She was surprised her novel won four national book awards. “My effort to tell the story of my own family history, which I had only recently learned, was well received. The awards are humbling and the validation of my work means a lot.”

When Linda is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family and traveling. “I have one granddaughter who is six years old who’s teaching me as much as I’m teaching her. I love spending time with family, and traveling when I can is crucial,” she says. For those who would like to share their stories, she encourages them to just get started. She loves to pass on the little piece of advice her creative writing professor gave to her: “Don’t die with that book inside of you.” Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, get it out there. “It is very important that you tell your story even if you have to record it and have someone else write it. Whatever the mission is—put it down on paper so everyone can benefit from it.”

“My effort to tell the story of my own family history, which I had only recently learned, was well received. The awards are humbling and the validation of my work means a lot.”

Right now, she is working on a documentary about John A. Kenney. She is also working with Tuskegee University to make Beacon on the Hill required reading for incoming freshman. John A. Kenney’s name is placed on the bioethics building at Tuskegee, yet very few students know his impact on the school and American society as a whole. Linda Kenney Miller does not want recognition or accolades for herself. She doesn’t feel like she is quite finished with her mission. “I hope to feel like I’ve ‘made it’ when people of all ethnicities understand and respect the importance of our history and its integral role in making this country the most powerful in the world,” she says. “My mission is to bring our history out of the darkness and into the light wherever I find it.”