Harper Lee’s town honors her memory and privacy

“I been knowing of her a long time,” said grave digger Anthony Moffat, proud of the job he finished in the hours just after dawn. “She was a real sweet lady.”

He wasn’t told whose remains were to be interred next to Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee; her mother, Frances Finch Lee; and sister, Alice Finch Lee; only that he’d gotten the call on Friday, the day Lee died.

“It’s amazing,” he said, looking down into the damp earth. Then he added, “I always thought about getting into writing.”

Black ribbons started blooming across the Monroe County Courthouse Square soon after Lee’s death at 89 was announced, a sad garden uniting the community in grief.

“I’m in complete shock,” said State Farm insurance saleswoman Laura Harris, whose office displayed a sign in Lee’s honor on the window.

“It’s been a little busy,” said a weary Nathan Carter, director of sites at Monroe County Heritage Museum, where staff members placed black ribbons on the doors early in the day and then spent the next few hours dealing with reporters.

Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe, just off the square, was draped in mourning, too. Owner Spencer Madrie spoke of a local wariness, provoked anew, as a national spotlight once again sears the tiny hometown of the famously private author of the enduring classic “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Have you had any luck talking to people?” Madrie asked, in a tone that suggested he suspected not. “It can be a real quiet town.”

Not long after “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, Lee began declining interviews and kept an extraordinarily low profile, never publishing another book until stunning the literary world last year with “Go Set a Watchman.” Residents here seem dedicated to honoring her preference for privacy with zeal.

“We knew her and we knew how private she was, so we respect that,” said the owner of an antiques shop on the courthouse square, who didn’t want to be named.

Not to imply that these folks aren’t friendly; it’s the absolute opposite. The antiques owner’s friend, who happened to be in the shop when we stopped by, also didn’t want to be quoted but ended the brief visit with an invitation to church. A few minutes later the friend pulled up to the sidewalk.

“Get in the car; I’ll take you to where Miss Alice used to live,” she said, and off we went to admire a brick house on a shady corner lot not far from the square. “When Harper would come home, I’m pretty sure she would stay there.”

Our car trip ended with an invitation for a place to stay the next time we’re in town.

Apparently not all visitors engender good will, though, and that may explain some folks’ hesitation to talk. Madrie recalled with a wince the interest “Watchman” elicited. As the AJC reported at the time, some wondered if Lee had been mentally capable to approve the publication of a long-lost manuscript. The state investigated charges of elder abuse, related to the publication of the book, and found no evidence to support them.

As “Watchman” set the literary world abuzz with its recasting of beloved Atticus Finch as a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, Madrie found himself dealing with a slew of local and national reporters who came calling, many of whom seemed bent on a dour spin, he said. Then as now, with reporters once again poking around and camera crews filming live shots outside the historic courthouse building, he took a protective stance.

“Just being in the town, I feel like I have a connection to her,” he said. “Ms. Lee was a very private person. People like to say she was a recluse, but she just never wanted to be the one in the limelight.”

Other, touchier reasons could explain some folks’ hesitation to talk much. A lawsuit was filed last year on Lee’s behalf against the museum over the sale of Mockingbird-themed souvenirs. It has since been settled. The annual “Mockingbird” play, a major fundraiser for the Monroe County Heritage Museum, seemed imperiled when the publishing house that licenses the production told the museum it could no longer stage the performance. A nonprofit established by Lee last year to produce it ensures the shows will go on. This year’s production is scheduled for April 15-May 21. For details see www.monroecountymuseum.org.

A private funeral was held on Saturday. Unlike the piles of flowers and rows of candles that often sprout outside celebrities’ homes after their deaths, there was no such shrine at the assisted living facility where Lee spent her last days. The front door was locked and no one answered when a reporter stopped by on Saturday morning.

With much of the town demurring, Duran Odoms was happy to talk. Lee’s signature work depicts a black man denied justice at the hands of a white power structure, a topic that still resonates in a time when a number of fatal police shootings of unarmed black men have given rise to a new era of political activism.

Growing up in Monroeville, Odoms remembers ingrained racial division like separate Little League teams for black and white players. At one time he considered leaving his hometown for a bigger city, but instead he came back after college and is now principal of J.F. Shields High School in neighboring Beatrice.

“There are still some issues you experience in the South,” he said. “I don’t think race is something that is healed until we look at people for character instead of color. We must move beyond race.”

When his students read “Mockingbird,” the reading assignment becomes a springboard for dialogue. He drills into his students the importance of learning.

“I always tell our children, ‘You must be who you are. You cannot allow people to dictate who you are or who you will become,’” he said. “Education levels the playing field.”

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