An illustration of freed slave George Dinning, who later changed his last name to Denning.

How a freed slave triumphed over a White lynch mob in the Jim Crow South

Updated 12:00 PM ET, Sat February 6, 2021

(CNN)On the night of January 21, 1897, a mob of White men armed with pistols and shotguns surrounded the home of freed slave George Dinning in southern Kentucky. They falsely accused him of stealing livestock from a neighboring farm and unleashed a hail of bullets into his house, wounding him in the arm and forehead.

Terrified for his wife and children, Dinning fired back, killing one of his assailants.
In a remarkable story filled with dramatic twists and unusual alliances, Dinning eventually became perhaps the first Black man in the country to win damages against a White man after a wrongful manslaughter conviction.
That fateful night and the harrowing months that followed are chronicled in a new book, "A Shot in the Moonlight: How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Soldier Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South," by Ben Montgomery.
Montgomery recounts how Dinning's trial deeply divided the state, with lynch mobs hovering around the courthouse, waiting for opportunities to strike. Gov. William Bradley posted soldiers to protect Dinning in the jail and the courtroom.
Not surprisingly, Dinning was found guilty by a jury of 12 White men and sentenced to seven years in prison.
But then the story took a dramatic turn. In what was a bold decision for a White Southern governor at the time, Bradley pardoned Dinning two weeks after the sentencing. Bradley kept his decision a secret until the next day to give Dinning time to hop on a train out of town.
Kentucky Gov. William O'Connell Bradley granted George Dinning a pardon in July 1897 -- a brave decision for a Southern governor at the time.
Dinning later moved to Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he changed his last name to Denning. With the help of Bennett Young, a young Confederate soldier and lawyer, he also successfully sued the men who had attacked his house that winter night in Kentucky.
For Anthony Denning, reading about his great-grandfather's ordeal in Montgomery's book was surreal. Denning grew up in Jeffersonville and has stashes of old newspaper clippings and historical records from years of research. But the book provided new information that filled in some gaps.
"The story has been handed down, my family talked about it a lot while I was growing up," Denning, 59, told CNN. "But to finally read the details of what took place that night was very emotional. It gave us such a sense of pride."
The book also shed new light on the people who helped his great-grandfather, including Young and the many Black and White people who lobbied the governor to demand justice, he said.
Author Ben Montgomery, left, and Anthony Denning Sr.
CNN talked to Montgomery, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, about his journey to document this largely forgotten story. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you find this story?

I spent the last three years of my stint at the Tampa Bay Times working on a massive public records project to account for six years of police shootings in Florida. We learned that in about 40% of police shootings, the victim was a Black male and that is way out of whack with Florida demographics -- only about 15% of the population of Florida is Black.
I just became overwhelmed by the level of tragedy. I found myself longing for a story that involved a Black male character that didn't end in tragedy, and I began to actively search for a story that fit that. I had to go way back to 1897 to find one, unfortunately. The more I learned about it, the more it felt pressing to tell. It was a story that happened more than 100 years ago, but ... felt immediate.
Montgomery's book was published in late January.

The George Floyd protests led to pivotal conversations about race. Did that factor into your decision to tell this story now?

Absolutely. Not only was it a story that allowed me to talk about White violence, the history of White violence, the history of White supremacy -- but it also featured a character, Bennett Young, who is the lawyer who represented George Denning in federal court pro bono. He was a complicated man. He not only founded an orphanage for Black children and represented Black men and women for free in federal court, but he also did more than any man of his era to promote the sort of Southern mythology that's so closely akin to White supremacy. This story was a vehicle to renew our conversation about who we are and how we should remember the Confederates.
He (Young) spent a ton of his time raising money for Confederate statutes -- a lot of which we're today thinking about pulling down. He delivered the keynote address at the unveiling of the General Lee statue in New Orleans. .... so this guy was involved in a lot of things, and part of what I wrestle with in the book is how should he be remembered? Because when the war started, there's no doubt that he came down on the side of slavery and we now judge every ancestor primarily on that fact.
The tombstone of Confederate soldier and lawyer Bennett Young in Louisville, Kentucky.
I don't think you'll see any other contemporary man, certainly not a Southern man, who did more for Black people than Bennett Young. He was on the forefront of fighting for civil rights and at the same time leaving a legacy that would impact civil rights all the way through our time. It's wild.

What's the one thing that stays with you about this story?

I always think about the courage of George Denning, this man who could have been a victim, and many other people of his era who were just victimized by White people. And he simply refused to submit ... and the courage it took for him to grab his shotgun and to defend his home and his family from this White mob that was attacking them. Almost brings me to tears.
It took courage to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge for those marchers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. It took courage for college students in Greensboro (North Carolina) to occupy that Whites-only food counter. It took courage for Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on the bus in Alabama. All of those stories are spawned by these other forgotten stories from the era before, from George Denning's era. He simply had the courage to not let himself get killed and then to go in search of retribution, and that's such an important thing.

You met Denning's family. What was that like?

I would not have done this story without their permission. So to meet Anthony Denning in Louisville in 2019 and to fall into his good graces was one of the highlights of my life. It's such a treasure to connect the story from the past -- this person I'd been thinking about for a couple of years. To connect him with a human in the flesh, a manifestation of his courage, was so important to me and such a beautiful moment.