Black History Month is about honoring the great African- American men and women who came before us.
It is also a great time to honor the honorable men and women who stood beside us when they could have turned their backs and looked the other way – those who knew equality could and would happen only if blacks and whites alike joined together to demand it.
It was just a little more than a year ago that I was in Singapore reading an article in the New York Times that took my breath away. The reporter wrote, “This year is the 150th anniversary of Jack Daniel’s, and the distillery, home to one of the world’s best-selling whiskeys, is using the occasion to tell a different, more complicated tale. Daniel, the company now says, didn’t learn distilling from Dan Call [the white preacher and distiller previously credited], but from a man named [Nearest] Green – one of Call’s slaves.”
If there was any truth to this remarkable story, I remember thinking, “We are looking at one of the first times an African-American could be verifiably credited with helping launch one of the greatest American brands.”
The story, of course, turned out to be true.
This past year has been a remarkable one for honoring the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States and the first master distiller for Jack Daniel Distillery.
I’ve been able to build on the work of top whiskey writers like Clay Risen and Fred Minnick, and I hope the world is beginning to see the impact that African-Americans had on the early days of the American whiskey industry.
The work is far from being finished.
Nearest’s story was lost in time, and I count it a great honor to be able to shine a giant spotlight on it. This history of Nearest Green is being documented with a book, a foundation and other initiatives, including a whiskey being produced according to his process and in his honor.
But every time I lift a glass of Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Whiskey to Nearest, I also raise a glass for Jack. It is because a white distiller saw a black distiller as his equal that the world now knows his name.
The reason the world is now learning about Nearest Green is that Jack Daniel became so successful and, throughout that success, remained honorable. Instead of relegating Nearest and his children to the back and paying them less (or not at all), he paid them equal to those who were white, and he treated them with equality.
An iconic photo of Jack Daniel serves to illustrate this point. Seated in the middle, to the right of him, was his right-hand man, George Green, son of Nearest Green. Jack saw Nearest as his equal. Many who grew up in Lynchburg might even argue that Jack saw Nearest as more than his equal. He saw him as a mentor, teacher and friend.
Every February, we honor African-Americans for the great contributions and strides made throughout the world. For 50 years, beginning in 1926, this special recognition was known as Negro History Week, which was expanded to Black History Month the year of my birth, 1976.
The original dates for Negro History Week were chosen because they coincided with two men’s birthdays: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The former was a white Republican president.
Douglass, an African-American orator, author and eminent civil rights leader, was born into slavery around 1818.
Douglass’ zeal for equality and helping to free his fellow man from bondage cemented his legacy among African-Americans.
It is both fitting and inspirational to add the story of Nearest Green and Jack Daniel to the many others that make up the rich heritage celebrated by Black History Month.
Fawn Weaver is founder of Nearest Green Foundation and historian for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.