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Dorothy Day’s Southern Roots: Dr. Sam Houston Day of Cleveland, Tennessee

Dorothy Day begins The Long Loneliness with a section entitled “The Generations Before” which relates that her father, John Day, came from Tennessee while her mother came from an Upstate New York family.[1] [She writes there about her paternal grandparents, that her grandmother, Mary Mee married Dr. Sam Houston Day of Cleveland, Tennessee, who was a surgeon and served in the Confederate Army.]

While traveling through the South in winter of 1965 Dorothy writes of her place in the racial unrest as an apparent outsider, but in reality she saw, that with her family from both North and South, America was all her country.[2] Growing up in Chicago and spending most of her life in New York City, it may seem curious at first to examine Dorothy’s Southern roots. After all, she herself seems to have little knowledge of her father’s kin. How could a family about which she knew so little have any impact on her life? While it may never in this life be possible to determine how knowingly Dorothy was impacted by her Southern family, there are striking similarities between Dorothy and her paternal grandfather that suggest that she was not the first Day to spend decades serving the poor and marginalized.

John Day was born in the town of Cleveland, Tennessee the son of Dr. Sam Houston and Mary Day. The Day family was one of the first white families of Bradley County, Tennessee and are descendants of Scotch-Irish who moved west over the mountains following the expanding frontier.[3] Sam studied medicine in New York City and graduated in 1861.[4] In the fall of same year he volunteered as a surgeon for the Confederate army and served with the 5th Tennessee Cavalry. Dr. Day was captured and held as a prisoner of war for forty days.[5] While in prison, he was allowed to serve as a doctor to the wounded prisoners before escaping and returning to the Chattanooga area in time for the battle of Missionary Ridge.[6] Along with his unit, Dr. Day saw action against Sherman on his infamous “March to the Sea” and closed out the war in North Carolina on May 3, 1865.[7]

After the war, Dr. Day married Mary C. Mee who lived across the Georgia line near the town of Rome.[8] Sources disagree about how this marriage came about. The obituary of Mrs. Day in the Chattanooga Times suggests that Dr. Day promised to marry Miss Mee, then 18, when he volunteered to join the cavalry and returned home from the war and made good on his promise. An article on the Day family states that Dr. Day traveled for a few years (including further medical study in New York City) before returning home to Cleveland and marrying Mary.[9]

However Mary and Sam met, Dorothy’s father was one of three children born to the couple and he is mentioned in his father’s obituary in the Chattanooga Times as living in New York and attending the funeral.[10] Dr. Day died March 21, 1896 after serving as the town’s beloved doctor for over three decades becoming famous for his willingness to go out of his way to help all who needed him regardless of their ability to pay him for his services or the cost to his own health. After his death, his widow’s successful application for a Confederate pension attests to the fact that the Days, at least by the time of Dr. Day’s death, were quite poor.

Dr. Day’s service to the community received tribute from throughout the region. A large obelisk was donated and marks his grave near the center of the old Fort Hill Cemetery in Cleveland.[11] Inscribed underneath his dates reads “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. / Erected by the public in recognition of his service during thirty years for the general welfare of the community, as a citizen and as a physician, ready and willing to minister to the calls of the sick without regard to pecuniary consideration.”[12]

One of Sam Houston Day’s obituaries reads “All classes of people – the rich and the poor, the white and the black – all depended in the hour of sickness on the skill and faithfulness of Dr. Day. It made no difference whether the applicant was rich or poor, when Dr. Day was called for, he went.”[13] Another, in the Chattanooga Times, proclaimed, “He was the best friend that the poor people of this country ever had.”[14] School was suspended in Cleveland so that students and teachers could attend his funeral at the Presbyterian Church. When his wife died several years later, she too received lauds in the Chattanooga Times as the wife of the fondly remembered doctor[15]. His concern for the welfare of his neighbors and tireless performance of the works of mercy left a mark on the community.

The Scotch-Irish Confederate Surgeon who traveled to New York, Iowa, and with his unit during the War may have been a Presbyterian living in a small, rural, Southern town, but the similarity to his vocation in life with that of his granddaughter is striking. While she traveled the South during the Civil Rights era, Dorothy seemed to have some feelings of being an outsider. Many casual observers of Dorothy likely would have considered her simply another Yankee do-gooder coming down to fix the problems of the South. Whether she was fully aware of it or not, it seems that Dorothy’s roots were indeed Southern. She traveled, living out her vocation, as her grandfather had a century before, through the same land torn by strife and division, suffering under the weight of destitution, and haunted by Christ.

Brian Douglass, a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, serves as an AmeriCorps member for a non-profit dedicated to rebuilding homes in St. Louis, MO.

[1] Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness, (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 15.

[2] Robert Ellsberg, ed. The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day. (Milwauke: Marquette UP, 2008), 356.

[3] Penelope Allen, “Leaves from the Family Tree: Day Family, of Bradley County, Descended from Isaac Day, One of the First White Men to Settle South of the Hiwassee River and of Scotch-Irish Descent – One Son in Particular, Dr. Samuel H. Day, Won Wide Affection of Community,” The Chattanooga Times, 23 February 1936,  6,12.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] Ibid.; The author has confirmed this story with Dr. Day’s Confederate Muster Rolls and Mrs. Day’s pension application.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Day.

[9] “Obituary: Day, Mary (Mrs. Sam Houston),” The Chattanooga Times, 27 July 1915.

[10] “Dr. Samuel Houston Day,” The Chattanooga Times, 1 April, 1896.

[11]  The marker still stands under a large tree near the center of the historic cemetery in the Day family plot. The top of the marker has now fallen and is covered in moss, but the names of most of Dorothy’s relatives are still readable.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Dr. Samuel Houston Day.”

[15] “Obituary: Day, Mary (Mrs. Sam Houston).”.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, March-May 2011.