I don’t want to write this post. I’ve been avoiding it for the longest time. I think of it as my origin story. If I was to track backward my life, trace back to the time and place where I can uncover everything about who I am, it would be Covington, TN. The irony is that I spent little time there. A few days in the summer and occasional holidays. But this was where Dad grew up and Grandfather Joe lived his life. To me, Covington was the place where the evil I knew began.
So I’ve be delaying. I don’t want to talk about this. It’s taken me 8 years after I went down to Covington to be able to write about it. I went to Covington to track down the truth behind the story Dad told me in that Nashville restaurant after not speaking for 17 years. I’d made time for two months to investigate. I couldn’t do this without the help of Dad because no one had a reason to speak with me.
The Covington Leader, the weekly newspaper, had two front page articles on the shooting. They appeared in the February 6, 1969, edition of the paper. The headline of the lead article was “Night Watchman Bound Over on Murder Charge.” The article read:
James E. Nelson of Covington was arraigned before General Sessions Judge William Grugett last Friday on charges of first degree murder and felonious assault.
The 63-year-old night watchman pleaded not guilty to both charges and was bound over to the Grand Jury. No bond was set.
He was represented by Covington attorney John Proctor.
Nelson, tall and lanky with unkempt long hair, displayed little emotion as Larry Edwards, 11, the youth he is accused of wounding, testified that it was Nelson who shot him in the right arm and killed his friend, 14-year-old Robert Lee Smith, last week at the J and Z Laundromat in Covington.
Edwards, a scrawnily-built youth, had his right arm in a sling.
Smith, who was an eighth grade student at the Frazier Elementary School, died of a .25-caliber gunshot wound in the chest shortly after being taken to Tipton Memorial Hospital.
Nelson contends that he shot the two Negro youths after the pair along with another boy entered the Laundromat with some keys and attempted to open a washing machine.
Authorities have failed to find any keys in the area of the Laundromat where the shooting is reported to have occurred.
The watchman said he shot the Smith youth as he attempted to escape after Nelson had apprehended him while en route to the telephone to call police.
He added that the Edwards boy was shot accidentally as he stumbled to the ground and the pistol discharged.
Edwards said he and Smith and another youth stopped at the Laundromat for a soft drink as they returned from the Frazier High School Homecoming.
The youth said three other Negro boys ran out of the Laundromat as he and his friends entered the building.
Joe Hill, owner of the Laundromat, said he hired Nelson as a watchman after someone stole the keys to all his washing machines recently.
Hill told authorities that he had been in the Laundromat up until 9 p.m. working on some washing machines when Nelson arrived to relieve him. Hill said he forgot to take his 25-caliber automatic pistol home with him and left it lying on a table.
Tipton County Sheriff Preston Shankle said Hill was authorized to carry a pistol but that Nelson was not.
The gun was Grandfather Joe's. It was the one that I would brush when I hugged him. He lent it to Nelson who was a drinking buddy in the dry county. He was most likely drunk that night and that's why he stumbled.
As was custom at the time, no announcement for the funeral of Robert Lee Smith was carried in the Leader. The Covington newspaper was a white paper. If Robert Lee Smith had been killed by an African American his death would not have been recorded in the paper. What made his death newsworthy was that a white man was involved. During these years the only mention of African Americans in the paper was when they were involved peripherally in white activities. Infrequently, a photo of an African American would sneak into the paper because other counties, unlike Tipton, had desegregated. This meant that their sports teams were integrated. On occasion a photograph of a white Covington high school athlete would inadvertently include a black athlete from another school in the background.
The Leader’s next article on the murder covered Jesse Nelson’s bond hearing on March 13, 1969. He was refused bond and held over for trial on March 17th. The final article on the shooting covered the short one-day trial, and is the most thorough account of the murder.
Nelson Found Guilty in Laundromat Shooting
A jury of six men and six women Tuesday found Jesse E. Nelson guilty of murder, in connection with the shooting death of 14-year-old Robert Lee Smith on Jan. 29 at the J and Z Laundromat in Covington.
He was sentented to 10 months at the Tipton County Penal Farm.
The 64-year-old Nelson, a nightwatchman at the laundromat, contended at the trial that he accidentally killed young Smith and wounded Larry Edwards, 11, as he was attempting to apprehend them after they tried to loot coin boxes in the laundry with some keys.
“I took the nightwatchman job after Joe Hill, owner of the laundromat, asked me to keep an eye on the place,” Nelson told the jury.
“Mr. Hill said someone had stolen some keys to the washing machines and that he wanted me to attempt to get them back.”
Nelson said he had only been on the job two nights when he saw three young Negro boys enter the laundry and try to open a washer with a key.
“I heard them come into the building and I watched them through a crack in the wall from the room in which I was hiding,” the watchman said.
“The wind was blowing hard that night and a sudden gust slammed the door shut scaring them off.
“However, in about 10 minutes they returned again. This time I scared them by kicking an empty box.”
Nelson said when the boys returned the third time, he picked up a .25-caliber automatic lying on a nearby table and sneaked out of the building.
“I went around to the front of the Laundromat and hid behind a parked car. The tallest of the three boys was standing in the doorway of the building and I told him to put his hands up.
“But instead of putting his hands up, he ran…and I fired the pistol once into the ground.”
Nelson said he then cornered the other two youths, who were later identified as Robert Lee Smith and Larry Edwards, in the Laundromat.
“I asked the boys for the keys to the washing machines, but they denied having them.”
The nightwatchman said he told the youths that he was going to turn them over to the police.
He testified that the boys began struggling with him in an attempt to break free from his grip.
“The boy who was killed kept kicking me and pulling until I stumbled to the ground and the pistol discharged.
“In the meantime, the Edwards boy tripped me and the gun went off again with the bullet hitting him in the arm.”
Nelson said he took the Edwards youth into the nearby poolroom and wrapped a towel around his bleeding arm. He said he then asked someone to call the police.
“I didn’t even know I had shot the other boy until the police told me.”
Two Tipton County Memorial Hospital Employees testified that they found several keys in the coat pocket of Robert Lee Smith.
Two Tipton County Memorial Hospital Employees testified that they found several keys in the coat pocket of Robert Lee Smith.
Clara Salina, a hospital orderly, said she found a handful of keys in young Smith’s pocket which looked identical. Berry Wallace, another orderly, also testified that the keys were found. He said the coat with the keys in the pocket was given to the Edwards family.
Attorney General Will Terry Abernathy and his assistant, Preston Parks, contended that Nelson could have apprehended the youths without shooting them.
“Both of these boys were extremely small for their age,” the attorney general told the jury. “Mr. Nelson shot them needlessly rather than apprehend them without bodily harm.”
“This is a solid case of second degree murder.”
The jury was out three hours before reaching a verdict. When I spoke to one of the jurors, she expressed sorrow and sympathy for Nelson and my grandfather for what they had to go through. She didn't mention the family who lost their son. She did say that she had initially voted to acquit and that she brought cookies out to the county prison for Nelson.
On March 18th, the day after the trial, Joe Oscar Hill, my grandfather, entered the hospital. He died six days later. The Leader published an obituary:
Joe O. Hill Dies After Brief Illness
Joe Oscar Hill, 68, Covington furniture store and Laundromat owner, died yesterday afternoon at Tipton County Memorial Hospital after being hospitalized a week earlier.
A lifelong resident of Tipton County, he was the son of the late James Hill and Mrs. Nancy Hobeck Hill. He attended local schools and farmed in the Solo community for a number of years.
During World War II, he operated a taxi company in Covington and later served for a number of years as a Covington policeman. He started his furniture and appliance business in 1955.
Funeral services were held at 2 o’clock this afternoon in the First Methodist Church, where he was a member.
The newspaper reports seemed incomplete. Predictably, the paper did not interview Larry Edwards or include much of his testimony. The paper also did not interview any of the Edwards or Smith family members. There was no background information at all on who Jesse E. Nelson was, where he was from, or his previous work experience. Perhaps in a community of 8,000 people, nearly half of whom were black, the white newspaper would assume that the white population knew Nelson, and so no additional information was necessary.
The most striking omissions however were my family’s accounts of the death threats and the bomb threat of the funeral home. There is no report on the sheriff’s deputies guarding the funeral home, which was certainly unusual and newsworthy in a community this size. Whether my grandfather was killed or not, there was evidence that a full accounting of Nelson’s crime and Joe Hill’s death had not occurred.
Without much difficulty, I found out the name of Robert Lee Smith’s mother, Frankie Christine Smith. After a quick search on the internet, I found her address and phone number. She was still living in Covington and was the only Frankie Christine Smith listed in Tennessee. The first logical step appeared to be to confirm some of the details in the newspaper. Perhaps then it would become clear whether or not further investigation was necessary. I picked up the phone and dialed Mrs. Smith’s number.
A woman answered in a deep Southern accent. When I asked her if she was the mother of Robert Lee Smith, the boy who was killed in the J and Z Laudromat in 1969, she said, “No.”
I explained in a little more detail about the murder and how I found her name in the directory.
“I don’t know who that is,” she replied. “I’ve never heard of a Robert Lee Smith.” She hung up.
These kinds of investigations seemed to need to be done in person. I wasn’t certain how I was going to get any answers, but I knew I had to ask people, face-to-face, to perhaps get any kind of a semblance of an answer. When I arrived in April of 2008, Dad took me for lunch at Marlo’s Down Under with Tim Sloan. Tim was the retired president of a local bank on the town square. Tim offered to be my Virgil. He made a list of the people I needed to speak to. His list had two columns. On the left were the whites. On the right the blacks. I knew that I would not have a problem speaking with those on left side. I also knew that I needed Tim to vouch for me because he had a history of working with the black community. Early on, I heard a story about Tim’s basic decency. Around 1964, just after the white schools in Covington began allowing a select few African American children attend in order to delay the possibility of Covington school being fully integrated. One day a black high school student got into an argument with a couple of white girls outside McCool’s Grocery, just off the square. The girls got into a fight. Mr. McCool ran out with his gun and threatened the black girl. He told her he was going to take care of her.
Mr. McCool was a member of the local Klan, which had an office on the town square next to the police station until about 1970. When Mr. McCool made a threat, people took it seriously. That night the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, which met secretly in the basement of the Canaan Baptist Church, came to Tim for a $500 loan to get the girl’s family out of town. Tim gave him a loan without signing papers, and by the sun rose the next day the family was gone with whatever they could carry with them. There are countless stories like this about Tim and his commitment to all the citizens of Covington.
Still, Tim’s word wasn’t enough. I brought down twenty copies of my book Harlem Stomp! A Cultural History of the Harlem Renaissance to prove my bonafides. Every person I met from the African American community I gave a copy of the book. It helped, but it wasn’t enough either. I had to show that I could be trusted. I attended Sunday services at Canaan Baptist Church and at Covington Church of God in Christ. These two churches represented the two poles of black worship. Canaan Baptist services were more formal, while Covington COGIC was charismatic. The Church of God in Christ was known as “holy rollers.” Maya Angelou in her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings writes, “The [Church of God in Christ] were looked upon with suspicion because they were so loud and raucous in their services….Their church was far from the others, but they could be heard on Sunday, a half mile away, singing and dancing until they sometimes fell down in a dead faint.”
On the other side, white people were afraid I’d brand them a racist. Mr. McCool’s son who moved the grocery store to Highway 51 before selling it to a chain was reluctant to speak at all with me. There were others as well. The key to getting people to speak was telling them that I was Joe and Zoelette Hill’s son. Even though Grandfather Joe had been dead since 1969 and Grandmother Zoelette had been gone from Covington almost 30 years everyone knew them both black and white. And knowledge of me being their grandson either allowed them to feel comfortable enough to speak with me or hesitate.