Grandfather Joe was very good at two things, plundering and getting drunk. One gave him opportunity in a world that offered little for a man who was removed from school in the second grade to work the cotton fields because his teacher thought he was “retarded.” Only years later did he learn that he was merely nearsighted, not mentally deficient. Life was hard for everyone in Tipton County, Tennessee, but it was especially hard on the people Grandfather Joe exploited through the reign of terror that was the Jim Crow South.
Ironically, however, it was the second thing, his alcoholism, that ensured he would never truly prosper the way others around him did from his plundering. His plundering allowed him to get out of the fields and let others sharecrop his land while he went off on his get rich quick schemes that could only happen in a small, backwards community like Covington.
To describe Grandfather Joe’s life, I’ve stolen myself. I’ve looted the word “plunder” from Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African American writer more skilled and insightful than I could ever be, and his superb book Between the World and Me. Coates chose the vivid and charged verb “plunder” to describe how America—from its inception—tortured, raped, and murdered African Americans in order to create economic prosperity. America is not the richest and largest economy in the world without having been built on the exploitation of African Americans.
Coates provocatively argues that America is the nexus of “when plunder becomes a system of government.” What makes Coates’ argument so powerful is how he anchors it in American mythology and steals the word “plunder” himself from the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson had chosen “plunder” to describe the Colonies’ relationship to the British Crown—“He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” To link the birth of our nation and its successful breaking of the fetters of British oppression to America’s systematic oppression of African Americans is brilliant. With one vivid and active verb, Coates is able to reach back into our country’s origin narrative to expose our guilt and to point to the fact that this plundering is still happening.
The reason I mention Coates and his game-changing book Between the World and Me is that he tells the story from the perspective of the victims. I am telling the story of a victimizer. Grandfather Joe wasn’t especially brilliant or imaginative in his plundering, but he was determined and availed himself of the corrupt system in a county that was described by the FBI and the ATF as the most corrupt county in Tennessee. But before I get into this, let me begin at my beginning of discovering this world that through silence was hidden from me until my luncheon reunion with Dad after 17 years.
In order to break this silence, this hidden world, I needed a guide, actually more than one guide. My first was Tim Sloane. Dad introduced me to him at Neely’s Down Under, a restaurant in the basement of the old Naifeh’s Grocery Store on the Covington town square. Tim had been the president of a bank on the town square. He spent his entire career there since the early 60s and knew pretty much everyone in Covington and Tipton County. He had been on just about every board or committee at some point or another.
When we first met, I had explained what I was looking for. He had not heard the story of Grandfather Joe’s alleged murder, which was my second red flag after just the fact that it had been a secret in my family for over 40 years. Tim knew more about the personal lives of his neighbors than even the local ministers. When we sat down in his office just off the square, he took a blank sheet of paper filled the left side with the names and phone numbers of the white people I should contact. Then, on the right side he wrote names and phone numbers of the African Americans. Since everything we were talking about had to do with race, this separation made sense, but it also underscored just how much the world in seen in black and white.
Tim gave me the keys to his office and a room in his house to sleep in, and then he set me in motion. After two phone calls on my first day in Covington, I was pulling up to the South Station of the Covington Fire Station. Larry Edward’s younger brother Dwayne was one of two black fire fighters in the entire department. Larry Edwards had been the lucky one on that night in January 1969. He had only been shot in the arm. His friend, 14-year-old Robert Lee Smith, died from the gunshot wounds he received from Grandfather Joe’s gun in J&Z Laundromat.
To put it simply, I was scared to death. Dwayne had invited me over the station to talk. He was friendly on the phone when I described what I was investigating, but I didn’t know what it would be like in person. When I got there, he told me he had already spoken to his parents.
“I’m not sure what I can tell you,” he said. “I was too young to remember what happened. All I know is that it changed Larry. He never wanted to go out of the house anymore. The moment he graduated from high school he moved to Detroit and never comes back. He won’t talk about it either.”
We talk a couple minutes about growing up in Covington. I asked him why he stayed. He talked about his parents and his wife and children and the church, the Canaan Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Covington and the location of the early, secret meetings of the original chapter of the Tipton Co. NAACP in the 50s.
After about ten minutes of conversation, he asked, “Would you like to talk to my parents? I can call them and see if they will talk to you.”
“Yes,” I said.
This was happening faster than I expected. Dwayne was so friendly and welcoming, despite me being the grandson of the man who had been part of so much trauma. I was distrustful of his kindness, however. As a child, I would mistake the superficial friendliness of Southern culture for real friendship, only to be humiliated when I was confronted with the fact that they weren’t my friends.
“She says you can come over.”
We shook hands. He writes down his parents’ address and invites me to Sunday service at Canaan Baptist.
I’m in motion. Like a top whose string and has been pulled, I will spin until I tip over and roll in a circle. Suddenly, all the hate and anger that had driven me back to Covington felt like an enormous weight that slowed me. I couldn’t lift it off my shoulders. Why was I hear?
Grandfather Joe’s favorite TV show was Dagnet. As a former town deputy marshal and police officer, he fancied himself Sgt. Joe Friday cutting the bullshit out and saying, “Ma’am, just the facts.”
I drove from the South Fire Station to the northeast neighborhood called Black Bottoms, I realized I wasn’t here for just the facts. The facts would never cut it. I was here to prove something. To prove that I’m not crazy. To prove that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. For the longest time I imagined Dad as Odysseus, that heroic figure from the ages of the Gods and Goddesses. He had overcome Homeric obstacles to rise to the pinnacle of capitalism. He was the classic rags to riches story. Grew up on a shotgun shack without running water or electricity. Slept in a bed with his two brothers. His mother cooked on a wood stove. His father was illiterate. His mother married at 13. He was the first to graduate from the 8th grade, from high school, from college, from Harvard. He rose to become president and chairman of department store chains.
In his massive shadow, I stood as Odysseus’s inadequate son, Telemachus. I was Charlie Chan’s Number Two Son who stumbled and tried to solve the mystery and save the day, but would have to be bailed out my my superior father. I would never measure up. So in my car heading across town to the Edwards’ home, I realized this wasn’t about hate. It was about restitution. About my coming to terms with who I was in the shadow of my father. It was a reckoning. When I think about why Dad told me this story—so suddenly after no speaking for 17 years—I believe he did so because he wanted me to find out the truth. He was putting his faith and trust in me. For the first time, the power dynamic had shifted. I was no longer desperate for his gaze. Now, he wanted mine, and this was the mission that would keep mine on him. This story hadn’t been shared with anyone in the family from my generation. It was a close held secret between my dad, his brothers, their wives, and their mother.
I turned onto s small single lane path, named Feezor St., in the Black Bottoms, one of several African American neighborhoods in Covington, and pulled to a stop on the grassy shoulder in front of a small, squat house, no more than 750 square feet. This was the home of Eddie and Mary Frances Edwards, Larry and Dwayne’s parents.
I had read about them in the documents from the civil suit that they filed after the trial. They sued Jessie Nelson and Grandother Zoelette. Grandfather Joe had already passed by then. The suit was settled for $1,500 with $500 going to the Edwards’ lawyer. Grandmother Zolette paid the full amount. Jessie had a railroad pension, but he was essentially destitute. He lived with his mother one block from the Edwards on Feezer in the white block.
In Covington, black and white neighborhoods could change sometimes mid-block. A pocket of black homes could be nestled in the middle of white ones. Blacks neighborhoods had names, such as McCadden Quarters (a single block), Hefer Flats, Dixie Editions, and Black Bottoms, which was near the cotton warehouses. The Edwards lived in Black Bottoms and Eddie Edwards worked his entire life in the cotton warehouse, now gone.
As I walked up to the front door, I could hear the television. A woman about my age peered through the screen door. It was a cool day in April, one of the few times when the weather was moderate enough to have the door open and let the fresh air inside. I knew I was anything but fresh air. My wind was a gnarled, broken thing.
I introduced myself and mentioned Dwayne.
She waved me inside. The small, almost dollhouse living room was crammed with overstuffed chairs and a couch. A large flat screen TV hung from one wall. This was the home that Larry Edwards grew up in with his parents and sisters and brothers. How they all fit in was beyond comprehension, but they did.
An ancient man sat nodding off engulfed by a large overstuffed chair. He was frail and seemed a shadow of his former self. The woman introduced herself as Larry’s older sister, Eveline, and the man as her father. I shook their hands and took a seat on the couch.
“I’ll get my mom.” The woman disappeared into the back. A moment later, Mrs. Edwards appeared. We shook hands. She didn’t offer me anything to drink. It was clear that they didn’t understand why this white man was coming in their house, but they weren’t going to be rude.
I told them who I was, Joe Hill’s grandson.
“He was evil,” Mrs. Edwards said almost under her breath.
I agree and told her a little about my relationship with him. Then, I told them what my grandfather told me.
“I don’t know nothing about that,” Mrs. Edwards quickly said.
We talked about Larry.
“After that, he changed,” Mrs. Edwards explained. “He didn’t want to be here any more. The moment he graduated from high school he moved to Detroit and won’t come back.” Most blacks from Covington chose Detroit as their destination when they moved North. There, they would find family and friends and a church they recognized.
“Larry had it rough here,” Larry’s sister Eveline said. “On the way to school we had to walk through the white neighborhood and this lady would sick her dog on Larry. Every day the dog would attack him and pull off his clothes. There was nothing he could do about it.
“When he was shot, he and Bobbie were coming home from the Fraser High Homecoming Night. The basketball team had won its game,” Eveline said. “They decided to stop at the Laundromat because it had a Co’Cola machine. It was the only place blacks could buy a coke at night.”
I told them I remember the machine and shared the time I took a coke without asking. Grandfather Joe beat me.
“That machine didn’t work right,” Eveline said. “You had to shake it so the nickel would go down. And that man came out and shot him.”
I nodded and waited. Then, I asked, “Did you know Jessie Nelson.”
Mrs. Edwards spoke up. “He lived just down there.” She pointed to the next block over.
I asked if he knew Larry and Bobbie.
“Had to,” said Eveline. “He shot them in cold blood.”
I asked if they knew Frankie Smith.
“Not well,” said Mrs. Edwards.
“Do you know how to get in touch with her?”
I told them the story my dad told me about Mrs. Smith killing my grandfather.
“No, no, no,” said Mrs. Edwards. “That couldn’t have happened. She never worked. She stayed in the home. It was me who worked in the hospital.”
I waited again to see if she would finish the story. If she would tell me about being accused of murdering my grandfather. When she said nothing, I finally asked.
Mrs. Edwards shook her head. “It wasn’t me. I was a nurse’s aide on a different floor. I never went to the floor where Mr. Hill was.”
Okay, I thought, this is where it was going to end.
Then, Mrs. Edwards continued. “It was Laverne Edwards who they accused of murdering your grandfather.”