Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Origin Story Part III

            I had no idea who Laverne Edwards was.
            “Mrs. Edwards was a nurse,” said Mrs. Frances Edwards, Larry’s mom.
Laverne Edwards was a nurse at Tipton Country Hospital, where Grandfather Joe died.
“She just started on and Mrs. Hill accused her of killing Mr. Hill.”
“Do you know what happened?” I asked.
The television blared a game show in the background. Eveline edged forward in her seat. Mr. Edwards collapsed in his overstuffed tried to follow the conversation and not completely succeeding.
“No, I don’t,” she said.
“Is Mrs. Edwards related?”
“No, they’s the other Edwards. She was married to John Edwards, but he passed.”
After I left, I dropped by Tim Sloane’s house and shared what I found out. He was knee deep himself in researching his family’s background. His father had been the priest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Covington and Director of St. Paul’s Parochial School, an African American boarding school, founded in the late 19th century, in Malone. He died suddenly when Tim was a young boy. Now, in his early seventies, Tim seemed to be trying to grasp onto a past thin and whispy as smoke.
“Laverne Edwards was married to John Edwards who was brother to Mac Edwards,” began Tim. “You should talk to William, her son.” He pointed to the list he made for me with a column for whites and one for blacks. “He’s an accountant for the city, but before you do, call David Gwyne, if there’s anyone in Covington who knows what happened, David’s the person to talk to. David is the Tipton County historian, and he’s helped me on my research.” I would learn later that David is also the manager of the town cemetery.
As I dialed David’s phone number, I felt like I was perhaps getting closer to an answer. If an answer could be found, it would be from the lips of Laverne Edwards.

            I picked up David, who doesn’t drive, at his mother’s nursing home in Covington. We drove down to a restaurant in Brighton on Highway 51 where we talked for about an hour over dinner. Then, David started giving me a tour of Covington. I’ll write about much of our conversations of the next six weeks in other posts. This evening, however, David directed me to the Covington Cemetery.
            “I think I know where Jessie Nelson is buried, but I’m not sure because his grave isn’t marked. There’s a space next to his mother’s grave and it would make sense that this is where he was.”
He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a wooden branch with its bark removed. It was a smooth piece of wood shaped in a Y. It was a divining rod. He led me to the other side of the graveyard.
“This is his mother’s grave. I looked it up earlier today to make sure I could find it.”
I could barely read the name Nelson on the stone.
David held his diving rod with both hands and waved it over the empty space next to the marked grave. I could see the rod point downward.
“See here. The earth here is displaced,” explained David, “so the rod dips. If it was solid, it wouldn’t.”
“Is he here?”
“Yes, this most likely where Jessie Nelson was buried.”
Over the course of the evening, David told me the story of Laverne Edwards.
“Mrs. Edwards was the first and only African American nurse to be hired at Covington Hospital (now Baptist-Memorial Hospital—Tipton) when the hospital opened in 1964. And when she began, she wasn’t allowed to use the restroom that white nurses used, eat in the cafeteria, or use the white nurses’ break room. She had to go to the bathroom with the janitors and eat her lunch with them in the basement.”
I wasn’t surprised by this story. Covington wasn’t at all on the cutting edge integration. In fact, it fought changed tooth and nail. David would tell me that there was a KKK office on the town square next to the Covington Police Station when Robert Lee Smith was murdered by Jessie Nelson.
“Well, it didn't sit right with her so she complained to the hospital director. His response was to fire her.” Clearly, he didn’t want any uppity black woman on his staff.
David explained that Laverne Edwards was married to John Edwards who was one of the founders of the local chapter of the NAACP. John Edwards brother was Mac Edwards, the president of the chapter. The chapter met secretly in the basement of the Canaan Baptist Church because if the Klan found out, the church and their homes would have been burned down. It wasn’t uncommon for black churches to be burned in Tipton, or anywhere around the South at that time.
With her husband’s support, Laverne Edwards sued the hospital for violating civil rights. After winding four years through the courts, she won in Federal court. The hospital was forced to give her job back. Obviously, it was the talk of Covington. Everyone had an opinion about it, and these opinions mostly fell along racial lines.
Just after Laverne Edwards returned to the hospital, Grandfather Joe entered the hospital on March 18th, 1969, two months almost to the day after Robert Lee Smith was murdered by Jessie Nelson. Grandfather Joe was 69 years old and sick with pneumonia. He had been ill all through the trial, but had refused to see a doctor until the trial ended. By then, he was so sick that he was on death’s doorstep. Not only did he have pneumonia, but he also had cirrhosis of the liver, Type 2 Diabetes, and emphysema. To say he was not well would be an understatement. Between his decades smoking and drinking, his immune system was clearly compromised. In layman’s terms, he had abused his body in about every way possible without already being dead.
It was just before Grandfather Joe’s arrival that Mrs. Edwards returned to work. As anyone can imagine, with Laverne Edwards return it was incredibly tense at the hospital. They were under a court order to allow her to have all the rights and privileges of her white co-workers.
This was as far as David could take me. I need to speak with Laverne Edwards. According to Frances Edwards, she was the person who was accused of murdering Grandfather Joe. This meant I needed to reach out to her son William.

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