“Okay, William, I’m done for the week,” called a woman across the hall. “You here, right?”
William got up from his desk and stepped into the hallway. “I’ll be here, Miz Jackson. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.”
She nodded and headed out the door.
It had taken a couple of days before William was free to see me. We met in his city office. He’s an account for the city and president of the local chapter of the NAACP. His father and uncle were founding members of the chapter in the 50s.
As he went around his desk to sit, William Edwards, Laverne Edward’s son, explained, “In city offices as in most small town government offices in the South, it is still not a guarantee that African American citizens will be respected and receive the services they are requesting. Sometimes it’s just the legacy of the Jim Crow South, and older African Americans simply do not feel safe or confident that they will be treated with respect or will be told the truth.”
I nodded as if I understood. It had never occurred to me that something like that would be important. I could understand that something would have been necessary in the past, but in the 21st century. Had things not changed that much?
“So I have to be in the office for the rest of the week,” he said, “because there always has to be an N.I.C in the building.”
“Negro in Charge,” William said.
“But you’re upstairs in the accounting office. When do people need to see you about the city’s finances.”
William smiled like I was an ignorant child. “No, that’s not the problem. Black people will come downstairs to pay their taxes or request services, but they don’t trust that they will get what they need. So they come upstairs to see me first and I do it for them.”
“Really?” It just seemed crazy on one level, but then I remembered a week earlier hearing from Judge Vaughn, the man who ran Tipton Country for several decades. When I met with him in his huge plantation house with Corinthian columns, he told me two stories about my family. The first was about my father’s namesake and Grandfather Joe’s older brother. Carrick Hill was a farmer who was shot and killed in 1919 on the town square.
When I asked him about my Grandfather’s death, he told this instead. He was very skilled at changing the topic and stonewalling me on the topic on how Covington was run during those dark, old days.
“Oh, I know your family,” he cackled. “Your great uncle Carrick Hill was shot in the groin on the square by the Marshall because he was sleeping with the Marshall’s wife.”
He paused for effect.
“He bled out on the sidewalk. The Marshall wouldn’t let no one help him.”
The next story he shared was how Grandfather Joe bought his farm.
“You know I knew your grandfather. Did you ever hear how he bought his farm?”
“Well, it was during the Depression. Cotton prices had dropped so much that it cost farmers more to grow it than it was worth. Well, your grandfather was sharecropping a farm owned by the local doctor. They had a barn packed full of cotton that they couldn’t sell. One night the barn burned with all the cotton in it. The doctor got the insurance money and was grateful to your grandfather for all the hard work he had done on the farm.”
Again, I nodded. I didn’t want to interrupt him because it was clear he was trying to tell me something.
Judge Vaughn sipped on his can of beer. “It wasn’t six months later that your grandfather bought 80 acres out in Solo. There was an auction at the courthouse on the land and your grandfather was the highest bidder. The doctor financed your grandfather’s purchase with the insurance money.”
Later, I learned through my research at the University of Memphis library and from the county historian David Gwynn that these “auctions” were rigged. Farms owned by black families were targeted for not paying back taxes. These were farms that were purchased during Reconstruction by African Americans and then inherited by the children. Often, these farms were owned by families who could not read or write so the title of the land was not completely clear after the original owner passed. In addition, these families might not have known they had to pay taxes or had actually paid taxes but did not have the receipts proving it.
The result was that white men in the city and county government would make arrangements with their friends to seize the land and auction it off on the City Hall steps. The auctions were rarely announced in advance and it was arranged who would be the sole bidder and what amount he would bid. This is how Grandfather Joe most likely bought his first farm. He purchased more in the middle of the Depression, but I don’t know if he availed himself of the same rigged system.
Sitting in William’s office, I imagined that if I were African American, I wouldn’t want some white person I didn't know telling me what the rules were. I’d come to William, too. Or the woman whose office was across the hall.
“I’m not sure I can help,” William told me after I explained why I wanted to talk to his mother. “My mother has Alzheimer’s. She couldn't help you on this.”
“Do you remember this happening?” I asked.
“I have some vague memory, but I was a kid, and my parents didn’t allow us kids to know much about that. They protected us. We were never allowed ride the bus or eat at a restaurant. They didn’t want to experience segregation.”
I felt like I had hit a wall. This was the last piece of information I needed to prove that Grandfather Joe wasn’t murdered. I didn’t know how else to go to pursue this. “Do you know anyone I could talk to?”
William at first shook his head. “I’m not sure. Let me think about it. I’ll talk to my aunt and see what she remembers.”
A few days later, William asked to meet me for dinner in Memphis with friends. After that, I had lunch with his older brother at the last cafeteria restaurant in Memphis. This was my maternal Grandmother Baden Carrick’s favorite restaurant. I hadn’t been there in years and it hadn’t changed. A week after that William called me again and suggested we go down to Clarksdale for the Juke Joint Festival. I danced until I had to change my shirt. Everybody laughed at me and shouted, “White boy dancing!”
At some point along the way, my willingness to humiliate myself dancing allowed me to crossover from an unknown quantity to a known. I got a call inviting me to meet him at his mother’s house before going to dinner together one evening.
Laverne Edwards’ home was a beautifully kept suburban ranch on a tree lined street. When I entered her home, it was full of family members. I brought a couple of autographed copies of my book Harlem Stomp! Mrs. Edwards was standing in the hallway a little agitated. We moved to the living room and sat down. I was offered tea or a soda.
Sitting around the room were Laverne Edwards, her sister, William, William’s brother, and two others whose family connections I don’t remember.
After introductions and some light conversation, William spoke for everyone.
“My mother returned to Tipton Memorial just few months before your Grandfather was admitted. It had taken four years and the Federal Court forced the hospital to hire her back and give her back pay. When that boy was murdered, my uncle Mac Edwards was the president of the local chapter of the NAACP. My father and my uncle made plans to attend the trial. My mother and aunt attended too.”
Jessie Nelson’s trial had lasted only one day, so it hadn’t been a hardship to attend.
“When your grandfather went into the hospital, he was one of my mother’s patients like all the patients on that floor, black or white. What we remember is that his son and his wife caused a stir about my mother being on the floor, but the hospital supported her. There was a new director at the hospital, and he wasn’t as bad as the last. So she was just doing what she was supposed to. And when he passed, his wife accused my mother of killing him. The hospital supported her and told the family they were wrong.”
“That must have been horrible for your family,” I said.
“It was. It hurt my mother deeply. She was proud of her achievements and to have somebody accuse her of murder was terrible,” said William, “but it wasn’t surprising. That kind of thing happened all the time.”
I could just imagine how on April 3, 1969, a year and a day short after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., forty miles away in Memphis, my Uncle Melvin and Grandmother Zoelette would feel a deep sense of justice deserved. In the past year, most white Memphians and those in neighboring communities had come to believe that they were the true victims of King’s assassination. Their twisted logic argued that the loss of one of America’s greatest and most courageous figures was actually a threat to their own lives. King’s death deepened the feeling in the white community that African Americans were dangerous and out to steal from them their hard-earned way of life. How they perceived the black community in aftermath of the assassination was not as a population, but as a populace who had turned from a docile and controllable to a threatening and dangerous swarm.
My Uncle Melvin and Grandmother Zoelette’s blindness was a blindness that was common and in a way is still common today. It was a blindness that they were completely invested in because to do otherwise would be to deny their sense of justice and righteousness. Grandfather Joe’s friend Jessie Nelson had just been convicted of manslaughter for what they saw was clearly to them an accident. He would have to suffer eight months of imprisonment that, according to them and even some of the jurors, he did not deserve. Grandfather Joe had martyred himself by refusing to go to the hospital until after the trial. According to Uncle Melvin and Dad, he was a man who cared too much, so much so that he had endangered his life by not going to the hospital.
Within this rubric, Uncle Melvin and Grandmother Zolette concluded that Grandfather Joe is murdered by the mother of the boy who Nelson had accidentally killed. They did not bother to investigate if this could be true. They saw a black woman, Laverne Edwards, at the trial and saw her again at the hospital. They simply assumed she must be the mother of the boy killed, even though it was the other boy, the boy wounded in the arm, whose last name was Edwards. They didn’t bother with such seemingly insignificant details when compared to their righteousness.
What their story revealed to them was that the world was going from bad to worse. They must have believed that this would never have happened a decade earlier. From the way that Dad and Uncle Melvin and Dad’s second wife Kati have narrated the events, I can piece together an interpretation that seems both insane and logical. It makes perfect sense that my family would believe that Grandfather Joe was murdered by the mother of the boy who died in Grandfather Joe’s segregated J&Z Laundromat. (By the way, the white J&Z Laundromat was located on the white side of the town.) It made perfect sense that my grandfather could be both heroic in staying by his friend’s side during the trial and being on death’s door, and then not die because of his refusal to get treatment, but be murdered. They could ignore the fact that Grandfather Joe not only had a life-threatening case of pneumonia, but also severe Type II Diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and Hepatitis C. That his entire immune systems and organs were deeply compromised.
The horrible irony here is that my family constructed a highly charged narrative that completely erased the truth about Grandfather Joe’s life and replaced it with an alternative history that enshrined him in righteousness. What this story does is wipe away the truth about who he really was. Grandfather Joe spent his life abusing himself with alcohol and violently taking advantage of African Americans in Tipton County. He had been involved as a Deputy Marshall with the City Marshall in a lynching in 1949. He was fired from the police department in 1957 for drunkenness and being too violent. This in a city where the police chief was nicknamed “Stick” and was notorious for their their violence towards blacks.
In my family’s narrative, Grandfather Joe is transformed from being an abusive victimizer to being victimized. What heightened this seeming truth for them was the fact that neither the hospital nor the police would investigate. The hospital refused to do an autopsy because it was clear what he had died of. The police told them there was nothing to investigate.
It took hardly any time for me to uncover the true story behind Grandfather Joe’s death. If Grandmother Zoelette or Uncle Melvin or even Dad had wanted to find the truth, they could have with a phone call or two, but that wasn't in their interest. That would have never have allowed them to construct a narrative that made them the victims of these changing times when blacks were able to not only demand their civil rights without the threat of death, but actually receive them.
When I finally told Uncle Melvin and Dad what I had uncovered. Dad was silent. He seemed to understand what I was telling him, but he also didn’t seem to accept it. Uncle Melvin was even more adamant.
“I know what I saw and I saw that woman come out of Dad’s room. Then, when I went in he died.”