TRU STORY EXCLUSIVE: THE STOLEN LEGACY OF ELBERT WILLIAMS
Tru Story Exclusive: About Elbert Williams
The Stolen Legacy of Elbert Williams by Leslie McGraw
Thank you for tuning into the Tru Story blog series: About Elbert Williams. I will share some of what my uncle’s murder meant to me and my family.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that today is the day many will celebrate Juneteenth. Juneteenth is an observance of when the last black slaves were freed in this country, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the brutal murder of Elbert Williams in rural Brownsville Tennessee. Elbert was an outspoken, 31 year old, charter member of the National Advancement of the Association of Colored People (NAACP) in Haywood County, Tennessee. At the time, Haywood County was one of just three counties in the state where African Americans had not been permitted to vote since the Reconstruction era. Historians think this was mostly because of the fear of the loss of control in politics. For instance, in Haywood County the ratio was 3 to 1 black to white. Allowing blacks to vote had the potential to change everything they knew. Even today, downtown Brownsville has plaques and statutes under the confederate flag, grieving the end of the old South and loved ones that lost their lives defending it.
But, here’s a little bit about Elbert…
My grandmother remembers “Uncle Elbert” to be a generous and kind man who took great pleasure in treating his nieces to movies, ice cream, and other special treats that they might not have experienced from their parents at the time.
Elbert was a loyal and dedicated fireman at the Sunshine Laundromat doing what would now mostly be considered as “dry cleaning”. He was so loyal that his wife Annie knew there was definitely something going on when he did not arrive to work the day after he was taken from his home.
Mrs. Mildred Bond Roxborough, the daughter of then NAACP President Ollie Bond, remembers her father speaking highly of Elbert. “He was younger than most of the members, but my father convinced him to get involved and hold an office in the NAACP.” Some saw Elbert as the next NAACP President because he was smart and “wouldn’t back down”. This was a necessary attribute for the position at the time. Mrs. Roxborough remembers several times as a young girl seeing her father come home badly beaten by white men who were encouraging him to stop his work on voting rights. In fact, shortly after Elbert’s Mr. Bonds was given word on Christmas Eve that he should leave town or he would be killed that night. He left that day and later that night his beautiful show home was burned to the ground.
Elbert was a threat
Young, articulate, smart, trustworthy, and outspoken; Elbert was a threat. The threat white people must have felt by Elbert’s existence was evidenced by his murder. When two fisherman found Elbert’s body floating in the Hatchie River three days after he had been kidnapped from his home, his body was badly decomposed and weighted to a log. Furthermore his body was bruised with holes in his chest and his tongue and manhood had been ripped from his vessel and shoved into his mouth.
When I think about my Uncle I think about my grandmother and her parents and all the family that endured his death. My family was hardworking and entrepreneurial with businesses, homes, a chapel, a cemetery and many talents. After Elbert’s death, our family along with dozens of others abandoned everything to migrate North. Our family has been robbed and cheated out of our legacy many times over.
I have so many thoughts about Uncle Elbert. Sure, he was killed 75 years ago but he walked and lived with the people that I love that are still roaming the earth. My mom and her generation weren’t given the same charge. It is up to our generation to seek justice for our grandparents or we will find ourselves crying over the injustices sure to come to our own children and grandchildren.
Today, I speak from a place of healing and pride in the accomplishments and perseverance of my family and am honored to be “home” in Brownsville to commemorate “Uncle Elbert” with a historic marker in downtown Brownsville. I will still be able to see that darn confederate flag in the background, but it’s a start.
A Seventy Five Year Old Lie: Part I by Leslie McGraw
June 20 marked the 75th anniversary of the brutal murder of Elbert Williams in rural Brownsville Tennessee. Elbert was an outspoken, 31 year old, charter member and secretary of the National Advancement of the Association of Colored People (NAACP) in Haywood County,Tennessee.
My grandmother, just 9 years old at the time of his killing, saw and heard more than any child should. When I was about 11 she told me her Uncle had been lynched for helping people to vote and that was why her family decided to move to Michigan. She was “prompted” to tell the story as we were watched something on TV that featured a black man getting beat up and prepared for lynching. I don’t even remember what the show or movie was anymore; just that my grandmother had shared a heavy piece of information with me and that it seemed painful for her to think about. I also took note that this uncle of hers had never been mentioned before in all the stories she had shared. Neither of us brought it up again.
I would be an adult before I dared to mention it again and at that time she told me that he was actually lynched by someone in the NAACP for purportedly sleeping with their wife. Another time, she told me he was killed by other black townspeople. When I questioned her on the difference in the story, she would get defensive and tell me “that’s what they said” and she must have gotten it wrong when she told me as a child. Later, I would find out that the white press had put out a number of degrading stories about my uncle around the time of his death to distract from the lynching that took place. I don’t think she ever really believed the rumors, but was somehow protecting me from getting involved or digging up the past. She knew me all too well. I would not learn the details surrounding his life and murder until January of this year.
Growing up in Michigan
The first black man I considered to be a hero was Frederick Douglas. Over a hundred and fifty years past the time he became a free man, his life was brought current to me through reading his autobiography. I was ten years old. Ten isn’t very old, but certainly too old to have found my first black male hero. You see, at that point, I did not have any significant relationships with any men and my mom, grandma, and aunts seemed to spin the world in which I lived.
I had black men that I loved within my family and church family, but I had my own ideas of what constituted a hero. What I considered to be a hero as a young girl was a man that would stand in truth and lead. They were courageous and did big things. The heroes I followed were Superman, Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Darren Stephens (Bewitched), Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles Ingalls (Little House) and Walt Disney. In school, there was a non-stop parade of (white) historic figures that did notable things for our country, sacrificed and excelled from Columbus to Reagan. We learned when they were born, what they did, how they died. For hundreds of years, the American Education system had rehearsed its wonderful tale of good white folks and all the good and wonderful they have contributed to the world.
What little we learned about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Rev. King during February was truncated so much that it didn’t seem all that grand. Where was the glory in sitting down on a bus or being a runaway slave or walking a couple blocks with a group before giving a speech before getting shot to death? In fact, in those days calling someone Harriet Tubman or “African” could land you in a fist fight on the playground. For hundreds of years, our society and public education system had rehearsed a narrative of blissful subservience when involving people of color. The history books reflected that.
I would be in middle school or older before I understood the adversity in which these activists persevered or the heroic sacrifices they made.
Home conversations supported what I had absorbed at school and television. There wasn’t a lot of talk about anyone who did anything extraordinary. My mom and grandma didn’t do any male bashing, but what they didn’t say spoke volumes. The black men I saw and knew were often nice, but just not hero material. They weren’t owning businesses or heading households or making waves in the newspaper. There was always some sort of struggle attached to their existence. I never felt ashamed of having ancestors that were slaves, farm workers, or domestics. A strong work ethic was taught to me early and I believed that to be a strength of our family.
The Lie Continued
In the synopsis for the new movie, Little White Lie, the author states that “silence and secrecy can eat away at the core of a family and its ability to function and communicate.” That was our family’s lie…silence. As an adult I have learned about the successes of members of our family, but there has been a disconnect. I knew one of my relatives owned the local fish market for years but my immediate family was so disconnected after the migration that none of his kids or grandkids knew us. I went to grade school with relatives that I would not verify were kin for many years. As an adult, my uncles Donnie, Vernal, and Eldred ironically were the ones I learned about some of the major contributions our family has made over the years. Still, there was no mention of Uncle Elbert. For 75 years there has been mystery, pain, and shame around Uncle Elbert’s death.
The Truth About Elbert Begins to Unfold
On January 17, 2015 my life changed when I received a Fed Ex package from cold case investigative lawyer, Jim Emison. He had identified me as a relative of Elbert Williams and had documents inside that included the death certificate, a statement from his wife after his murder, original field findings from Thurgood Marshall, and an excerpt of the speech from Medgar Ever’s funeral that mentioned Elbert.
Still in shock, I called Attorney Emison up and the first question he asked was “Did you know you’re the great grandniece of a hero?” No, sir. Actually, I didn’t…
After the initial shock of hearing from the Cold Case Investigative Lawyer, Jim Emison, in January I went to my grandmother to let her know that there was finally someone who was going to pursue justice for Uncle Elbert. I didn’t receive the response I had expected. Apparently, contact had already been initiated to reach out to my grandmother as well as several cousins, none of whom were interested in talking with the lawyer or answering his questions. I didn’t initially understand why everyone wasn’t ecstatic to be a part of this movement.
One week after speaking with Attorney Emison on the phone, he and historian John Ashworth drove up from Tennessee to meet and interview me. At our first meeting, I was given a large picture of the 1939 Chapter of the NAACP in Brownsville, where Uncle Elbert stood proudly to the left. Until this point, I had never seen a picture of him.
I showed grandma and she only seemed half interested. Later that week, I came over to get a copy of her childhood stories that she had put together years back. During that visit she shared the family bible, with all the official birth and death entries written in my great grandmother’s handwriting and pictures I hadn’t seen before. We didn’t talk about Uncle Elbert, just combed through pictures while she told me a story connected to each picture.
It would be weeks before my grandmother lashed out about why she didn’t want anything to do with the efforts to honor Uncle Elbert. She spoke of all the terrors she had to deal with as a child in Brownsville. The frequent lynchings and threats, the constant fear, the torment her mother went through until her dying day remembering what they did to her brother, and so much more. What was most memorable about her outburst is that she did not seem to be my wise, calm, grandmother that speaks from experience and love. Instead it was like watching a 9 year old girl express her feelings of fear and pain through the body of a 84 year old woman.
A couple weeks later, while sitting watching President Obama speak, I remembered a moment I had shared with my Cousin Annie during his first presidential campaign. She said that she was proud of him, but she was not going to vote for him. I said “what?” It didn’t make any sense at all. She said, “I just don’t want them to hurt him or his family.”
It was all starting to make sense now. Our family was still holding on to a lot of fear surrounding the lynching of Uncle Elbert. In fact, fear had been passed down all the way to my generation. Except the fear that was passed down to my generation was handed over without explanation.
In reading through the literature I received from Mr. Emison and Mr. Ashworth, I realized that not just our family had suffered from this hand-me-down fear. For instance, it would be 21 years after the lynching of Elbert Williams before another group of people felt brave enough to start another local chapter of the NAACP.