Friday, July 19, 2013

My great great uncle was Trayvon Martin: A historical unsolved murder

The post below was inspired by both the Trayvon Martin case and a question posed on a genealogy group I am a part of. The prompt from the group is below

Someone asks you to help them find family info, you give them the basics (census records, etc), they share this with their family. You get threatened by a family member and are asked to stop searching.

What do you do????

While doing my own genealogical research a few years back, I found out about a murder that everyone of a certain generation knew about but would not discuss. When I tried to ask about it I was always hushed and told not to ask any more questions or share the story. One relative suddenly acted like my asking about the murder would bring violent reprisals on the family. Right after I first heard the story, the local newspaper in my great grandparents hometown ran a 100th anniversary issue that discussed whatever the front page news was for that day 100 years before. The family murder story suddenly became front-page news...again.

Unfortunately, the modern day reporter was able to gather as few facts about the case from the record and descendants of those involved as the original reporter. In other words practically nothing. It seems like since it was a white man killing a black boy, none of the white people in town would discuss the matter and the black witnesses were neither quoted nor named. In fact there was only relative of the victim who would even speak to the modern reporter about it. You know, that cousin who is so old she has long since stopped caring about what other people think. I of course went to her too in search of answers. That’s when I finally heard the whole story. When I started to share what I had learned with my cousins, my only living great aunt jumped up and hushed me. She said we can’t talk about that because the murderer's family will come after us. She looked terrified. I got a similar reaction from other relatives her age. But who was going to come after us? The murderer died back in the 50’s.

Maybe its na├»ve but I share the story anyway… it is below without names.

The story: My great grandmother had 9 siblings. Her second oldest brother and her third oldest brother were picking beans for a white farmer in a tiny town in east Alabama in 1905. The younger brother who was about 12 at the time had been maliciously picked on a few times by the white overseer's son who was about the same age. That day the boy was picking on the younger brother again and this time he couldn't take it any more.  The younger brother spit on the overseer's son. The son started punching the younger brother. That’s when the older brother grabbed the overseer's son, pulled him off his little brother and punched him. When the boy fell out and started crying and yelling the two brothers took off running home.

Once they got home and told their mother what happened, she told the older brother to jump on the family mule and find the boys' father who was working on another farm a few miles away. All of the boys' younger siblings gathered on the porch with their mother to watch him leave on the mule. Suddenly the overseer rides up on his horse and shoots the older brother right off the mule with his shotgun. Then the overseer rides off out of town. The boys' mother runs to her son and he dies in her arms. This was all over a fight between two kids.

The overseer was never prosecuted for murdering my great great uncle. He was killed in front of his family including 6 of his younger siblings. Many of their children seem to have absorbed the trauma of that event and continue to live in fear of speaking about the incident, including my great-aunt.
According to the 100th anniversary article, several other "negroes", who had been picking beans alongside the boys, were questioned by the police. Unfortunately, their testimony never made it to court because the murder was never put on trial.

The cousin who told the story was actually the daughter of the baby the mother was carrying at the time. I heard the trauma and her grief at watching her teenage son die was so great that she almost lost the baby. Some of the descendants of this branch of my family are still very distrustful of white people. It's sad but when you add up all of the many terrible things that happened to them their fear, anger and frustration are understandable. Being a 20-something northerner it took a lot of time, research and patience to understand why my cousins continue to react the way they do to this story, and to their white neighbors. When you spend your life being pushed around and afraid to fight back; when all the adults tell you to turn the other cheek or you'll be killed; when you have to live down the street from and occasionally interact with the man who killed your brother/uncle/child and his relatives... then maybe that fear is justifiable.

I tell the story because distance and time give me the power to do so. If this was 1913 instead of 2013 or if the overseer's grandson was known to be just as ruthless as his grandfather, I would not be saying a word.

I write this little story not only in memory of my great great uncle Joe but also in memory of Trayvon Martin. 

1 comment:

  1. How horrible. The stories do indeed pile up. Racial injustice has plagued this country from the beginning, among too many other injustices. Right now I'm reading "The Warmth of Other Suns," in which yet more stories pile up. I grew up in Jim Crow times, but I'm learning from Wilkerson's book how bad it was/is, all over again. Thank you for this very timely post.