A writer comes across a disturbing old newspaper article that needs fresh eyes.
|Pacing the apartment, I feel a squeezing sensation in my forehead, usually meaning a hell of a headache. Sitting down at the kitchen counter, I shove a stack of unpaid bills to the side.
How did I ever get in this much trouble? I have ten stories circulating and no bites. They were the creme de' la creme of my literary cache. Nobody promised writing would be a lucrative career. Yet, I have always been able to keep a roof over my head. I sure put in enough hours. Sometimes I write until my hands get cramping pain and I have to plunge them into ice water for relief. Selling to magazines seems to be getting more difficult each year. Of course, everything is online these days. I have tried blogging and haven't gotten much of a following but I am determined to keep at it.
I have been writing for six years and love the act itself. I get up about ten, drink coffee along with a fruit turnover at my laptop. I usually read The New York Times and Washington Post for info and inspiration. Miles Davis or Billie Holliday serenade me in the background. Sitting down with my laptop open can be exhilarating. When the gods of literature are in the right mood, or karma is shining on me, words pop up and I just translate. That is rare but sometimes it happens so you keep at it. Right now, I need some material that will capture interest. In other words, I need some green!!
Going through my file cabinet, something I had flagged caught my attention. My Aunt had sent it from Mississippi where it was in their local paper. That was two years ago. I had obviously been busy and stuffed it away.
The death of the young woman during a protest in Charlottesville was all over the news. Watching people march with Nazi symbols and torches was disturbing. The article was a large piece on the post Civil War years. It began with the current situation emphasizing the march and death of the young woman protester. The whole protest was over the removal of Confederate monuments. Then the journalist had given some history lessons. In the 1920s up until the late 1960s the Ku Klux Klan, among other corrupt officials, was running a small town justice system.
The article continued with letters discovered when an old home was being cleared out for future bull dozing. The house belonged to the Swift family. Family members had taken what they wanted and left the rest. I am sure finding those letters was like extracting gold for the journalist that wrote the story. Obviously, she had gotten the family's permission to use the material.
One letter, in particular, was upsetting. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my brain, I could try to do a followup with the victim's family.
The letter writer was a Mrs. Eleanor Swift (now deceased) who had witnessed and described a gruesome lynching when she was a young girl. The letter was written to her son, Dr. Andrew Swift. The man that was hung was a young black man, James Agree. James was the son of the Swift family's maid, Ruby Watson and her husband, Leroy Agree. The letter opened a window into those violent times.
My Dearest Andrew,
I hope this letter finds you well and happy in your chosen profession. I am so very proud of all that you have accomplished and know that you will do your very best to heal the sick and comfort those you aren't able to help. Did you find some office space at an affordable price? Let me know if I can assist in any way.
How is the young lady you have been seeing, a Miss Karen Minnon, I believe is the name you mentioned? Is this a serious romance? I hope to get to meet her and her family soon. You might wait until you get established before you take a wife. Listen to me, you are a grown man and this isn't any of my business. I just want you to be happy.
The reason I am writing this letter is because I am sure you have read about a lynching that took place here when I was a child. I probably spoke about it before because it traumatized me so much. I am enclosing a photo from the paper that I saved all these years and now it is being reported about again.
Since I am getting up in age, my darling son, I want to tell you my side of what happened. This type of thing has been a part of our history for many years. When I was a girl it happened quite regularly. We thought of the Klan as our protecters back then. But that doesn't make it right. It was very brutal and if these people got a trial, it was never fair. The deck was stacked against them.
The young man that was hung was the son of our family maid, Ruby Agree. Your grandparents thought the world of Ms. Ruby, Why, she was a good Christian woman that cleaned the Swift home with pride. She also was a wonderful cook and my mother always treated her very well. Mother used to get in the kitchen and they would even cook together. She never stole anything and did as she was told. Why, she practically raised me and your Uncle Randolph! In return, mother made sure Ruby received all the best hand me down clothes, linens and school books.
The following is an account of what was reported. A young chaste white woman, Miss Sharon Hembree, was walking through a wooded area when a man in a Klan robe and hood grabbed her. He covered her mouth and eyes as she kicked. He took her into a densely wooded area and brutally attacked her. Her family wanted justice, of course.
Now, everyone seemed sure a Klan member had not done it. The organization is to protecting white women and family from militant blacks, aggressive Jews and other criminals. They are a Christian organization.
I was in the hall near my father's study and heard voices. The door was ajar and I overheard a conversation between my father (Judge Emerson Jackson), the Sheriff (Richard Donahue) and the Grand Dragon of the local Ku Klux Klan.
They revealed the actual rapist, a Reginald Robinson, a member of the Klan. He used his gown as a cover-up when it happened. He knew the victim and that she walked that way home. Apparently, he was angry because Miss Hembree wasn’t interested in him as a potential suitor. The men spoke about what an important man he was, a banker that had helped many get loans. Surely this was just a "lark" on his part, perhaps he had too much bourbon.
As I listened, it was decided a young Negro man could have stolen a robe and done this awful thing to an innocent white girl.
So the Sheriff picked up James Agree. He had been seen in the area before and was the right size according to the girl. James didn't have an alibi and the girl had already said it could have been a black man. She said that she was so upset that she didn't notice his hand color.
When the judge asked Sharon, she admitted James had looked at her with "desire" many times. That was all the white jury needed to find him guilty and the sentence was death by hanging. There wasn't any due process and the poor boy never stood a chance.
Now, I know you are thinking why I did nothing about this awful miscarriage of justice. You have to remember how powerful my father was. I didn't stand much more of a chance to be believed than poor James. There was nothing I could do to stop this except pray and it weighed heavy on my mind.
My parents had no idea that I would sneak out with a couple of my close friends to watch the lynching. I was supposed to be a young lady that didn’t know about the real world but I have always been a bit of a rebel. It was a dare and a dangerous one. But I have to say that I grew up that night and realized how awful the real world, that I was told was right, could really be so cruel.
James Agree’s hanging was a horrific death with the rope tearing slowly into his flesh. The gurgling noises from his throat and the involuntary jumping of his body terrified me. Finally someone in the crowd shot him. I still have an occasional nightmare about it. His mother was there, on her knees, swaying and praying, watching this happen to her son. I can’t begin to imagine that happening to you and I would have to watch and feel the indescribable pain.
Well, my love, this was something that deeply affected me and I wanted to tell you what really happened. This world can be very cruel. I know that you will do everything in your life to make things fair for all people. I am so proud that you have a good heart.
May God bless and keep you well.
Your devoted Mother ,
Mrs. Eleanor Jackson Swift
The article didn't cover the other side of the story. I wanted to give a voice to the family of the innocent young man. So I packed my bags and traveled to a little town in Mississippi called Dunbar. There was a town square right out of the 1930s. The court house in the middle had both the Confederate and American flags moving softly in the breeze.
It was lovely with a gazebo and park like atmosphere. It is amazing the secrets people keep and then gloss over with superficial beauty.
On the Square was a drugstore, a movie theater, antique shops, a hardware and seed store. From The Dunbar Diner the smell of country ham was powerful. Also there was Henry's Barber shop with the turning white and red pole and a department store with a mannequin in new Levi overalls. Betty's Beauty Salon was busy, a lady in all three seats.
I found the Dunbar Public Library and asked about old newspapers, It didn't take long to find the original newspaper, a 1930 article about the lynching. It reported the story as a young woman, fresh as a flower, had been attacked while walking to a friend's house as the sun was going down. She described the man as wearing a white robe. He was big and rough, smothered her screams while he did many ugly things to her.
She couldn't see his face. The evidence was a white KKK robe found behind the cabin of a Negro, James Agree. He denied having ever seen it. It had a small amount of blood on it. James didn't have an alibi.
So, he was arrested, given a "fair trial" and sentenced to death.
In Hawkins County, the rope represented an instrument of justice when local people ran their own corrupt government.The last hanging was James Agree.
The librarian mentioned the noose was still there.
"It was left to remind people of vigilante justice, I suppose. You know, it must be an awful way to die. It's pretty simple to make, just a loop with a running knot that binds closer the more it is drawn. Makes me shudder to think about it."
She continued, "The Klan is still active around these parts. Once in a while, they march or have a cross burning. We don't have many black residents. Every time one tries to move in, they are harassed until they give up. Hard to believe this still goes on here but justice moves very slow, I guess."
She gave me Majesty Lawson's home address. Majesty was Ruby Watson's granddaughter.
Quite the talker, she told me that Majesty's children had placed her in a nursing home one year ago. She was "frail, in her nineties, had heart disease and diabetes". She stopped to take a drink from her bottled water. "I guess the lady wasn't happy," she continued, "one month ago, she called a cab, went back to her own rickety house".
So, I drove out to Majesty's home. She was sitting on her porch in a rocker that had seen better days, a Bible clutched in her lap. She greeted me with a lovely smile and offered some sweet tea. I gladly accepted.
She was more than happy to share her story. The rope was still there in an oak tree a mile up the road. She had been a very young child when the hanging took place. She couldn't believe how people from all around had come to watch. Some even brought picnic lunches. She mentioned that for many years she had "night fears" about it.
She was born in Hawkins County in Dunbar. Her roots, like the huge oak trees, were here and she had been gone too long. She knew her traveling days on Earth were short and that was fine.
She told me the house greeted her "like an ole friend". Climbing the porch steps, the boards "creaked like my knees". She sat in her rocker, "...remembering the sweet smell of her babies as they nursed". Her husband, Daniel, would plow fields while she shelled peas.
Daniel was buried on this land. He was not alone. They lost Rosie to a fever when she was two and Leroy, that lived for only a "blessed" week.
Majesty had gossiped, giggled and cried here with good Christian friends; drinking sweet tea and playing cards. They were "all gone now". She seemed happy with her memories. I have never seen anyone so content to meet death. She wasn't sure how old she was. How many sunrises had she seen? She was still amazed at "the Lord's paintbrush with flaming colors in the morning" when she had picked up fragile warm eggs.
She opened her family Bible. It was well worn with notes, pictures, along with each birth and death. Each day she read what she could for a while, surrounded by the "smell of honeysuckle and a cool breeze".
Her family took food out to her once a week and helped her as much as they could. They were afraid she would fall, be robbed or raped.
Majesty told them, "God will take care of me".
I told her she had made me think about life and what is important. I had a bitter story that showed how mean spirited people can be. The most frightening part is the blood that was spilled to win freedom hasn't done the job. There is still racism in a lot of America. I believe there will always be the dark corners where spiders hide with venom.
The story was accepted by The Mississippi Post for the magazine section.
Majesty asked me to do one thing to "settle her soul" and I cut down that rope. She said that lifted a burden from her. Now the tree could grow without the weight of hate.
I left feeling lighter.
Two weeks later, I called Majesty's daughter to see if they had received a copy. They had but, sadly, Majesty had passed on.
Her son, Danny, had found her. He said she was on the porch, under a handmade family quilt, with a content smile on her face.
By Kathie Stehr
May 13, 2020