Feature: A Lynching’s Long Shadow

“So, who is your daddy’s mama?”

“I don’t know my grandmother on my daddy’s side,” he said.

“When did granddaddy and grandmama get married?”

“I don’t know when my parents got married.”

Higginbottom knew little because his mother and extended family fled Mississippi after the lynching. They raised E.W., the eldest, and his siblings, Flora and Willie Wade, in Forrest City, Ark., and later in Memphis. Higginbottom’s mother told the children their father had been hanged but didn’t share many details. And she almost never spoke of her dead husband’s character, habits or looks — the stories of his life. Maybe grief kept her quiet. Or fear. Either way, Higginbottom knew better than to mention his daddy. Sometimes he asked his cousins Dorothy and Olivia about him, but they told him to leave it alone. Don’t mess around in that, they said. You might get hurt.

Higginbottom had occasionally returned to Oxford when he was younger, chaperoned by uncles who wanted to visit relatives or take in a service at the family’s former church. But it had been a long time. He stared at the fields consumed by kudzu, the gravel drives, the hardwoods lush with summer growth, and saw only a foreign country. “I was trying to see something I recognized around here, but I don’t,” he said. “It don’t look like I ever lived down here.” As they sped closer to Oxford, he kept gazing out the window, scanning the landscape for even a spark of memory.

What does it mean to confront the past? This is a question that has dogged Washington and her family their whole lives, but also one that’s increasingly urgent for a country that has yet to achieve the equality many thought would follow the civil rights movement. African-Americans lag behind white Americans in almost every conceivable measure of well-being: educational attainment, homeownership rates, income, health outcomes, life expectancy. Black men are far more likely than their white counterparts to fall into poverty, to be incarcerated, to be shot to death by the police. “Black and brown people are still presumed dangerous and guilty,” said Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal-aid organization in Montgomery, Ala., that has led recent efforts to re-examine the lynching era. “There are these terrible disparities in quality of life for people of color, and you begin asking questions about why these things persist, and I think it inevitably leads to wanting to talk more concretely about history.”

Washington’s grandfather was one of at least 4,100 African-Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950 in 12 states clustered along the curve from Virginia to Texas. Although racially motivated lynchings also took place in other states, they were far more common in the South. Black men accused of violent crimes — many of whom were very likely innocent — were frequent targets. But other black men, and women and even children, too, were lynched for insisting on their rights, or for minor violations of the racial caste system, like failing to step off a sidewalk to make way for a white person. On April 26, Stevenson’s organization will open the country’s first memorial to lynching victims, alongside a museum to racial injustice, in Montgomery.

E.J.I.’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice will feature 800 suspended columns — one for each county where documented lynchings occurred — engraved with victims’ names. The design is intended to convey scope but also, more ambitiously, to reshape a Southern landscape awash in Confederate symbols by asking each of those 800 counties to claim a duplicate marker and erect the six-foot monolith on its home soil. “In Berlin, you can’t go anywhere without seeing stones and markers dedicated to the Jewish and Roma residents who were forced from their homes and taken to the concentration camps,” Stevenson said. “And that iconography creates a consciousness of what happened that I think is necessary for that society to recover. In the American South, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history, about the 19th century, about the good old days of the early 20th century.”


Newspaper articles about Elwood Higginbotham’s death in 1935. Clockwise from top left: The Chicago Daily Tribune; The New York Times; The Atlanta Daily World; The North Mississippi Herald.

Stevenson has advocated fuller acknowledgment of the impact lynching had on African-Americans, both in terms of the trauma sustained and the concrete ways lynching disadvantaged communities. In some places, lynchings were accompanied by mob destruction of black business districts, adding economic devastation to sorrow. And African-Americans who migrated north or west to escape the threat of violence had to start over. Many left social networks, homes and businesses, making it extraordinarily difficult for families to build intergenerational wealth.

E.J.I.’s point of view stems from earlier scholarship and activism that tried to foster lasting conversations about lynching and puncture popular myths about the practice, like the notions that lynchings were isolated aberrations, pioneer justice or the work of social outsiders like the Ku Klux Klan. The unsettling “Without Sanctuary” exhibit, for example, made its debut in New York in 2000 and featured graphic photos of burned and mutilated black bodies surrounded by jubilant white crowds, some of which swelled into the thousands. Among the most disturbing images were those of white children in the crowds, some with expressions of smug delight on their faces. “If you want to talk about what stands in that place of distrust between blacks and whites, that’s part of it — not that there are just individuals, but hundreds or thousands of white witnesses who might stand beside and fail to stop this,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the author of “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century.” “This is powerful, to unpack the complicity of those who remained silent and stood by and watched. That always has to be reckoned with, and we have to deal with that today.”

The gruesome nature of lynchings, Ifill noted, was the main point; they were meant to haunt and intimidate, and to thus ensure the continuation of white supremacy. Stevenson makes a point of calling them “racial terror lynchings.” The killings rippled beyond individual victims and their families to shroud entire communities in fear and shame. In some places, lynching memories suppressed black voter participation for decades. Even today, Ifill and Stevenson said, memories of racial violence can be so traumatic that survivors, witnesses and inheritors stay locked in silence — much like Higginbottom’s mother, who took her husband’s memory to her grave. “There are thousands of African-American families with histories of horrific victimization and racial oppression that have never openly talked because it hasn’t felt safe or healthy to have those conversations,” Stevenson said. “We’re just finding our voice, many of us, to insist on truth telling. And my view on truth and reconciliation is that it’s sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation until you first get to truth.”

Washington — and her five siblings — wanted to get to the truth about their family long before they ever imagined returning to Oxford. When they were kids, their father was too angry to talk about his father at length, and other relatives spoke only hesitantly, if at all, about the killing. So the children spun their own stories, embroidering fragments of truth with scenarios lifted from movies and books. Over the years, the theories hardened into beliefs. Wright felt certain that someone — maybe her mother? — had said that white men lynched her grandfather because he protested when they tried to force his wife to work the cotton fields. Her brother, David Higginbottom, worried that his grandfather might have been murdered for having an interracial romance. Washington thought about her grandmother’s light skin and wondered if she had been the object of a dispute. “We grew up thinking that maybe somebody liked my grandmother and maybe it had something to do with her,” Washington said a few days before returning to Oxford. “Maybe it was her fault — you know, not her fault. But maybe somebody liked her and tried to get to her, and my grandfather tried to protect her.”

The trip to Oxford’s Winter Institute, which was housed inside a Brutalist hulk of a building on the University of Mississippi campus, marked the culmination of a monthslong unraveling of their grandfather’s story. Earlier in the year, a Northeastern University law student named Kyleen Burke emailed Washington’s cousin Tyrone Higginbottom, who then put her in touch with the rest of the family. She told them that she had done extensive research on their grandfather’s life and death as part of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which investigates Jim Crow-era cold cases, and she shared some of what she learned so far. As Washington settled into the Winter Institute’s high-ceilinged meeting room, she — and her sister, father, brother-in-law and children — were still processing Burke’s avalanche of new information and wondering what else might be revealed.

A few interested community members, black and white, trickled into the room to listen. Tyrone, a son of E.W.’s brother, Willie Wade, who died in 2005, also joined them. Framed photographs of the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike hung on the walls, and the leaves of an enormous magnolia tree could be seen fluttering through a window. A tiny woman in her 40s introduced herself as April Grayson, the Winter Institute’s community-building coordinator. Grayson, who is white, grew up in Rolling Fork, Miss., and has done reconciliation work in some of the state’s most divided places, including Neshoba County, where she helped grass-roots activists who pushed to reopen the cases of the Freedom Summer volunteers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, who were abducted and murdered in 1964. In 2005, a ringleader and former Klansman who had escaped justice, Edgar Ray Killen, was finally convicted and sentenced to 60 years for the crimes. Grayson read a poem by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop, “Those Who Are Dead Are Never Gone,” and then she invited the family members to introduce themselves.

“I’m glad to be here, and so excited about learning information, having never met my grandfather,” Wright began. Wright, who is 55, has a beautiful singing voice and an outgoing nature despite the grief she has experienced. Her first husband and her eldest son died young; the son was shot and killed before he turned 30. Sometimes she thinks about her grandfather and wonders if a curse hovers over the family’s men. “I’m just ready to get some information so I can talk to my grandkids, because I have seven,” she said.

Burke was there, too, in the form of a disembodied voice emanating from a phone speaker. Grayson asked her to provide an overview of the lynching, and everyone turned to face a beige landline propped on a chair. Irven Wright aimed his cellphone camera at the room, so he could stream video for family members who couldn’t be there. From his home in Killeen, Tex., David, a 56-year-old Army and Marine Corps veteran, watched and listened. He scrutinized his father, a man who dropped out of school in seventh grade and picked cotton so his mother and siblings could eat, who fought in the Korean War and who for decades worked backbreaking jobs to support Morline Lowe, the Arkansas beauty he married in 1955, and their children. The older man had removed his newsboy-style cap and sat apart from his daughters and grandchildren. “I try to put myself in his shoes,” David said. “I try to be him. I thought, What would my heart feel right now?” As Burke began to speak, David’s father sat bolt upright in his chair, as if braced for a blow.

Higginbottom’s father, Elwood Higginbotham, was around 28 in 1935, working as a sharecropper in the Woodson Ridge area northeast of Oxford’s city limits. (It’s unclear how father and son came to spell their surnames differently, but the family believes Higginbotham’s widow may have changed the spelling to cover their tracks after fleeing.) Higginbotham shared a three-bedroom house with his 22-year-old wife, Melissa, and their three children. The youngest, Willie Wade, was still a baby.

In the 1930s, Oxford and the surrounding areas of Lafayette County remained, in many ways, hardly different from the time of Reconstruction. Cotton reigned as the dominant crop. The county’s population was around 20,000. But change was afoot. Main streets gleamed with pavement rather than dirt. Men found work, even during the Great Depression, building a government-funded dormitory at the University of Mississippi campus, which remained segregated until James Meredith began attending in 1962 amid notoriously violent protests. The town’s most famous literary son, William Faulkner, had already written “The Sound and the Fury,” and he lived a short walk from the busy town square. Nearby, African-Americans nurtured a middle class in a vibrant Freedmen Town that offered taxis, grocery stores and a Rosenwald School; one former resident described the neighborhood as “a black man’s city in a white man’s town.”

But Oxford was still a white man’s town, as Higginbotham would discover. Archival documents offer differing accounts of the killing, as is the case with many lynchings. Often newspapers document that a lynching occurred but otherwise prove unreliable. Reporters frequently omitted key facts or filed sensationalized tales of black criminality. Some explicitly sanctioned lynching, even going so far as to announce killings in advance. The Oxford Eagle delivered lackluster coverage of Higginbotham’s death. As recorded in the papers of the civil rights worker Jessie Daniel Ames, an editor at The Eagle later explained to an anti-lynching investigator that “he had to live in Oxford and that he wanted to get along with the people there, and that the race situation made it practically impossible to carry the facts about the killing.”

Those facts began on the night of May 21, 1935, months before Higginbotham was killed, according to an investigation by the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, an anti-lynching organization founded in Atlanta in 1919. Higginbotham and his wife, the commission reported, were in their bedroom that spring evening when a white farmer and neighbor named Glen Roberts arrived. He had at least one other man, his brother, in tow, and according to other records, he was armed. The sharecropper and Roberts had quarreled earlier; Higginbotham had objected to Roberts’s running cattle over his rented field. Now Roberts wanted to whip him for it. When Higginbotham refused to open the door, Roberts broke down an exterior shed room with an ax. Then he chopped his way into the hallway. Higginbotham, the investigators wrote, warned Roberts to stop. Roberts crashed into the bedroom next, at which point Higginbotham shot and killed him.


E.W. Higginbottom in Memphis, Tenn.

Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

The gravity of that moment must have registered with Higginbotham immediately. Roberts was a prominent member of the Oxford community: He enjoyed a reputation as a crack fox hunter, he played fiddle at local celebrations and he was white. Higginbotham fled, and the sheriff rallied hundreds of men to pursue him. They trailed bloodhounds across forests and fields, arrested another black man on suspicion of helping Higginbotham escape and severely beat one of Higginbotham’s sisters. Higginbotham evaded them for two nights before the searchers found him submerged in a creek across the county line.

The search parties might have lynched Higginbotham right then and there, but the Pontotoc County sheriff sent him to Jackson, Miss., 150 miles away, for safekeeping. A district attorney and the county attorney, who was Roberts’s nephew, arrived at the Jackson jail the next day. They left, boasting of having obtained a written murder confession from Higginbotham despite the fact that, according to census records, he could neither read nor write. “We have a clear-cut case of coldblooded murder against the Negro,” the district attorney told a reporter. “The Negro is a vindictive type.” They sought the death penalty.

Although he had supposedly confessed, Higginbotham pleaded not guilty when he returned to Oxford three months later for trial on Sept. 17. Melissa testified, an act that would have exposed her to possible retribution and that undoubtedly influenced her decision to leave. The hearing lasted a mere afternoon, but records suggest that some jurors doubted the prosecution’s story. The judge issued careful instructions to the jury, advising them that if they believed that Roberts had entered the home in “a rude, an angry manner, and then and there held a pistol pointing toward the defendant,” that they should find Higginbotham not guilty. Hours later, the jury had yet to reach a verdict, and two jurors were rumored to be holding out for acquittal.

What might have become a victory for Higginbotham and for the rule of law instead devolved into an extrajudicial killing. Not far from the white courthouse at the center of Oxford’s square, a mob formed early in the evening outside the jail. Estimates put the crowd at as many as 150 men. Anyone walking to or from the heart of town would have witnessed the lynching party. They would have seen the killers enter the jail, where, through force or persuasion, they bypassed three sheriff’s deputies and the jailer before pulling Higginbotham from his cell. They would have seen the men force Higginbotham into a car and begin driving up North Lamar Boulevard. The caravan swept by the grand homes of Oxford’s wealthy, then past the edge of town and the lonely Three-Way intersection, before stopping in the woods off old Russell Road. Higginbotham, one newspaper reported, stayed quiet during the ride. The men took the sharecropper out of the car, hanged him from a tree and shot him.

As Burke summarized Higginbotham’s story — his fateful encounter with Roberts, the “ridiculously quick trial” and the lynching itself — his elderly son remained dry-eyed. His mother never told him about his father’s desperate escape or about the trial. Higginbottom’s stoicism didn’t surprise his son David, and it didn’t fool him either. “He taught us that men don’t cry,” David said. “But I can tell when he’s emotional.” He saw pain registering on his father’s face. “It would look like he kind of just left the room,” David said. “He looked like he sort of just left the room, and then he’d come back in.” Wright didn’t weep, either. She was still trying to grasp the meaning of everything she was learning. “I may have been in a little bit of shock,” she said. “Like, really? This is what really happened?”

Washington, for her part, had already read Burke’s written report and was more familiar with the story than her siblings. But there was one revelation she never tired of hearing about: that before his death, her grandfather might have been a labor activist. “It’s possible,” Burke said, “very possible, that Elwood Higginbotham was actually involved in union organizing within a Communist labor group, trying to build power among the local sharecroppers, particularly the black sharecroppers in the area.” Lynchings to eliminate African-Americans who advocated political, social and economic reforms peaked in the early 20th century, and a union affiliation provided an additional motive for Higginbotham’s lynching — perhaps he had been targeted before the argument with Roberts. But Washington cared more about what a labor role suggested about her granddaddy’s character than what it said about his killers. The image of her grandfather as a labor organizer, a man fighting for his people, made her think of Cesar Chavez. “Here he was, only 20-something years old,” she said. “To be that brave and young in the South? Brave.”

Burke’s research brought David Higginbottom great relief. His grandfather, it turned out, hadn’t cheated on their grandmother, as in the tale his young mind had invented. “You sort of feel a little proud, in a crazy sort of sense,” he said. “Proud that he’s not the guy that you perceived that he had been.” The chronology, horrible as it was, also helped David better understand his own father. E.W. Higginbottom’s hatred of Mississippi was family legend, and that antipathy made sense now that the family was talking more openly about the killing. So did other things. As an adolescent, David spent what felt like every waking moment at his father’s side, traversing Memphis in a red 1964 Malibu, going from one lawn-mowing job to the next. He hated it; he felt smothered. But the more he thought about his grandfather’s death, the more he saw his father’s behaviors — the angry flashes and the hovering — as fear for a black son in a hostile world: “His thoughts were, If I can keep you around me working, I don’t worry.”

Wright asked Burke about her family tree. “Kyleen, you said his family was big? How many?” she asked. “I’m wondering how many siblings my grandfather had.” Burke read nine names: Dela, Hosey, Rella, Jumilla, Walter, Bee, Hulette, Queen and Evelena. She also knew the name of Wright’s great-grandparents: Robert and Katie.

Conversation flowed toward the future. Lafayette County has two Confederate soldier statues, erected in 1906 and 1907, standing in prominent locations. One faces south behind the courthouse. The other statue — whose creators conceived it as a monument to “heroes not forgotten” — looms above a grassy circle on the University of Mississippi campus. It’s now accompanied by a “contextualization plaque” installed in 2016 at the insistence of student activists and faculty, who observed that the statue’s creators wanted not merely to remember the dead but to extol white Southern nationalism and reframe the Civil War as a defense of states’ rights. Not long before the Higginbottoms’ visit, the Lafayette County board of supervisors heard public comments about the Confederate statue on the square, some of which called for removal. “There is a growing movement of people in the state who seem very committed to bringing this up,” Grayson said. “As we’re in conversation about Civil War memorials, Confederate memorials, how do we broaden that discussion to memorializing people like Elwood Higginbotham?”

There’s no marker to him or to the six other men who were lynched in the county, one of whom remains unidentified. John Ashworth, the project manager for the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, which is trying to partner with E.J.I. to erect markers to 37 lynching victims in Shelby County, said that remembering men like Higginbotham is delicate work. He has researched cases in which family members had no idea their relative was lynched or didn’t wish to revisit the traumatic story, and he has seen others in which the killing grounds have been obliterated by parking lots or office buildings. But for descendants who can and do participate in memorialization efforts, he said, the process can be healing. “It is a validation of their humanity,” Ashworth said. “At least somebody cares about what happened.”

Washington was thinking about hearing those family names — Robert and Katie — for the first time. “That’s my great-grandparents,” Washington said. She and her family followed Grayson downstairs to a rear parking lot and climbed into a rented blue van. Another cousin, a brother of Tyrone’s, had arrived late, which brought the total of Elwood Higginbotham’s gathered children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to eight. They represented just a fraction of Higginbotham’s direct descendants, and in the months to come, Washington and Wright would describe for many of the others — their four siblings who couldn’t attend that day, as well as children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and cousins — the places they were about to see.

The inhumanity of lynching is hard enough to fathom, but the culture of impunity that allowed the killings to continue for so long is perhaps even more mind-boggling. Seventeen years before Higginbotham died, for example, a lynching party dragged another black man, Nelse Patton, from the Oxford jail. Afterward, a former Mississippi representative and senator, William Van Amberg Sullivan, boasted about his involvement to The New York Times: “I directed every movement of the mob, and I did everything I could to see that he was lynched. … I saw his body dangling from a tree this morning, and I’m glad of it.”

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