'Sometimes the South Really Is Something Out of a Flannery O’Connor Story'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s how reader Laban Carrick Hill frames a horrifying chapter in his family history. (He first emailed us last summer when we were doing a reader series on personal stories of racism.) Laban is an award-winning children’s author, but this story is definitely not for kids:

I am white and my family is from Memphis and Covington, Tennessee, just a few miles up the Mississippi Delta. My family was something that most people today are more than reluctant to admit: It was violently on the wrong side of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a complex and brutal story that still haunts me at age 55.

My grandfather, Joe Oscar Hill, was born in 1901 to a father who was 60 years old. My grandfather was dismissed from school in the second grade because the teacher thought he was retarded. (In his early 20s, he discovered that he only needed glasses.) At 25, he married my grandmother, who was 14. Neither of them were literate. My father grew up on their 200-acre cotton farm without electricity and indoor plumbing.

Covington Leader, July 2, 1947

In 1949, when my grandfather was a deputy marshal in Covington, he, the town marshal, a store owner, and another man seized an African American father, Jimmy Wade, outside the Sunday evening services of the Church of Christ in God. They took him to the field behind the store owner’s house, castrated him, shoved his privates into his mouth, and dragged him behind the car by a rope. When that didn’t kill him, they shot him 20 times.

According to an article in the Covington Leader newspaper [PDF], Wade had tried for the marshal’s gun. The autopsy done by the county coroner, who I interviewed at 94 years old, declared his death by four gunshot wounds. I was able to put together the real story through interviews with people in the community.

In a followup email, Laban elaborates on those interviews and provides several more documents:

I did this research in the late spring of 2008. I spent two months in Covington interviewing people. On Jimmy Wade’s death certificate [PDF], the cause of death was “shot” and “due to: shot dead when I saw him.” On the second page [PDF], the undertaker from Bryant Funeral Home (one of two black funeral homes at the time) declares: “Homicide 6-29-47.” The county coroner at the time, Doc Ellison, was still alive in 2008. He confirmed that JWSr. was shot at least 20 times, but he would not discuss the death.

This lynching occurred around 9pm after Jimmy Wade and his son, Jimmy Jr,. watched Sunday afternoon baseball and then went to the pharmacy on the square to get an ice cream. They were sitting on a bench on the side of their house across the street from the church listening to vespers, since it was hot and the windows were open. JWSr. liked to sit outside and listen rather than go in the church, while his wife and daughter were inside.

Around 9pm, a black sedan with four men inside pulled up alongside the father and son. Sheriff Jim T. Scott got out of the car and told JWSr. to get in. The other white men in the car were Mr. Strickland (the owner of Strickland Grocery who accused JWSr. of attempting to rape his wife), my grandfather Joe Oscar Hill, and another man, unknown. They took JWSr. to a field behind the Strickland home where they castrated him, dragged him behind the sedan by a rope, and shot him 20 times.

In addition to the death certificate and article, I am also including a transcription of a conversation I had with Jimmy Wade Jr. in 2008 [PDF]. He lives in Detroit. JWJr. told me that 6/29—the day of JWSr.’s death—was his sister Margaret’s birthday and she never celebrated her birthday again.

I also spoke with his older half-sister, Mary Sue Wade, who was an adult at the time [PDF]. Here’s how she described JWSr.’s wounds:

Both forearms were broken in defensive wounds. The back of his head crushed. Shot through the wallet in his breast pocket into his heart. The pocket had powder burns and pieces of the wallet were found in his heart. They cut him down where his private clothes.

This lynching terrifies the black community even to this day. People remember it and don’t feel safe. Hattye Yarbrough, JWJr.’s elementary teacher at the Fraser School, described how she felt:

I shared my feelings with very few people because I didn’t know how others felt, but not a lot of people talked about this. I was told I would lose my job.

In Tipton County, where Covington is the county seat, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, the ATF considered the county to be the most corrupt one in Tennessee. From my research, I was told that everyone, black and white, carried a gun. It was like the Wild West.

If you’re interested in more, Laban recently started blogging about his family history. In another email, he sends “just a little something for you to see how crazy Covington was”:

I’m attaching a flyer [PDF] that was handed out at a KKK rally on the Covington town square in 1966. The event was advertised as a “Public Meeting” by the “Conservative Americans” who are “concerned about: (1) Unlimited power of Federal government; (2) Communists infiltration; (3) Lost of state control of schools; (4) Government control of private business; (5) Subversive action by certain minority groups.”

The featured speakers were Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton (he’s pretty notorious at the time) and Henry Loeb, former mayor of Memphis and future mayor during the Sanitation Workers Strike and MLK Jr’s assassination. Oh, and Loeb’s also a Jew. Go figure that one out.