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Oct 26, 2019

The lynching of Thomas Finch

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In 1936, an African American man named Thomas Finch was shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer who later became leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Very little was known publicly about Finch’s death until his name appeared at a new memorial to the victims of lynching. In our first story, Stephannie Stokes of WABE investigates what really happened more than 80 years ago and why the city of Atlanta and its police force never have recognized the case.

Then we revisit a story from Radio Diaries about the execution of Willie McGee, who was put to death in Mississippi’s traveling electric chair. Years later, his granddaughter went searching for the truth. The case has been called a real-life “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

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Credits

The Thomas Finch segment was reported and produced by Stephannie Stokes of WABE and edited by David Lewis, investigations editor at WNYC, and Reveal’s Michael Montgomery. It was produced in collaboration with APM Reports, the investigative and documentary unit of American Public Media, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Special thanks to Susanna Capelouto and Chris Worthingon.

The Willie McGee segment was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries with help from Ben Shapiro, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Deborah George.

Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Amy Mostafa. Hosted by Al Letson.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Found, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama is dedicated to the victims of white supremacy in America, in particular, the thousands of black people who were lynched. It's a striking open air pavilion with hundreds of suspended steel columns engraved with thousands of names.

 

Al Letson: It's important to note that a lynching isn't always a hanging. It's any killing where a mob takes the law into its own hands. The opening of the Memorial and a nearby museum last year drew big crowds and worldwide attention.

 

Speaker 2: The Legacy Museum and Memorial provides a mirror to face some of the ugliness in this country's past, where there's no way we can heal until we first acknowledge and address our wounds.

 

Al Letson: This is what this Memorial sets out to do. Reporter Stephannie Stokes came here a few months after the Memorial opened.

 

Stephannie S.: It's an emotional experience. It's pretty overwhelming. You pass through all of these columns with the names of victims of lynching, and you grasp the immensity of this part of our country's history.

 

Al Letson: Stephannie reports on inequality and racial discrimination for public radio station WABE in Atlanta. So when she found the names of lynching victims from Atlanta, some of the information was pretty familiar to her.

 

Stephannie S.: There are a bunch of names that all correspond to this one event that took place in 1906. They call it the Atlanta Race Riot, but really it was a white mob that killed 25 black people. But after that I actually see a name I had never heard of before. It said "Thomas Finch" and then the date, 1936. I look around at the Memorial and there's no information.

 

Al Letson: Why no information on Thomas?

 

Stephannie S.: The group behind the Memorial, the Equal Justice Initiative, they did a bunch of research to figure out which names belonged at the Memorial. But they haven't made that research public yet. I do know there are a few different lynching databases created decades ago that the Memorial used, but in general, you have to understand these cases did take place quite a long time ago.

 

Al Letson: So Stephannie dug into the newspaper archives. She found a brief story in the Atlanta Constitution which catered to a white audience in the 1930s.

 

Stephannie S.: It says that he was accused of rape by a white woman and police picked him up. He tried to escape and he reached for an officer's gun and that officer fired three times.

 

Al Letson: That is a story that I've heard so many times, both historically, but also in modern-day America. A suspect reaches for an officer's gun, and then the officer ends up shooting the suspect.

 

Stephannie S.: Yeah, that's why I wanted to find more information. And I did, in black newspapers from the time. Their stories actually questioned the police narrative. Then I find this unpublished investigation in a local archive here. It said that Thomas Finch was lynched by the Atlanta police.

 

Al Letson: So even though this story happened in the '30s, it feels really relevant to today. I mean, I'm a big believer in understanding what happened in the past so that we can navigate the present, the future. So you going back looking into the past, how do you do that?

 

Stephannie S.: I didn't just want to find the details of what took place. I wanted to find the people who are around now, the descendants of those involved. And the first person I reach is Thomas Finch's niece and her name is Joyce Finch-Morris.

 

Joyce F-M.: Hi, Stephannie. My name is Joyce Finch-Morris and I am returning your call. This is related to my uncle, Thomas Finch.

 

Stephannie S.: Joyce doesn't sound surprised to hear from me. A student at Northeastern University had contacted her about Thomas Finch's case the year before. We set up a time to go over the research I've gathered. She lives in her childhood home in Atlanta's Grove Park neighborhood. It's an old stone schoolhouse.

 

Joyce F-M.: Hi, how are you?

 

Stephannie S.: Hi. Good. Are you Joyce?

 

Joyce F-M.: Oh, yes, I am.

 

Stephannie S.: Nice to meet you.

 

Joyce F-M.: Nice to meet you. Come in. Here.

 

Stephannie S.: The walls inside are decorated with paintings she's collected over the years, mostly by African American artists, and mementos from her travels around the world. Joyce is dressed carefully. She's formal, a little subdued, but she doesn't hesitate to answer any questions about her life or her family. Although she says there's a lot she doesn't know. She tells me she moved back to Atlanta only a few years ago.

 

Stephannie S.: Do you like Atlanta?

 

Joyce F-M.: Not really. I left Atlanta, because I really did not like it. I grew up in the '50s and the '60s. And when I would to other places, when I would go to DC or I would go to New York or LA, I didn't see some of the restrictions that I experienced here.

 

Stephannie S.: Restrictions like having to use the back door at the movie theater. Joyce's family was part of the city's black middle class, but the realities of segregation were still there. She says in places like New York, she just thought there was more culture.

 

Joyce F-M.: The theater, the museums, what I wanted out of New York, Atlanta just didn't have.

 

Stephannie S.: She moved to New York in her twenties and started a career in finance and community development. She ended up away from Atlanta for 50 years. Today Joyce regrets she never got around to asking her parents for more of their history. She remembers when she was young, she tried to learn about her dad's brother, Thomas. He died more than a decade before she was born.

 

Joyce F-M.: But it was not something that was discussed and, like I say, I could understand. Too painful, perhaps.

 

Stephannie S.: Her mom was the only one who talked about her uncle's death.

 

Joyce F-M.: My mother said that he was lynched, because he was dating someone white, but that's all I knew. I didn't know any details about how and who did it.

 

Stephannie S.: I open up my laptop on her dining room table and I realize I have more information about this part of the family's history than Joyce. We start scrolling through the documents.

 

Joyce F-M.: Now what year was this? Do you know?

 

Stephannie S.: 1936.

 

Joyce F-M.: Oh, my goodness.

 

Stephannie S.: We looked at the report I found by a civil rights group called the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. The Commission's work isn't widely known today, but in the early part of the 20th century, it fought against lynching, along with groups like the NAACP, although the Commission's leaders were mainly white.

 

Joyce F-M.: Can you make it just a little larger?

 

Stephannie S.: Yeah.

 

Stephannie S.: The report says Thomas Finch was an orderly at Grady, Atlanta's oldest public hospital. One day a white patient named Ozella Smith accused him of taking her into a closet and raping her. Thomas' white coworkers didn't believe the assault could've happened. For one, the closet where it allegedly took place was in earshot of doctors' offices.

 

Joyce F-M.: A small closet.

 

Stephannie S.: According to the Commission, this is what happened next: Two Atlanta police officers came to the hospital to find out where Thomas lived, but they didn't go to his home right away. They waited hours, until 3:00 in the morning. When they showed up, they weren't alone. The Finch family noticed several other people, it's not clear who, standing behind the two officers.

 

Joyce F-M.: Oh, my goodness.

 

Stephannie S.: They arrested Thomas but never took him to the police station. Instead, about an hour later, they brought him to Grady Hospital. He had been beaten and shot. I showed Joyce her uncle's death certificate.

 

Stephannie S.: So you can see the cause of death here.

 

Joyce F-M.: Gunshot wounds of the neck, chest and abdomen. He was 27.

 

Stephannie S.: Yeah.

 

Joyce F-M.: Wow.

 

Stephannie S.: The Commission's report concludes that Thomas Finch was wrongfully accused of rape and then lynched. But there's another important detail. I showed Joyce a newspaper story from more than a decade after Thomas' death. It's about the Atlanta police officer who shot him, claiming it was in self-defense. His name, Samuel Roper.

 

Stephannie S.: This is in 1949.

 

Joyce F-M.: Oh, he was a Klansman.

 

Stephannie S.: The article say Roper became the national leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Joyce F-M.: Oh. So I guess that shouldn't surprise anybody.

 

Stephannie S.: Joyce seems calm, but I see her scrunching her eyebrows at times, trying to make sense of all this. Then her thoughts shift to the present.

 

Joyce F-M.: The question is where can this all lead? I mean, could he be exonerated after the fact? I have no idea.

 

Stephannie S.: As a family member, is that something that you would want?

 

Joyce F-M.: If he was innocent, of course. Yes.

 

Stephannie S.: This is a new question that I hadn't thought of. What would it take to set the record straight in a case that happened 80 years ago? I told Joyce I'll let her know if I uncover anything more.

 

Stephannie S.: I go back into the city records. I check notes from the Police Committee from the week he died, board minutes from Grady Hospital. Nothing about Thomas Finch or the Commission's investigation into his death. It doesn't seem like the report was even made public. One of the only experts I reach who has any record of Thomas Finch is EM Beck.

 

Stephannie S.: Great. Well, do you want to start by introducing yourself?

 

EM Beck: Okay. I am EM Beck, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia.

 

Stephannie S.: He spent the last few decades developing a lynching database. I ask him why the city never followed up on the Commission's findings. I know most rural lynchings never got a thorough review, but I also thought this is Atlanta, this is the City of Atlanta. Couldn't something happen there that might not be able to happen elsewhere in the South?

 

EM Beck: Well, I mean, you think about it this way: It's all-white power structure, so you've got to ask, what is it in their interest to try to pursue these things? Especially if it involves the police. I would say that they have no interest in it.

 

Stephannie S.: The police involvement apparently made the NAACP uneasy too. In a letter, the group's director, Walter White, didn't want to call Thomas' case a lynching, at least at first. Professor Beck says the history of police and lynchings is murky. He can think of maybe 30 cases like Thomas'. There could be more. The problem is the only written records are the officers' own reports.

 

EM Beck: I mean, the one thing that we know, at least after the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 is that one of the things that the Klan did was try to recruit policemen.

 

Stephannie S.: Policemen like Samuel Roper. I learned he wasn't the only Atlanta officer loyal to the Klan in the 1930s. This tape is from an oral history interview with former Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins.

 

Herbert Jenkins: Well, I almost say that most of the members at one time, most of the members of the police department were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Stephannie S.: Yeah. The Atlanta Police Department was full of Klan members in the 1930s. It gets me thinking about other police shootings from the time, like the officer who was with Roper the night Thomas died. I see that he killed at least five black men in his career. In one case he used a machine gun.

 

Stephannie S.: But so many years later, there's no evidence to prove these were anything other than officer-involved shootings. That's what makes Thomas Finch's case stand out, as Professor Beck says.

 

EM Beck: I think the case there of Thomas Finch, it becomes, especially with the report done by the CIC, the Commission of Interracial Cooperation, in fact suggests that, yeah, he would fall under the definition of what a lynching would be.

 

Stephannie S.: The Commission's investigation into Thomas' death is the most reliable information I may ever have, but my reporting isn't done. There were two other people directly connected to this case. I want to talk to their families.

 

Al Letson: The first person Stephannie tracks down is the relative of Samuel Roper, the man who killed Thomas Finch.

 

Kent Giles: If we go far enough back, we all have ancestors that did things good and bad.

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We're looking at the killing of a black man named Thomas Finch that happened in Atlanta in 1936. Police claimed they acted in self defense, but a local civil rights group determined he was lynched. Reporter Stephannie Stokes picks up the story of the officer who shot Finch.

 

Stephannie S.: It isn't that hard to trace the life and career of Samuel Roper. He served in the Atlanta Police Department, then moved up the ladder, way up the ladder, to lead the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, making him the state's top law enforcement officer. After that in the late 1940s, he took over the national leadership of the Ku Klux Klan.

 

Stephannie S.: I look up Roper's obituary and from there I'm able to find his grandson, Kent Giles. We talk a few times. He's never heard of Thomas Finch and he's reluctant to do an interview. But after he goes over my research, he agrees and I drive to his house in Marble Hill, a rural area north of Atlanta.

 

Stephannie S.: Kent is ready for me. He's arranged all the documents I gave him on his dining room table, along with a small pad where he's written down notes. He's friendly, but when I turn on the recorder, the room feels a little tense.

 

Stephannie S.: So you were kind of nervous about being misrepresented in this story. I was curious, would you want to talk about that at all?

 

Kent Giles: Well, I just think that there's always a risk by association. I think most people understand that none of us are our ancestors. If we go far enough back, we all have ancestors that did things good and bad.

 

Stephannie S.: Kent says he knew his grandfather. Roper lived until he was 90. They would talk about his service in the First World War and his career in law enforcement and eventually, the Klan. Kent says his grandfather only joined to get ahead in politics. He remembers asking about the violence the hate group is known for.

 

Kent Giles: I said, you know, "When you were head of the KKK," which was actually, I think he was Grand Imperial Wizard maybe a total of a year to 18 months, so it wasn't very long. He said that he never condoned lynching and newspapers report him as saying that "we will consider our political activism for white supremacy, but we will not condone violence."

 

Stephannie S.: I saw an article where Roper said the Klan did not condone violence. But I tell Kent about another article, one where the Klan was accused of bombing the homes of black families in Atlanta. Roper was in charge then. Kent says his grandfather blamed that kind of violence on fringe members.

 

Stephannie S.: He compares his grandfather to Georgia governor, Eugene Talmadge. He was a Klan sympathizer, who, by the way, fought to keep black people from voting.

 

Kent Giles: There was no question their politics was segregationist, it was white supremacist. They were staunchly anti-Communist. Most of the things that I understood about them and about that era were political things.

 

Stephannie S.: So what does Kent make of Thomas Finch's case then? He goes through the Commission's report point by point.

 

Kent Giles: Yeah, it's a lot of detail, but ...

 

Stephannie S.: He says he agrees with the Commission that there are aspects of the case that seem off, like the police arresting Thomas at 3:00 AM. While the Commission says all of this is a police-sponsored lynching, Kent comes to a very different conclusion.

 

Kent Giles: What I read into this event is that the police were concerned that there was going to be a lynching or some kind of activity, either by the accuser's family or some racist group in town.

 

Stephannie S.: In other words, Kent believes his grandfather was trying to protect Thomas Finch from a mob, not conspiring with one. Then he thinks Thomas tried to escape and reached for his grandfather's gun. This is what the officers claimed at the time. Still, Kent says he can totally see why others might side with the Commission's account. I tell him, yeah.

 

Stephannie S.: For a lot of people, right, if they hear that there was a case from the 1930s that a civil rights group said was probably a lynching, and then they hear that the shooter involved was later a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the South, they're probably going to feel pretty certain about what happened, that it was a lynching. Right?

 

Kent Giles: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Stephannie S.: I mean, would you tell those people that they're wrong?

 

Kent Giles: Well, I think all of us have to be honest and say we're viewing the world through certain filters. So I would say to them I'm viewing this through as much truth as I can find, which is a lot of missing pieces, and through the filters of a man I knew. The only thing I can say truthfully is I don't know what really happened and I don't think we're ever going to really know what happened.

 

Stephannie S.: Thomas Finch died more than 80 years ago. None of the witnesses are alive. Still there's one more person I'm interest in, Ozella Smith. She's the white woman who told police that Thomas Finch raped her. I have a little trouble tracking her after the case. She died in the 1980s with a different first name.

 

Stephannie S.: I managed to locate her niece, Dolores Sharp. She agrees to meet me at a library near her home in Peachtree City, south of Atlanta. Like Kent Giles, Dolores is cautious. We spend a couple of hours going over documents before she's okay to talk on the record.

 

Stephannie S.: Dolores says she grew up around her aunt. She saw her any time she went over to her grandma's house. Ozella Smith lived there. She never married.

 

Stephannie S.: When did you first hear this story that I called you about?

 

Dolores Sharp: Oh, I was a young girl when I was told that my aunt was raped by a black person at the hospital. I never really knew a lot of details. And because it was taboo to talk about, you didn't bring it up. I don't know why. I was mature in a sense that I felt like maybe it was something that I didn't need to plunder into.

 

Stephannie S.: She says the assault was just too painful for her family to talk about.

 

Dolores Sharp: Oh, I think it was maybe a major event that permanently scarred the heart and the mind of the members that were closest to my aunt.

 

Stephannie S.: I can hear the conviction in her voice when she talks about this family history. So I'm not surprised when Dolores is disturbed when she reads the Commission's conclusion, that Thomas Finch was wrongfully accused. The implication is that her aunt lied about the assault.

 

Dolores Sharp: When you hear something contrary to what you grew up believing, you might even go on a defense of that. Or you might take the attitude that she was just completely discarded, that what happened to her was completely irrelevant.

 

Stephannie S.: I have a lot more questions for Dolores, but we're interrupted. A Peachtree City librarian motions through the glass of the study room. Our time is up. Dolores asks me if we can reschedule, but weeks go by and she never does agree to another meeting.

 

Stephannie S.: This isn't what I expected to hear from the other families. Somehow after all my research, I thought there might be consensus on how we should look at Thomas' case, but there isn't.

 

Stephannie S.: I talked to Catherine Meeks. She's a former African American studies professor who now directs the Absalom Center for Racial Healing in Atlanta.

 

Stephannie S.: I've realize that I was just so naïve going into this that I was so surprised to have disagreement about something that happened 80 years ago.

 

Catherine Meeks: Oh. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Stephannie S.: I just wondered if we can't agree about that, I think what can we agree about now?

 

Catherine Meeks: Well, we don't agree about the history. We don't agree about the written history of the United States.

 

Stephannie S.: Professor Meeks says lynching in particular is a point of shame.

 

Catherine Meeks: That's one piece of the history that we've tried to harness, to ignore. We'll talk about slavery. We'll talk about Jim Crow. We'll talk about Reconstruction. But we don't really want to talk about lynching.

 

Stephannie S.: Many places in Georgia still don't want to talk about lynchings, even though there were more lynchings here than in any other state except Mississippi.

 

Stephannie S.: There are exceptions. A couple of years ago I drove out to a small city called LaGrange, where the police chief had called a community meeting. 200 people crowded into a Methodist church. Chief Lou Dekmar spoke about Austin Callaway, who was killed in 1940 when a mob stormed the city jail.

 

Lou Dekmar: I sincerely regret and denounce the role our police department played in Austin's lynching, both through our action and our inaction. And for that, I'm profoundly sorry. It should never have happened.

 

Audience: Yeah, yeah. Yes.

 

Stephannie S.: His comments received a standing ovation and drew national attention. But in Thomas Finch's case, it doesn't seem like authorities have any plans to apologize. I let the City of Atlanta and the Police Department know about what I found. I sent emails, even registered letters: Would they acknowledge his case as a lynching?

 

Stephannie S.: Atlanta's police chief Erika Shields wouldn't talk to me. The office of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms only gave a short written statement. It says the City has no official record of Thomas' case, but there is no denying that Atlanta, quote, "still wears scars from the deep wounds inflicted during that dark chapter of history."

 

Stephannie S.: This surprises me too. Atlanta's very different now. The all-white power structure's gone. It's had black mayors for decades and the police force is majority black. But when it comes to Thomas Finch's case, they still have little to say. I ask Catherine Meeks about this.

 

Catherine Meeks: Well, I just think it's denial of the history. I think it's they don't want to take responsibility. They may even be worried that if they say something, they will be admitting to some culpability that might lead them in legal trouble.

 

Stephannie S.: Meeks says it doesn't matter if the people in power have changed. The institutions still need to recognize what happened.

 

Catherine Meeks: It's not as important for me for somebody to go stand up in front of a microphone and say "I'm sorry," as it is for them to really be awake, to really understand and to really do something. But if you're doing all of that, you probably don't mind saying you're sorry.

 

Stephannie S.: For now the most public acknowledgement of Thomas Finch's death is still in another state: the place where I first came across his name, the Memorial for lynching victims in Montgomery, Alabama. Several months after we first met, I joined Joyce at the Memorial. She's on a civil rights tour with a couple of friends.

 

Stephannie S.: We walked down into the lower level of the main pavilion, past a wall with streaming water. Hundreds of steel columns shaped like coffins are hanging above us. They're organized by the counties where the lynchings happened.

 

Joyce F-M.: That's Forsyth County.

 

Stephannie S.: Joyce is moving quickly. She seems anxious, almost excited. We find the column that includes Atlanta. It's so high above us that Joyce strains to make out the names of the victims etched on the column.

 

Stephannie S.: Can you see it?

 

Joyce F-M.: Mm-mm (negative). I really can't. And actually that might be good, because I don't want to start crying.

 

Stephannie S.: So my photographer takes a picture of Thomas' name and enlarges it on the screen of his camera.

 

Speaker 12: So just to give you context. It's the bottom right, here.

 

Joyce F-M.: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh.

 

Speaker 13: Thomas Finch.

 

Stephannie S.: She and her friend stare at the image. Then Joyce approaches me.

 

Joyce F-M.: I'm really reserved most of the time and I hold my feelings in. I never knew my uncle, but I can pass this along to my family members, the ones who are still alive, and to my grandkids. And ...

 

Stephannie S.: She pauses, like she's taking in what's around her. Her uncle's name among more than 4,000 other African Americans who were lynched in this country.

 

Joyce F-M.: I mean, this is history. I mean, he's memorialized. And he's not forgotten and I didn't even know him. He really [inaudible 00:25:23]. And it's important.

 

Stephannie S.: We step outside the pavilion and see another set of the columns lined up on the ground. They're duplicates, but people behind the Memorial want to send them to the counties where the lynchings happened, sort of like historical markers.

 

Stephannie S.: In Atlanta, there's a private group working to make that happen. It would finally bring Thomas Finch public recognition in the city where he was killed more than 80 years ago. After spending all this time on his case, I can't say how that effort will be received.

 

Al Letson: Stephannie Stokes is a reporter with public radio station WABE. Her story was edited by David Lewis, investigations editor at WNYC and produced as a part of a collaboration with APM Reports.

 

Al Letson: Examining America's darkest chapters can be hard because, well, truthfully, America likes to hide its sin. That was certainly the case with one woman's search for the truth about her grandfather's execution in Mississippi.

 

Speaker 14: Hi.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Yes, we wanted to come in and see the traveling electric chair?

 

Al Letson: That's next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Joyce Finch-Morris never got all the answers she was after about the killing of her uncle, but she did get some closure. That's what Bridgette McGee was looking for too.

 

Al Letson: Her grandfather, Willie McGee, was put to death in 1951 after being convicted of raping a white woman. On the night of his execution, close to 1,000 people gathered around the courthouse in the small town of Laurel, Mississippi. A local radio station was there broadcasting the event live.

 

Al Letson: The case was widely covered when it happened, but after the execution, the story of Willie McGee was largely forgotten. Some 60 years later, Bridgette McGee teamed up with Radio Diaries to search for the true story. Here's Willie McGee and the Traveling Electric Chair, first broadcast back in 2010.

 

Audio: This is a case that has gone through six years of law courts. Certainly it's a scene that nobody likes to see: the execution of any human being. But when it becomes necessary, it must be done. Here earlier this evening we got a glimpse of the electric chair. Indeed, it was a frightening thing, to be sure.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Growing up, I didn't know anything about the story. Nothing. It was never talked about in our house.

 

Audio: [crosstalk] there are two of them here tonight. [crosstalk 00:28:03].

 

Bridgette M-R.: My name is Bridgette McGee-Robinson. I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am the granddaughter of Willie McGee.

 

Audio: On the grounds of the Laurel courthouse, they wait for the news that Willie McGee has been executed for his crime.

 

Bridgette M-R.: I remember I was about 12 or 13 years old. I was with my mom. We were cleaning out her room. She was under her mattress and there was these newspaper articles inside a plastic bag. There was a photograph, and so I said, "Who's this man?" She said, "That's your grandfather." I asked her, "Well, what happened to him?" But she snatched it from me and told me to put it back. She says, "You wouldn't understand that right now."

 

Bridgette M-R.: So I let it go for years and basically, on my mother's deathbed is when she began to talk to me about it. She told me to find out the truth. I told her okay.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Welcome to Mississippi. I haven't been to Mississippi since I was a little girl, but here I am. I came here to find out what happened to my grandfather. Now, I want to know the good and I also want to know the bad. I want to hear it from the blacks; I want to hear from the whites. I don't know where my journey will lead, but I know where it has to start.

 

Harvey Warren: We're walking up the steps of the Jones County Courthouse.

 

Bridgette M-R.: This is the courthouse.

 

Harvey Warren: Yes. In recent years [crosstalk 00:29:33]-

 

Bridgette M-R.: I met up with a man named Harvey Warren, who grew up in Laurel, Mississippi.

 

Harvey Warren: This is the location where the electric chair was brought and Willie McGee was executed.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Do you know of anyone that may talk about it or ...

 

Harvey Warren: Even today, most people do not want to talk about it.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Harvey Warren: I think you have to put in your grasp of what took place is the climate. Everything was segregated. That was our side of the tracks, which was mostly across the GM&O, and then there was the white folks' side of the tracks, which was west of the Southern Railroad.

 

Harvey Warren: Lives were lived that way and I knew, even as a six year old, where I could go and where I could not go. Willie McGee, obviously, we knew that he had gone on the wrong side of the tracks.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Laurel Leader Call, November 5, 1945: Willie McGee, 30-year-old Laurel Negro, was arrested in connection with the assault of a white woman, which occurred at her residence early Friday morning.

 

Anne Sanders: My name is Anne Sanders. I'm a native of Laurel, Mississippi, and I covered the first Willie McGee trial for the Laurel Leader Call newspaper.

 

Anne Sanders: It was just unheard of, a black man raping a white woman. I mean, the fact that he came into a white woman's house and raped her, it just incensed everybody, it really did. The rumor got out that they were going to get him out of the jail and were going to lynch him. So when he came for the trial, they brought him in a National Guard truck for his protection.

 

Jon Swartzfager: My name’s Jon Swartzfager. My father was the district attorney and a prosecutor of Willie McGee. The truth of the matter is that Willie McGee was going to be convicted. You had 12 white males on the jury, who have to make a decision: Are we going to believe the white lady or are we going to believe the black man?

 

Anne Sanders: When Mrs. Hawkins testified, she said that she had a baby about 3 months old. Her husband had gone up into the living room to go to sleep. And Willie McGee, he had come in, got into the bed, and put a knife to the baby's throat, and said, "If you don’t," you know, "agree, I will kill your baby." So she, of course, couldn’t do anything else.

 

Anne Sanders: Willie McGee, he did not defend himself. During that whole trial, I never heard him utter a single word. Of course he was scared to death. I noticed his chair was wet, pants were wet, and there was a puddle under the chair. He had wet himself.

 

Anne Sanders: The decision was real quick. The jury stayed out only a few minutes. The judge told him, "Willie McGee, your sentence is to be electrocuted."

 

Della Johnson: Hello?

 

Bridgette M-R.: Can you hear me, Aunt Della?

 

Della Johnson: Yeah, I can hear you.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Okay. Well, I’m calling you and I got you on the recorder, because I’m taping this information. Okay, Aunt Della, say your name and who you are. Go ahead.

 

Della Johnson: My name is Della Ree McGee Johnson.

 

Bridgette M-R.: And you are?

 

Della Johnson: Willie McGee's oldest daughter.

 

Bridgette M-R.: So Aunt Della, when you first heard about what happened to Granddaddy, you, Mama, Aunt Gracie, Uncle Wilero, when they first came to you guys and say he’d been arrested, do you remember that?

 

Della Johnson: That's the reason why [crosstalk 00:33:21]-

 

Bridgette M-R.: My Aunt Della, she's the only child of Willie McGee left. And she said, “My mama told me the whole story of happened with the alleged victim and my grandfather.”

 

Della Johnson: I was told that they had been going together. And then when they finally got caught, they accused him of rape.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Did they say how long they had been dating or going together?

 

Della Johnson: No, I don’t know if it was years or what, but back in the South, black mens couldn’t fool with no white women, but the white men could fool with the black women. So ...

 

Bridgette M-R.: Well, you know I'm researching all this information. You think I’m opening up a can of worms?

 

Della Johnson: I'd be.

 

Bridgette M-R.: All right. I love you.

 

Della Johnson: All right. I love you too.

 

Bridgette M-R.: All right. Bye bye.

 

Harvey Warren: There is the white view and the black view of what took place with Willie McGee. Blacks, for the most part, we understood that Willie did not rape that woman. He was in a relationship with this woman.

 

Harvey Warren: With Willie McGee being self-confident and good looking, pretty sure about himself, he was too bold to just, once they got a whiff of it, to leave town. Just run away, go to Detroit some place. He was going to remain here. And that was the result.

 

Bridgette M-R.: I’m interviewing all these people and reading letters, newspaper articles, the court documents. But I’m still missing some things. I would love to speak with Willette Hawkins, the alleged victim, but she died a long time ago, and her family does not want to talk about this. They do not want to bring this up anymore.

 

Raymond Horne: Come in.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Okay.

 

Raymond Horne: Come on in and sit down. I'll get you a chair.

 

Bridgette M-R.: I am here at the home of Raymond Horne, who was a young reporter for the Laurel Leader Call at the time of the execution.

 

Raymond Horne: I just kind of wonder, after what, 60 years almost, why this is so revived?

 

Bridgette M-R.: I'm doing it because I want some history. I'm like the family historian.

 

Raymond Horne: I can be very sympathetic with you, because I’m a historian for our family and I believe in that kind of business. But I’ve discovered especially in family histories, that usually there are some wonderful things that you find and some very bad things that you find.

 

Raymond Horne: Now, one of his defenses was that it was consensual. Did you hear that?

 

Bridgette M-R.: Right. Right.

 

Raymond Horne: That it was consensual. That is one of the craziest arguments that could be made.

 

Bridgette M-R.: But hearing that it was consensual, it wouldn’t be no different than a black woman sneaking around going with a white man. It happened all the time.

 

Raymond Horne: Personally, in my lifetime, I was never aware of a white woman that had a consensual relationship with a black man. I'd never heard of it. I don’t find it plausible at all. But there’s no way to say this was the way it was, because the parties that knew are deceased. There’s no way to know, period.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Laurel Leader Call. December 27, 1945: The case of Willie McGee, Negro, convicted of raping a white woman will be appealed to the state Supreme Court. The fight to save the life of Willie McGee has been taken over by the newly-formed Civil Rights Congress.

 

Liz Abzug: A case like that sometimes becomes a symbol. My name is Liz Abzug. My mother was Bella Abzug, former congresswoman from New York, and she was one of the defense lawyers in the Willie McGee case. You know, coming into a small town in rural Mississippi, these communist lefties, northern Jews, people were kind of in disbelief. It was like, "Why is she here?"

 

Anne Sanders: What’s her name, Bella Abdul? She come down here to make sure he had a good trial, and sometimes, she was just a downright nuisance. I mean, you'd tell her something, and she, "Well, how do you know that? Well, why do you know that?" She just thought he was being railroaded, and she took it all the way to the Supreme Court to stay the execution.

 

Bridgette M-R.: New York Times, April 1, 1951: Several thousand demonstrators paraded in Times Square against the execution of Willie McGee. Several large groups chanted, "Jim Crow must go. Free Willie McGee."

 

Raymond Horne: One black man and one white woman in a little old town, back then probably 20,000 people, I don’t know why this one struck a fire, but it blew.

 

Donna Mills: Some very well-known figures became involved: William Faulkner, Albert Einstein. There were even leaflets dropped over soldiers who were fighting the Korean War to let them know about Willie McGee.

 

Jon Swartzfager: It became more of a cause, and I think Mr. McGee got lost in the magnitude of all of it.

 

Raymond Horne: His case covered five years and five months and involved three trials, six stays, and three state Supreme Court refusals. That was it. That was it.

 

Bridgette M-R.: The Mississippi Correctional Officers Academy.

 

Speaker 14: Hi.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Yes, we wanted to come in and see the traveling electric chair.

 

Speaker 14: Yes ma’am. It’s been here a long time. We've had it a long time.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Long time.

 

Speaker 14: But it’s over in that front lot.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Okay. Thank you.

 

Speaker 14: Okay.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Mississippi used to have what they called a traveling electric chair. They would take it from town to town. They would set it up in the courthouse, electrocute the person, pack it up, and take it to the next spot.

 

Bridgette M-R.: And we come around the corner and there is this electric chair, not on display, just sitting in a corner with some baseball trophies. It was not what I expected at all. Are we sure this is the right one?

 

Bridgette M-R.: I thought the electric chair would look like, I don't know, something made of metal with a head thing that comes off on your head or something. It's just a old wooden rocking chair is what it looks like. Chair that somebody would sit on their porch and watch the cars go by.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Who in their right mind created this thing? I don't know. This is just ugh. I don’t want to record anymore.

 

Audio: I’m sure that you have heard over both radio stations, WFOR and WAML, that all channels open to Willie McGee to save his life have now been exhausted, and the execution is to take place here this evening. [crosstalk] up on top and the [crosstalk] is now climbing on top of the [crosstalk 00:40:24]-

 

Raymond Horne: I went up that night to watch the execution and the crowd was already gathering. There were hundreds of people all over the place.

 

Audio: ... he set his camera [crosstalk 00:40:34]-

 

Anne Sanders: The weather was good. It was a nice night because it wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t too cold. People were visiting with each other and talking and passing time away.

 

Audio: I think the majority of the crowd is now over here on this side of the courthouse, where they can see and hear the power unit for the state of Mississippi’s portable electric chair.

 

Jon Swartzfager: The execution was broadcast on the radio. And I’ll never forget to this day is the announcer mentioned some young boy who had climbed up a tree.

 

Audio: We note that there's a boy over here in a tree, climbing ever higher into the branches [crosstalk 00:41:08]-

 

Jon Swartzfager: And was looking inside the window-

 

Audio: ... I say, it looks like he's going to see it. He's up there in that tree looking into the window.

 

Jon Swartzfager: ... where Mr. McGee was to be executed.

 

Audio: It’s now straight up of 12:00, and certainly, there can be no more than two minutes left to go. I think perhaps the best thing we could do is just hang this mic over and pick up the grind of that generator, so that we'll be sure and pick it up. Jim, if you're listening, you might jack our gain up a little bit.

 

Crowd: Whoo-hoo. Whoo! That’s it! That’s it.

 

Audio: Well, ladies and gentlemen, we just assume that that last surge was the final 2,000 volts of electricity that meant the end of Willie McGee.

 

Audio: Okay, Granville, thank you very much. Certainly WMAL and WFOR intended no sensationalism in this. It was simply that it was a news story and we wanted to cover it as best we possibly could. So thank you all very much for listening. This is Jack Dicks then returning you to your respective local studios.

 

Harvey Warren: Willie McGee’s body was taken to Pete Christian’s Funeral Home. And my mother and father took me over there. I knew what I was going there for. It was like a business that had to be taken care of, and you go in there and you view the body.

 

Harvey Warren: I did not close my eyes. I did not close my eyes, because that was a specific message that my daddy wanted me to get. And that message was, you do not get connected with white girls. You see what happened to Willie McGee. I understood that. My daddy let me see it long enough to get the message and then took me back home.

 

Raymond Horne: After his execution, everybody pretty well washed their hands. That was the end of it. They said, "We’ve suffered. This city has suffered. We’re glad it’s over. Let’s forget it."

 

Anne Sanders: The blacks and the whites didn’t talk about it between them. Even today, none of the blacks I’ve had that helped me through the years, we never mentioned it. They believed he was innocent, and the whites believed he was guilty. Simple as that. It’s always going to be that way. It was just not a good thing to argue about it.

 

Bridgette M-R.: There's one more person I really need to speak with. I am going now to meet Jon Swartzfager. His dad prosecuted my grandfather back in 1951. He was the one who basically sent my grandfather to the electric chair.

 

Bridgette M-R.: So we came up to his house, and I was very nervous.

 

Jon Swartzfager: [crosstalk 00:44:08]. So nice to meet you.

 

Bridgette M-R.: He opened up the door, him and his wife-

 

Jon Swartzfager: So nice to meet you.

 

Bridgette M-R.: ... and they looked at me, and he hugged me.

 

Jon Swartzfager: Y'all just go ahead and make yourselves comfortable.

 

Jon Swartzfager: Well, I remember the night of the execution very well. We were all standing in the kitchen and my father reached up in the cabinet and got a pint of bourbon. He took the fifth of whiskey. He hid it inside his coat, and when he got to the courthouse, he told the sheriff he wanted to see Willie McGee alone in a room, just the two of them.

 

Jon Swartzfager: They sat and they talked while Mr. McGee drank the whiskey. My father asked him, said, "Did you or did you not rape Mrs. Hawkins? Were you guilty?" And he got his answer. My father never divulged it to anyone else and I’m not going to divulge it now.

 

Bridgette M-R.: I wouldn’t want you to go against your father’s wishes, but I still want to know as much history as I can about my grandfather. I’m not looking for him to be wrong, nor I'm trying to find out if he was right. But it sure would make me feel better to know.

 

Jon Swartzfager: I certainly appreciate what you’re saying. But we have to take into consideration there was a pint of bourbon involved. I mean, this man was facing death in the matter of an hour or so. And what a person would say at that time, especially if they had been drinking, I just don’t think it’s fair to repeat him.

 

Bridgette M-R.: But I also know that a drunk speaks a sober mind. And at that point in time, what did he have to lose anyway?

 

Jon Swartzfager: I wish I wouldn’t of told you now. I mean, I really do. Because as much as I know that everybody wants me to say he said, yes, he did it, or no, he didn't do it, is I can't say that. I'm not going to say that. To keep rehashing something that happened 60 years ago can’t possibly bring about any good now.

 

Bridgette M-R.: But me as a granddaughter, I’m here to get information, because there’s another generation ahead of me that carries the McGee name now. They don’t even know any of the history of what happened. So that’s my place.

 

Jon Swartzfager: Bridgette, I certainly have a great deal of compassion for your family. I mean, none of y’all did anything. I’ll give you your answer, because I think you’re entitled to it. But I’m going to do it for you, off the record, alone. Is that fair enough?

 

Bridgette M-R.: That’s fair.

 

Jon Swartzfager: All right.

 

Bobby Bender: How you doing?

 

Bridgette M-R.: I'm good. I'm-

 

Bobby Bender: I’m Bobby Bender.

 

Bridgette M-R.: Hi, Bobby.

 

Bobby Bender: All right.

 

Bridgette M-R.: We’re trying to locate where my grandfather could be buried, where his body could be laid.

 

Bobby Bender: If they were buried during that time frame, they would be in this location right out here somewhere. But there are a lot of gravesites out there, the markers have been knocked off and all there is is just like a little indentation in the ground to show that there's a body that's buried there.

 

Bridgette M-R.: You mind if I just take a look and see?

 

Bobby Bender: Sure.

 

Bridgette M-R.: So you said anything that’s unmarked could be Willie McGee’s gravesite.

 

Bobby Bender: Yes.

 

Bridgette M-R.: For all I know I could be standing on top of his grave. Who knows?

 

Bridgette M-R.: Things are never as clear-cut as we want them to be. The words that my grandfather said that night before his execution, I’ve been keeping those words a secret. But recently, Jon Swartzfager has given me permission to share them.

 

Bridgette M-R.: The prosecutor asked my grandfather as they were drinking, "Did you have sex with Willette Hawkins?" And my grandfather looked up at him and said, "Yes, sir. But she wanted it just as much as I did."

 

Bridgette M-R.: How do I feel about those words? I don’t know. I’m not really sure. I don’t think we will ever know the total truth, truth, truth. But I know what I believe, and that’s my truth. So when my kids and my grandkids, my nephews and my great-nephews, come to me and ask me, "Who was my great grandfather?" I’ll be able to tell them. This is the story of Willie McGee.

 

Al Letson: That was Bridgette McGee. She worked with Radio Diaries on that story, which first aired back in 2010. That story was produced by Joe Richman and Samara Freemark of Radio Diaries, with help from Ben Shapiro, plus two of our own, Reveal producer Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and senior editor Deb George.

 

Al Letson: Unfortunately, this is Deb's last week with Reveal. She's leaving us to return to NPR, and they are so lucky to get her and we are going to miss her deeply. Best of luck and I pray that there will be many collaborations in the future.

 

Al Letson: Our show this week was edited by Michael Montgomery with help from Taki Telonidis. Special thanks to Susanna Capelouto of WABE in Atlanta and Chris Worthington of APM Reports. That's the investigative and documentary unit of American Public Media.

 

Al Letson: Our production manager is Mwende Hinojosa, original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They're helped this week from Najib Aminy and Amy Mostafa. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember there is always more to the story.

 

Audio: From PRX.