Tennessee Reopens 78-Year-Old Case Of Murdered Black Activist Rachel Martin talks to Leslie Elaine McGraw, great-grandniece of Elbert Williams, a voting-rights activist who was murdered in 1940. A district attorney announced he was reopening the investigation.


Tennessee Reopens 78-Year-Old Case Of Murdered Black Activist

Tennessee Reopens 78-Year-Old Case Of Murdered Black Activist

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Rachel Martin talks to Leslie Elaine McGraw, great-grandniece of Elbert Williams, a voting-rights activist who was murdered in 1940. A district attorney announced he was reopening the investigation.


This week in Tennessee, a county district attorney announced that he will reopen the investigation of a murder that took place 78 years ago. The murder victim was 31-year-old Elbert Williams.


Williams was a black laundromat attendant who'd become active in voter registration in his hometown of Brownsville. It was 1940, decades before the civil rights movement took off, and Williams was taken from his home by a group of men. A couple days later, his body was dragged out of a river with bullet holes in his chest.

MARTIN: I asked Leslie how she reacted when she found out the case was going to be reopened. We should warn listeners, some of the details in this conversation are difficult to hear.

LESLIE ELAINE MCGRAW: I was pleasantly shocked. You know, there's been discussion about this case being reopened at least for about 3 1/2 years, but it seemed sort of a fool's errand.

MARTIN: What finally convinced them to reopen it?

MCGRAW: A good white lawyer.

MARTIN: He just took it upon himself. This was something he cared about?

MCGRAW: So Jim Emison is a retired cold case investigative lawyer, and he says that he just stumbled upon the case and then just became consumed by it.

MARTIN: Do you remember when you first heard about your great-great-uncle, Elbert Williams, and his murder? Did your family talk about it?

MCGRAW: The family as a whole, no. My grandmother told me - I remember it very well. We used to watch "Little House On The Prairie" all the time (laughter). And so she would talk over the show...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MCGRAW: ...You know, with all her stories. And so one day, she started talking about, oh, yeah, Uncle Elbert. And I said, Uncle Elbert? You mentioned a lot of uncles, but I've never heard about this Elbert character. And she said, yeah, you know, they killed him. And I'm thinking the KKK. You know, I asked her, was it the KKK? And she said, no, they came and took him. And when they found the body, something was weighing his body down in the water, so they had to crank him out of the river. And he had so much waterlog (ph) that his - the blood and the water had swollen his body up two or three times the size. And she went on to describe how badly the body was bruised. And she - this is the first time I saw my grandmother scared. So I was about 8 or 9.


MCGRAW: And the way she talked about it was as though it had happened a week or two ago.

MARTIN: That's a lot of information. That's a lot of detail for a 8 or 9-year-old to take in.

MCGRAW: Yes. So she was 9 years old when - at the time of the murder. And so maybe she thought because she learned this information at 9, that it was time to pass it on when I turned 9.


MCGRAW: But later, I tried to talk to her about it, and she would cut me off. She just said she didn't want to talk about it.

MARTIN: What has been the longer-term impact of his murder on your family?

MCGRAW: The first is - the most obvious is economic because it was a true domestic terror campaign that went down in Haywood County in 1940. And many families, including at least a dozen of my family members, were made into refugees.

MARTIN: So your family ended up having to leave the state. What precipitated that?

MCGRAW: A week before the murder, my cousin by marriage was run out of town. They made him walk on a bed of nails at the riverbank, and he was forced to give the names of who were still in the NAACP. Then there was the murder of my uncle. His wife was told she probably wouldn't be safe, so she moved to New York, I believe. My great-great-great-grandparents moved to Michigan and took my grandmother. So that splintered the family. The impact also came through on a personal level, which is this sort of legacy of shame. Like it's...

MARTIN: You feel shame?

MCGRAW: I do not. But I do feel like within the family - because I've found out there were family members that did know that just had never mentioned it. In the black community, sometimes there's a shame associated with being descended from a slave or being descended from a sharecropper or a domestic. And...

MARTIN: You didn't think of him or the larger family didn't think of him as a civil rights martyr?

MCGRAW: No, because first of all, it wasn't - that part wasn't talked about. Everything was talked about in context of this one moment of victimization.

MARTIN: What are you hoping comes from the investigation? I mean, do you want justice? Do you need to confirm who did it? What do you expect?

MCGRAW: My expectations have already been exceeded. I don't know - the word justice always makes me pause because I don't know what justice would look like. I've heard the term restorative justice, which makes the most kind of sense. Like, there was a installation of a historical marker in downtown Brownsville in 2015. That was healing for the community. Then there's a economic piece. Most people pass down heirlooms and homes and jewelry and everything, and the way that we are made into refugees, the little bit that we had accumulated was all lost.

MARTIN: Do you have kids?

MCGRAW: Yes. I have a 21-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.

MARTIN: Do you know when you're going to tell her about Elbert Williams?

MCGRAW: Well, there'll never be a time that she wouldn't have known. So - and where I told my son at - I don't know - 17, my daughter won't have a time where she doesn't know.

MARTIN: Because he's already a part of your life now.

MCGRAW: He's already a part of my life now. He's already part of the conversations now. I already have a picture of him, and so I have it up on the mantle, and so I tell her, that's Uncle.

MARTIN: Leslie McGraw is a descendant of Elbert Williams, the black civil rights worker whose murder investigation has been reopened this week after 78 years. Leslie, thanks so much for talking with us and sharing your family's story.

MCGRAW: Thank you.

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