By Ruth Deen
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” Psalm 23
On July 4,1930, my father was three years old. Late morning, his mother was making potato salad in preparation for the holiday. He was outside playing with his two older brothers, ages 4 and 6. Their father was playing checkers. Shots rang out. Granddaddy Grover stood up to see what was happening. He was hit in the head by a stray bullet and died instantly. A man named Arch and others went after those thought to be responsible.
This is a story I heard every Fourth of July all my life. And my father cried as he told it.
In the past few months I learned more of the story from a cousin. Several of the older men involved approached him and filled him in on details I had not known. I was so traumatized by what I learned that I forgot to tell my brother until about a month later. I wanted to process what I had heard.
Three black men were sold a battery that didn’t work. They felt they had been ripped off and were angry. One of them fired the shots. My grandfather was going for his gun when he was shot. The white men grabbed a young black man on the scene that they believed fired the shots. A posse was formed to go after the other two.
The posse went to an old black preacher’s house. He was sitting on the front porch, in a chair leaning against the wall, with a rifle across his lap. His family slipped out of the back of the house and escaped through a cornfield.
Arch told him to give him the rifle. The preacher said ”That’s not going to happen.” Arch kicked the chair out from under him, then grabbed the rifle and shot and killed the preacher.
The young black man taken earlier was hanged that evening. Every man present put a bullet in the body. My father’s older brother was given a gun and told to put a bullet in the dead man.
The other person escaped and went somewhere north. The young man who was hanged was his brother. He was not the one who had done the shooting. The posse killed the wrong brother.
Three people were now dead: a father, a preacher, and a brother. This was an ugly violent story of injustice.
What reminded me to tell my brother was a visit to a Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The docent used a phrase I had not heard before, “inherited trauma.”
This happened 90 years ago in Emelle, Alabama.
“Try to learn to let what is unfair teach you.” ~ David Foster Wallace