Jim Emison works to restore lost history in Tennessee and to find justice for an American martyr.

Share story

Jim Emison’s voice gets tight and his eyes teary when he talks about Elbert Williams. “This man died because he wanted to be a real American, because he wanted to vote, and I want America to know him. He’s a real hero.” Emison is on a quest to make sure that happens, bringing to light some lost American history.

He was in Seattle this month for the first time since he mustered out of the Navy here in 1971. He came to speak at an event for blackpast.org, the history website created by recently retired University of Washington professor Quintard Taylor, who grew up in Haywood County, Tenn., where Elbert Williams was killed in 1940.

Emison and his family lived in neighboring Crockett County. His law practice included Haywood County, but he didn’t know about Williams. Emison’s grandfather was a judge, his uncle and father were lawyers, and they would have known the history but never spoke about it.

Emison learned only after he retired in 2011 and started working on an article about local history. There was a mention of an incident that led him to start digging. He’s working on a book about Williams’ death.

Haywood was a cotton county, which meant lots of enslaved people. When slavery ended, black people, who were the majority of the population, joined the party of Lincoln, voted and, along with a small number of whites who favored Reconstruction, ran the county. It was a brief moment of democracy. As everywhere, Reconstruction was short-lived. The North let white Democrats reassert themselves, intimidate the black population and reclaim dominance.

The last time a black resident registered to vote was in 1907, Emison said. Most black folks were working as sharecroppers, living on the same plantations, in the same shacks, doing the same work as their enslaved parents and grandparents.

But in 1939, 52 people who had had enough of being denied a basic right formed a local chapter of the NAACP to register black residents to vote. The leading white residents harassed the first president, had him arrested on phony charges and beaten, then burned his house down. He fled the night of the fire.

Ongoing terrorism caused about 22 black families to flee before Williams took the lead in the NAACP. Then a group of men, led by two police officers, came to his house and dragged him to jail in his pajamas. Three days later, his mutilated body was pulled from the Hatchie River, and it would be more than two decades before black citizens tried to vote again.

The coroner did not examine the body but instead ordered that it be buried immediately. Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, went down to investigate, and the NAACP got the FBI involved. Reluctant agents had as their local guide the new sheriff, who as an officer led the mob that took Williams from his house. The case was closed, and the FBI records were classified until 2008.

Emison told me that, “At first, I though this must be a real aberration.” But it wasn’t. “The horror was in its commonness, not its uniqueness.” There were 3,959 confirmed lynchings of black people in the U.S. from 1877 to 1950, according to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative.

Emison’s work is bringing recognition to Williams and the history he was part of. In February, the state of Tennessee erected a historical marker near the laundry where Williams and his wife worked. In June, on the 75th anniversary of Williams’ death, 500 people, including Taylor, attended a memorial ceremony.

Emison has put together a team of experts who are volunteering their time to identify Williams’ grave in a search for evidence that might reopen the case.

Emison said that when people ask him why he’s doing this, he tells them, “This man never got justice. Government at every level failed him.”

Maybe, he said, dealing with the past openly would be helpful as we deal with a lack of trust in the justice system today. Certainly, ignorance of the past isn’t working for us.