These past couple weeks I’ve begun work on drafting the final section of my novel, The Hyphenates of Jackson County. Since I began the book, I knew the story would end with the events surrounding the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse, and in some ways I’ve been working backward from that point in my mind, figuring out both how such a thing came to happen and why it’s a part of the story I’m telling.
There’s quite a bit that’s been written about what happened in downtown Omaha on September 28, 1919–first-hand accounts, timelines of events, conspiratorial explanations for its cause, a Grand Jury investigation–but surprisingly little has been written about whether or not the accusation of rape that led to Will Brown’s brutal lynching was true or not, or somewhere in-between. This is so for a variety of reasons. Foremost, there was never anything resembling a trial that would have brought some of the details of the case to light; Brown was lynched a mere three days following his arrest. Beyond that, there was a fire at the police station years later that destroyed any police record of the event, and Will Brown wasn’t from the Omaha area, and he didn’t have family here that would remember or memorialize him. I imagine any of his friends would deny any connection to him after the riot, out of fear. Also, as is common, no one really wanted to talk about the incident after it happened, particularly in the intervening years. So the truth remains something of a mystery. Which is where the historical fiction writer comes in, I guess.
During my preparation for writing this final part of the book, I came across an NPR feature from last spring that is really quite enlightening, horrifying, and sad. I feel compelled to share it here, and strongly urge you to take a listen. I’m not sure if Bridgette McGee-Robinson–the granddaughter of a man, Willie McGee, who was accused of raping a white woman and subsequently executed in an electric chair–unearths a lot more information than she already knew before she sought out to find the truth about her grandfather, but the story illustrates so well why such things happened. Most likely, Willie McGee had an ongoing sexual relationship with woman for quite some time, and once that relationship was found out, it was easier for her to damn McGee than it would have been to suffer the stigma attached to a white woman who willingly carried on with a black man. It’s the pull of propriety that caused the whole thing to happen like it did. For the jurors (all white) to admit the possibility that a white woman had sex with a black man consensually would turn their society upside-down, of course. McGee was originally kept from being lynched by the National Guard, and if it wasn’t for that, the affair and its dirty, deconstructing realities would have disappeared much more quickly and completely, as was the case with Will Brown’s murder.
But history doesn’t always stay buried like it’s supposed to, and that’s what makes this feature so interesting to me–in particular, that it’s a family historian, the granddaughter of an executed prisoner, who brings the story back into our field of vision and gives the accused a second chance at some kind of redemption. It’s amazing how far-reaching the impact of such injustices reach. But there were spouses involved in this case, and kids, and eventually grandkids too. That this can become a trauma that stretches generations makes perfect sense–and there would be a tangential shame attached to the plaintive woman’s lineage too, I’d imagine–but maybe it’s something that gets lost in all the drama of courtrooms, jail cells, and electric chairs. Even if the families never talked about what happened to so-and-so, there would be a gap in the line.
In doing research on my own family I’ve often come across gaps in the lineage, or points when a branch on the family tree stops. The family records don’t often go back that far. People just want to remember the good things, so the bad seeds are left out of the family history. It’s understandable, and I’m sure we all do something similar in our own families. However, a gap can be extremely disappointing if it so happens that that gap, that bad seed, was your great-great-grandfather, and there’s now no way to track down their history, or even their name, much less what they did to shame everyone so much. I’ve had particular trouble compiling information on the Wheeler line beyond a few generations. I have no real reason to suggest that the reason for this lack of information is something bad, I just don’t know. Although my great-great-grandfather, Squire H.P. Little, was stabbed to death in the streets, in 1918, by a man he was supposed to arrest. The assailant “had had some trouble with his wife,” according to The Democrat of Caruthersville, Mo. People talk about that, though. Maybe it’s just that they were too poor to really keep track of their lineage, and only the census bureau or the WPA cared enough to write these things down otherwise. More than likely, that’s the explanation.
As I mention above, nothing is really known about the family of Will Brown, but his relations are out there somewhere still, even if there are no direct descendants.