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A different kid of memorial: Part 2

Last week I told you about my visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Since its opening in April, some have deemed the open-air facility a “lynching museum.” That’s because it’s the first national memorial dedicated to people terrorized by lynching.

One of the memorial’s main thrusts is public acknowledgment. Organizers believe that confronting the truth about our history is the first step towards recovery and reconciliation. That history includes more than 4,000 racially-motivated lynchings.

A big number like 4,000 doesn’t necessarily jolt you until you put it in a smaller subset, one with personal connotations. At the memorial, you can wander among the 800 county monuments from states like Florida, Texas, and North Carolina and still feel somewhat detached. That changes when you see your own state in all caps. You spot Lawrence County with its 6 lynchings laid out with names and dates for all the world to see. You find Copiah’s 10. 

A few weeks ago, I set out to discover the stories behind the names etched on the Lincoln County monument. I came up with a zero on most, but the fifth on the list was a hit. Through newspaper articles and interviews with relatives, I was able to learn about Eli Hilson, a black man who died 8 miles outside of Brookhaven on December 20, 1903.

Hilson’s lynching story isn’t typical, though. A bullet, not a noose, ended his life, and his murderer was eventually convicted. Even so, mob justice and intimidation – core elements of lynchings – played a prominent role in Hilson’s death. Here’s a portion of what Brookhaven’s The Leader wrote three days after the incident.

“Last winter Hilson, who lived on a farm of his own and was prosperous, was warned by the whitecaps to leave . . . About three or four weeks ago his home was visited in the night by whitecaps and several volleys fired into it. His wife was sick in bed at the time, with an infant only a few hours old. . .  Saturday, he brought a young daughter to town in his buggy to spend Christmas holidays with his brother . . . and as he was returning home between sunset and dark was assassinated. Hilson is the second negro murdered by whitecaps in that portion of Lincoln County within the last month.”

Public outcry ensued, but for the wrong reason. The Leader provides the details.

“An old farmer who lives several miles below where this murder occurred stated that about all the negroes had been frightened out of his neighborhood, and that all white farmers who had more lands than they could work themselves were left without labor and that these lands will have to lie out, uncultivated.”

Farmers weren’t the only ones concerned. Mortgage companies got antsy enough to halt loans on area lands. State officials got involved. A year later, The Waterloo (Indiana) Press ran a story about the trial of Hilson’s assailants. 

“Ten men who were proved guilty of outrages against negroes were sentenced in Brookhaven, Miss., to long terms in prison by Judge Wilkinson, who recently declared that the full penalty of the law would be imposed against whitecappers, even if it made every woman in Mississippi a widow.”

Whitecappers, by the way, were Klansmen. And while Judge Wilkinson certainly made his point, the real widow in this story was Hannah Hilson. In the months following Eli’s death, she lost the family farm to foreclosure. Her 74 acres were eventually sold for $439 to S. P. Oliver, a county supervisor.

Franklin Smith devoted a chapter of his book, “A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your African American Ancestors,” to Eli Hilson. As a Hilson descendant, Smith was especially interested in what became of the couple’s passel of children.    

“That’s the most tragic part of the story,” he told me by phone. “They were dispersed across the state.”  Smith learned that 5-year-old Leroy went to live with a former governor of Mississippi, Robert Lowry. “It was an unlikely turn of events, but his sister was working for the Lowry family and the governor took him in, changing the child’s name to Hilson Lowery, with a nickname of Buster.” 

I was able to connect with Buster’s daughter Fanny Early, a Cincinnati resident. At 75, Early has never set foot in Mississippi.

“My dad didn’t talk about what happened to his parents,” she said. “The first time I really understood the story was when I read about it on the internet.”

Early just happened to mention that her mother (the daughter-in-law Eli never met) was from Montgomery. I couldn’t help but think of the connection — the new monument, the one with the details of Eli Hilson’s lynching — swinging high on a hill overlooking her hometown. I encouraged Early to go see it. 

“I want to do that,” she said. “Yes. I think I will.”

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.