Black History Month: Historian searches for activist who died for equality

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BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. — There is a quest in West Tennessee to find the remains of a man who gave his life in the name of equality. A local historian studies archives and possibly clues that could lead to civil rights activist Elbert Williams. Jim Emison has been searching for the remains of Williams for four years. He was led to Taylor Cemetery after tracking down a family member. “She brought us over here and she pointed out this area, and she said, ‘My dad always told me that Uncle Elbert was buried over there somewhere,'” Emison said as he pointed to a plot of land in the cemetery. No grave marker sits over the body, but Williams’ mark on the community runs much deeper than a tombstone. “He was the first member of the NAACP in the nation known to have been killed for his civil rights work,” Emison said. In the spring of 1939, the first chapter of the Brownsville NAACP was formed as members wanted to be able to vote. Emison said fighting for that right cost Williams his life. According to Emison, NAACP member Elisha Davis was kidnapped, threatened and told to reveal who was in the group. June 20, 1940, would be the last time Annie Williams would see her husband alive. Emison said Williams was taken from their home by two police officers and another man to be questioned about NAACP meetings. Officials said he was eventually released, but three days later Elbert Williams’ body was found in the Hatchie River, a rope around him, a log holding him down and two bullet holes in his chest. “The coroner of Haywood County ordered that the body be buried immediately,” Emison said. “The law imposed a duty on him to turn it over to the widow, but he ordered an immediate burial.” Emison said the coroner’s report said Williams’ cause of death was unknown, a mystery that could be solved if his grave is ever found. A ground-penetrating radar survey revealed eleven unmarked graves in Taylor Cemetery, the possible burial location of Williams. Family told Emison a churn once marked the grave. He believes if the pieces of pottery can be found, that’s one more step to revealing the remains’ location. For Emison, a retired attorney with a passion for civil rights, Elbert Williams’ story is one that should not be ignored any longer. “A lot of it is not pretty, and we need to understand that and move forward together,” Emison said. The Tennessee Historical Commission has granted an application for a marker to go on Elbert Williams’ grave when found. A memorial service is being planned in Haywood County for June 20, marking the 75th anniversary of Williams’ death.

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