Kim Henderson: Tracking down a backstory

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, September 16th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Last week Kim Henderson reported on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. She was moved to track down the backstory of one of the men who was memorialized there.

KIM HENDERSON, COMMENTATOR: The founders of the Montgomery memorial 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.

Now, a big number like 4,000 may not jolt you until you put it into a smaller subset, one with personal connotations. At the memorial, you can wander among the 800 monuments and still feel somewhat detached. That changes when you see your own state in all caps. Then your own county. Ten lynchings laid bare.

So, I set out to discover the story behind one of the names—Eli Hilson, a black man who died in 1903 just about eight miles from where I live.

Turns out Hilson’s lynching story isn’t typical. A bullet, not a noose, ended his life. But the core elements of lynchings—mob justice and intimidation—did play a prominent role in his death.

The local paper reported that residents didn’t like that Hilson was prosperous and had a farm of his own. They warned him. Once, someone fired a shot into his house, just hours after his wife had given birth. 

Finally, someone killed Hilson as he was driving his buggy home from town. According to the paper, Hilson was “the second negro murdered by whitecaps there that month.”

Evidently public outcry ensued, but for the wrong reason. Scared blacks were leaving, and the white farmers had more land than they could work by themselves.

Farmers weren’t the only ones concerned. Mortgage companies got antsy enough to halt loans on area lands. State officials even got involved. A judge found 10 men guilty of—quote unquote—“outrages against negroes.” He declared that the full penalty of the law would be imposed against whitecappers—quote—“even if it made every woman in Mississippi a widow.”

Whitecappers, by the way, were Klansmen. And while the judge 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. A county supervisor snagged the 74 acres for himself.

One of Hilson’s descendants told me the couple’s passel of children was dispersed across the state. In an unlikely turn of events, 5-year-old Leroy went to live with a former governor of Mississippi. He even took the governor’s last name.

That 5-year-old grew up and had a daughter, who is now 75. I tracked her down in Cincinnati. She said, “My dad didn’t talk about what happened to his parents. The first time I really understood was when I read about it on the internet.”

While we were talking, she just happened to mention that her mother 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—hangs on a hill overlooking the hometown of a daughter-in-law he never got to meet. I encouraged the granddaughter—the one in Cincinnati—to go see it. 

She said, “You know, I think I will.”

For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson.

(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) Part of a statue depicting chained people is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, Sunday, April 22, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala. 

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One comment on “Kim Henderson: Tracking down a backstory

  1. Dan Beaty says:

    A much belated thank you, Kim, for finding, researching and sharing this story with us. I’d heard of the new memorial and museum in Montgomery from your first report (maybe more than a year ago now?), but it wasn’t until I heard this second story that I went there and visited myself. I realized I was closing out my 35 year military career there, serving my final two weeks if duty with my Army Guard unit there in Montgomery and I realized I likely wouldn’t be back in town any time soon…so I made time to go there on a Saturday. It was a very emotional, somber hours long visit…I can only compare it to visiting the museum and walking there grounds at the Dachau prison in Germany many years back. Both left me feeling deeply saddened, heartbroken and aching for the love of our Savior to fill me and fill the whole Earth.

    Come, thou long expected Jesus…

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