Family of man lynched in Lafayette County finds answers through William Winter Institute
For 83 years, elders of the Higginbottom family held onto one secret – their patriarch, Elwood Higginbottom, was lynched in Lafayette County after killing a white man, Glen D. Roberts, in self-defense.
The events of Sept. 17, 1935, played in the back of his family’s mind for years after they fled from Oxford to Memphis, but no one ever spoke about it, according to Elwood’s granddaughter, Delois Wright.
“Nobody ever said anything about my grandfather. I knew he had gotten lynched, but I didn’t know why. That’s what they’d say, ‘That’s a subject we don’t discuss,’” Wright said. “The only thing I’m longing for is to know what my grandfather looked like. I don’t even know how many siblings he had.”
Then, in spring of last year, Kyleen Burke, a law student with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, discussed the case at the William Winter Institute on the Ole Miss campus. Burke was given the assignment to uncover the stories behind two lynching victims, one of whom was Elwood Higginbottom.
She found the family through Ancestry.com, and from then on, the Higginbottoms have worked towards telling their ancestor’s story and, for many, learning about him for the first time.
According to reports from the Sept. 19, 1935 edition of the EAGLE, a mob of 75 men with dirt-smudged faces cut the telephone wires of the jail, held the sheriff down and kidnapped Higginbottom, beating him within an inch of his life and hanging him.
“Court was still in session, with court officials present, waiting for the jury to come in when word reached town that there was no need for further court action in the case of state versus Elwood Higginbottom, negro,” the report said.
Higginbottom was 29, and his wife, May Lissie, was not yet 25 years old. She fled with their three children to Tupelo, and then to Memphis, where much of the Higginbottom family remains today.
Since discovering the truth, the Higginbottom family has traveled back to Oxford twice, once to meet with the William Winter Institute, and again to travel to the suspected site of the lynching to collect soil to be sent to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors lynching victims across the United States. The memorial, which opened in April, is located in Montgomery, Ala. and features 800 hanging pillars, representing the 800 counties that have come forward and acknowledged lynchings that have taken place in their histories.
Traveling back to Oxford, Wright said, was difficult, but it was important to her to understand what really happened to her grandfather. Her father, E.W., was only four years old at the time of his father’s death, and Wright said it was especially hard to get him to agree to return.
“It was so hard for us to get Daddy to come and cross over to Mississippi. He said, ‘I’m not going down there. They killed my daddy,’” she said. “The first time we went, I wondered about granddaddy’s last thoughts before it happened. And I know that, according to the information, he struggled to not leave here. He tried his best to not leave his family.”
Wright said, at times, she wonders what life would have been like if her grandfather wasn’t murdered. Her father was forced to leave school at just nine years old and go to work, but what if his father had been there to guide him?
Wright also admits that, at times, it feels as though the dark cloud her grandfather’s death cast over the family isn’t leaving.
“I lost my husband and my son at an early age. My son was 29 and my husband was 33 when he died. And my son left three kids as well,” Wright said. “It’s like it’s a cycle because my granddaddy was 29 when he died. We often pray on just breaking that curse over the men in our family.”
However, she added that coming to terms with what happened and finding closure for the family has led to a positive change. The fact that the story has come to light, that people are talking about it and acknowledging lives lost, gives her hope, she said.
There are seven recorded lynching cases in Lafayette County, but presumably, there are many more that will never be uncovered. Although it may be painful, Wright said she’s thankful her grandfather’s story is out there for people to learn.
“I am grateful [it was documented] so the kids will know what happened to their great- and great-great-grandfather. They can take that information, it’s like a keepsake,” she said. “I think it’s an important part of history in that era. People should know about it.”
For more information on the story of Elwood Higginbottom and the EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, visit https://eji.org/racial-justice/legacy-lynching.