Fannie Henderson Witnesses Southern Lynch Law


In the absence of a strong protest organization in the African American community, the police in the 1930s and 1940s were happy to demonstrate their power by victimizing many hapless individuals. And yet individuals did resist. Ms. Henderson, for example, acted against her powerlessness to stop a grisly lynching by becoming an official witness to it. Her friend Mary Alexander made the choice that many people would: she hid herself from direct knowledge of police crime and thus from responsibility to tell about it. Henderson not only took careful note of the crime but located Carlock's wife and stayed with her to offer emotional support. What became of Henderson we do not know, but the testimony of witnesses suggests that many such humble and unheralded people in their own way tried to resist the bloody repressiveness of Jim Crow.

[A deposition made to the NAACP, c. February 1933].

FANNIE HENDERSON, being first duly sworn, states on oath as follows:

I will be fifty-nine years old on June 18. I was born on the corner of Orleans and Beale in the city of Memphis, and have lived in Memphis all my life. I have been in domestic service practically all my life.

One of my colored friends is Mary Alexander who lives at 320 South Third Street, just across the alleyway at the rear of Cordova Hotel, on the northeast corner of Vance and South Third. On last Thursday, February 23, 1933, I spent Thursday night with her. I continued all day Friday and Friday night with Mary. Mary and I were the only ones in the house. Mary has been working for Banner Laundry but they laid her off. Mary and I were at home all day Friday.

Mary and I went to bed about ten o'clock Friday night. I slept in the front bedroom and Mary slept in the rear bedroom. I went to sleep and slept until about three o'clock in the morning when I heard some loud talking in the alleyway between my room and the Cordova Hotel. The window of the room where I was sleeping looks directly down upon the concrete alleyway between the house and the hotel. The alleyway is ten or fifteen feet wide. I lay in bed for several minutes trying to hear what they were talking about. The talking continued and I got up and pulled back the window shade slightly at the south window overlooking the alleyway, and peeped out to see what was going on. I saw several policemen, about four of them with a colored boy. The policemen had the boy standing up against the brick wall of the hotel with both hands raised above his head. I heard them ask him, "What in the hell are you doing out this time of the morning?" He says, "I am looking for my wife." They said, "You are telling a goddamn lie. We tried to catch you last night, but you got away. We are going to fix you tonight." He says, "Mr. Officer, if I have did anything, please ride me to the police station." They said, "We are going to give you a ride. It is going to be a damn long ride. The first one is going to be to the undertaker and the next ride will be to the goddam cemetery."

When they said this, one of the policemen went to the car, got a pair of handcuffs and put them on the boy's wrists. They took him around to Third Street in front of the stairway going into the hotel and sent for a white woman, Ruby Morris. I moved from in front of the window to the front door, which has a large glass pane. I opened the door slightly so I could hear. I could see them during all the time. They kept the boy handcuffed at the side entrance of the hotel while they were waiting. After a while a white woman showed up and they asked her, "Is this the one," and she bowed her head and told them "Yes."

I do not know who this white woman was, but I found out from reading the papers that it was Ruby Morris, a sporting woman who lives across the street at 251 Vance, in a sporting house. When they asked her "Is this the one" and she said "Yes," they began beating him over the head with their clubs. They beat him so they broke his neck—I tell you his neck was really broke—they took him back in the alley, hit him over the head several times; his neck shook like a chickens neck when you break it. He wasn't saying anything because they told him, "You better not holler you son-of-a-bitch." He was handcuffed all this time. They took him back in the alley just a few feet from the Third Street sidewalk and commenced shooting him while he was down. His body was on the right side. His face was turned south and his hands still handcuffed, and he was near the hotel wall. There were four or five shots fired into his body while he was down handcuffed and after his neck was broken. The boy was unable to say anything. Before they put the handcuffs on him he cried and begged them not to kill him, but after beating him over the head with their billies and breaking his neck he said nothing more and didn't cry anymore. When the police shot him they were standing over him in the alleyway. I saw three or four flashlights. There were four shots in rapid succession. Several pistols were firing.

There were at least four officers. I did not know the names of any of the officers and would not know them if I saw them. Everyone had on uniforms. After they had fired four times he was lying there breathing heavily in death. One of the officers flashed his light on him to see his condition and said, "Why that son-of-a-bitch ain't dead yet," and pulled his pistol out and shot him again in the left side of his head and the bullet came out on the other side of his head and was found in the alleyway. I saw the bullet Saturday morning. I also [saw] his blood and brains which had oozed out on the pavement. There was a drizzling rain Saturday and [it] washed the blood down the sidewalk into the gutter.

The white woman, Ruby Morris, was sitting in the police car beside the curb while the policemen were beating the Negro boy over the head with their billies and while they were shooting him in the alleyway. After the boy had been shot the last time the S. W. Quails ambulance came in five or ten minutes, put on the stretchers, and carried him away. They backed right up against the curb in front of Mary's house. When they carried him away some of the policemen got in the car with the white woman, Ruby Morris, and went up town. In about twenty minutes they brought her back, let her out of the police car on Third Street right across from the side entrance of Cordova Hotel. She got out and went on upstairs. This woman evidently lived over Belt Cafe at the northwest corner of Third and Vance, directly across Third Street and Vance, from the Cordova Hotel. They put her out of the police car at the stairway leading to the apartment above the Belt Cafe. She got out of the car and went upstairs. If she lives at 251 Vance she certainly was not there that night because they sure got her from upstairs over Belt Cafe.

Mary Alexander saw only part of what I told above. When they had the boy backed up against the hotel with his hand over his head, I went to Mary's room and told her to get up that they had a n----- out there backed up against the hotel wall. Mary got up and came to the window with me, looked out, stood there a few minutes and said, "Hell, I'm going back to bed; they're just after that n----- for some devilment he's done." Mary then went back to bed. She didn't see the policemen beat and shoot the Negro. Mary is awfully scary. She didn't come back to the window until after the shooting was over. Mary saw the dead boy lying in the alleyway before the ambulance drove up. When the ambulance came we went out on the porch, and the people next door came out. Before the shooting, nobody came out. After the ambulance took the body away, and after the police had driven away in the car, we turned on all the lights in the house, built a fire, and never went back to bed anymore.

There wasn't a big crowd around. I don't think nobody saw the ambulance drive up and take away the body, except me and Mary and the people next door; and of course the policemen and Ruby who were still there. There were no passer-by along the street. I do not know the Negro boy, nor did Mary On Saturday morning I went out to try to find out who the boy was and who his people were so I could tell them just how he met his death. Somebody said that the policemen had killed the night porter at Cordova Hotel. When they described the porter, I told them the boy killed was not the one they thought it was. The boy they killed was about nineteen years old, average height and weight and had on a dark pair of trousers, a light shirt, and was bareheaded. He did not have on a coat or hat when they stood him up against the wall.

I called Thomas Hayes Company to see if they had picked up a body at Third and Vance and they said "No." I then called up S. W. Quails and they told me they had picked up the body. I then went out to Qualls's place to see the body but they wouldn't let me see it. I found out where he lived and I went on South Second Street to his home. His wife was in bed when I got there. She had already heard about his death from Qualls. His name was Levon Carlock. I had never met his wife[,] not any of his folks before. I went into the house and found his wife, Eula May Carlock, in bed. I told her and her husband's cousin, who was there, just how the police had killed him. I stayed at Eiuda's house all day Saturday and Sunday and did not leave there until Sunday evening just before dark and I then went to where I live....

Black-Workers Remember: an oral history of segregation, unionism, and the freedom struggle by Michael Keith Honey

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