The manila folder was almost empty when it landed on the desk of law school student Tara Dunn. Her assignment? To find the truth hidden in what was missing.
Inside was a newspaper article and the name of a man whose life had been cut short, a Black husband and father named Henry “Peg” Gilbert. The article, from a Black-oriented newspaper, reported that the prominent Troup County, Georgia, farmer and community leader had died in jail in 1947, less than a week after he was arrested on charges of aiding and abetting a fugitive.
The article reported little more. Except for this conclusion: that Gilbert had died when he attacked the chief of police. The police chief, it was reported, killed Gilbert in self-defense.
It took Dunn, then a student at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, more than two years to unravel the truth: Gilbert had been taken from his farmhouse in the middle of the night, as Klansmen and local authorities terrorized the Black community looking for a fugitive being sought for the murder of a white man. In jail, where he was thrown despite no evidence he had committed any crime, Gilbert’s skull had been crushed, his bones broken in half, his body pocked by five shots from a gun. Those were the conclusions of an FBI investigation conducted not long after Gilbert’s death.
But like most investigations of Black deaths in that era, this one went nowhere. Gilbert’s children were left without a father and his family was too terrified to look for answers. No one was held to account for his death.
Gilbert’s story is just one of the more than 925 unresolved violent crimes against Black people investigated by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern.
Now, some of those stories are compiled in a new book – By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners – that relies on more than 25,000 documents collected by students and the founders of the project, Northeastern Law Professor Margaret Burnham and Melissa Nobles, then a political science professor and now chancellor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This month, Burnham is in Jackson, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama, to sign copies of her book, published in September.
“The narrative of violence in the Jim Crow era is not new to the American public,” Burnham said. “But what is unsettling in what we have found is the ways in which violence contorted and misshaped the law itself. We’ve been able to unearth all this evidence that violence and disenfranchisement were mutually reinforcing phenomena in [the] Jim Crow South. The disenfranchisement meant that local and federal authorities had no responsibility to Black citizens. They were responsible only to their electorate. And on the other side of the coin, the violence was a way of enforcing the disenfranchisement.”
Founded in 2007, the Northeastern project has created a vast database of unsolved violence, torture, lynching and murder of Black citizens across 11 states throughout the Deep South between 1932 and 1954.
Fueled by the work of students and professors from Northeastern and beyond, the project centers on preserving the history of these cases (Burnham estimates the number still to be investigated exceeds 1,000) and to provide scholars with a critical resource of information on the racial violence that pervaded the Jim Crow South.
Burnham, a renowned civil rights advocate, first fought for voting rights in Mississippi during the violence-plagued summer of 1964. She became the first Black female judge in Massachusetts and was appointed by Nelson Mandela to help investigate human rights abuses in South Africa.
Restorative justice has been Burnham’s life’s work.
In 1970, she worked with lawyers Howard Moore and Leo Branton to defend political activist Angela Davis, who as a member of the Black Panther Party had been unjustly accused of murder. In 2008, Burnham was one of the lawyers in a landmark federal lawsuit against Franklin County, Mississippi, for its law enforcement agents’ involvement in the 1964 Ku Klux Klan kidnapping, torture and killing of two 19-year-old Black men, Henry Dee and Charles Eddie Moore.
But it is the CRRJ project that has particular resonance today, as the violent deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement continue to stain and divide the nation.
The project has helped federal authorities identify cold cases in which legal action remains appropriate. It has created accurate accounts of the violent deaths of Black men and women that have been unacknowledged, unaccounted for and unjustly hidden away. It provides not only a resource for scholars, but a reckoning for communities. And it has given sustenance and closure to families who have endured the generational trauma of fathers, grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers, sisters and brothers who died as the result of racial violence.
Now, bolstered by funding from the Andrew W. Mellon and Ford foundations, the project is being expanded to investigate cases in Maryland, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., Missouri and Kentucky. Earlier this year, Burnham was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be a member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, a federal oversight commission established in 2019 to review unsolved murder cases of Black Americans during the civil rights era.
The efforts, Burnham said, align well with the half century of work at the Southern Poverty Law Center to expose hate crimes – and with the goal of the SPLC and other organizations today to draw public attention to ongoing racial violence directed against Black Americans and marginalized groups.
The aim of all the efforts, Burnham said, is “to give us a far more accurate and more damning picture of the nature of violence and the multiple dimensions of the resistance to it. And for the people affected, to create a source of memory, recuperation and repair.”
The work of projects like Burnham’s takes vivid shape at the SPLC headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, honors 40 individuals killed during the civil rights movement between 1954 and 1968.
“The Memorial at the time was the first memorial dedicated to victims of the civil rights movement, and the investigative work that went into it inspired new investigations of civil rights-era murders,” said Tafeni English, director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, a series of interpretive exhibits near the SPLC headquarters that detail the movement, explore contemporary social justice issues, and honor the lives taken in racially motivated violence.
“Since the Memorial’s unveiling, eight white supremacists have been convicted for murders listed on the Memorial. Sadly, there are many that remain unsolved.”
The work of Burnham’s project is not simple or easy.
Starting with scant information, students and academics research newspaper archives, family trees and military records. They travel to cities and towns throughout the South, scouring coroners’ records, death certificates, local library holdings, employment records and boxes stashed away in the offices of local sheriffs. They use the records of the NAACP, which in many cases had been the only organization to investigate the deaths.
And they talk to the descendants of the victims.
That’s how Julian Montijo ended up traveling to Warrenton, North Carolina, on a journey to uncover how the body of a Black man ended up on train tracks near the town in 1947.
The case confounded Montijo. Now 29, he works these days in Brooklyn, New York, in an office that represents parents accused of child neglect or abuse. He graduated from Northeastern University School of Law in May. During his final term, he was assigned the case as part of a class. As the facts began to emerge, they did not line up with the way the death certificate listed the cause of the man’s demise.
What Montijo learned when he began to dig into research only made his questions grow. The Black man, he learned, had been arrested for a minor violation and led into a police car, where another Black man was already inside.
There was an altercation and the first man was shot by a police officer, records showed. The body of the second man, whose death Montijo was investigating, was found on nearby train tracks about two months later.
Police ruled the death an accident, Montijo said. They said the man had been hit by a train. But when Montijo uncovered railroad company records, he found the railroad company had concluded that the body of the man was placed on the train tracks after he was killed.
“It just didn’t add up,” Montijo said. “The second person would have been the only person who could have known what really happened to the first person in this car.”
Montijo discovered that the FBI had been investigating the local police department at the time. But no local or federal investigation had ever been conducted into the second man’s death. In fact, the dearth of information surrounding the case is so acute that Montijo said he never was able to confirm his suspicions about how the man died.
“When you go into this work with a social justice lens, it’s easy to make assumptions about what you think happened,” Montijo said. “But there are going to be parts of the story that we are just never going to know. Part of the injustice is that the people who could have found out at the time didn’t pursue an investigation that would have revealed the truth of what happened.”
Faced with that uncertainty, Montijo said he was trepidatious about meeting the first man’s family. But when he traveled to Warrenton, where many of the man’s descendants still live, he said they were moved by what he had been able to find out.
“They only knew that their uncle had been killed at the hands of police, sadly not an unfamiliar story for the time,” Montijo said. “They didn’t know any of the context, any of the aftermath.”
At a community gathering spot, the family shared stories of what they knew and what they remembered, not of the man’s death, but of his life. They spoke about what it was like to grow up in his absence, and about the tragedy that they could not spend more time with this figure, who in memory had seemed larger than life.
“That is part of the value of documenting these stories,” Montijo said. “Because even if I had been able to find all the records I was interested in obtaining, none of them would be adequate to describe who this life belonged to, how greatly valued this man was by his family members and how undervalued his life was by society.”
‘Pulling thread from a spool’
For Henry Gilbert, ironically, his very prominence as a valued member of his community may have made him a target.
That’s the conclusion that Tara Dunn, now 38, had reached by the day she pulled up in a bright yellow Volkswagen Beetle with her research partner and a journalism student from France to the church where Gilbert had been a deacon. Dunn had located the family of Gilbert through Ancestry.com. Through a distant cousin of Gilbert’s who had created a family tree, she communicated with the family for months, eventually connecting to and earning the trust of Gilbert’s daughters.
As the relationship grew, Dunn and her partners were putting together more pieces of the puzzle. They turned up an article by a journalist from Philadelphia who had interviewed Gilbert’s wife in the 1950s. They found NAACP records, as well as FBI records they obtained from the government through the Freedom of Information Act. The FBI had sent an agent down to investigate the case in the 1950s, she discovered. The agent found that two autopsies had been done, but only one reflected the true extent of Gilbert’s wounds. Despite the evidence contained in his report, the agent had written to his superiors that the likelihood of holding state authorities accountable to what had become increasingly clear was a jailhouse lynching was slim.
As the depth of her research grew, the story began to come together, Dunn said.
She became “obsessed” with the details. As a young Black girl in grade school, Dunn had written a letter to a teacher proclaiming her intention to become a civil rights lawyer. Since then, attracted by a career of service, she had graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served several years of active duty. In Burnham’s class at Northeastern, she found herself pursuing her childhood dream of civil rights work.
Dunn learned that Gilbert and his wife, sharecroppers in West Point, Georgia, had saved up their money and purchased 112 acres of land, an enormous holding for a Black family at the time. Prominent in his church and his community, Gilbert employed Black people on his farm and led a range of charitable efforts.
After a young Black man killed a white farmer in the parking lot of Gilbert’s church and then disappeared, white Klansmen and authorities started bursting into Black homes looking for the fugitive.
And Gilbert, with his impressive holdings, became a target – even without evidence to support police claims.
“It was so devastating,” said Dunn, who after graduating law school went on to become an assistant attorney general in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and is now in private practice. “There was so much documentation. The more we dug, the more we found. I was just pulling thread from a spool. It just continued to unravel.”
The investigation led to a formal apology to the family from the current police chief of the department in whose custody Gilbert died. And the research paper that Dunn and her partners wrote on the case eventually made its way to the granddaughter of the man who had been police chief when Gilbert was murdered.
The granddaughter, Dunn said, has been working as a volunteer with the CRRJ project ever since.
“That is a perfect example of how powerful this work can be,” Dunn said. “Maybe not in the sense of a courtroom, but in the sense of creating ties and relationships among people who are working for the same thing.”
Such experiences are what the CRRJ project is all about.
Restoring justice can mean a prosecution, though it seldom does. It can mean a formal apology, a placard or an agreement by authorities to change the cause of death listed on a death certificate. Or, as in the cases that Dunn and Montijo investigated, it can mean simply giving a family a way to fill in the empty spaces with the richness of lives tragically taken away.
Photo at top: Margaret Burnham is the author of By Hands Now Known: Jim Crow’s Legal Executioners. (Credit: The HistoryMakers)