The weekend I met Rev. E.W. Higginbottom Sr. was the 82nd anniversary of the lynching of his then-29-year-old father Elwood, an Oxford sharecropper, on Sept. 17, 1935.
Immediately after the brutal murder, young E.W., his mother and his two younger siblings had to flee Lafayette County for their own lives, and they lost touch with many family members. Locals also beat Elwood’s siblings, threatening to lynch them, too, and they fled as well. Branches of the family who had lived on the land in northwest Lafayette County all their lives scattered across several states, traumatized and disconnected from each other. They lost land and inheritance, impacting the family for generations.
Although he didn’t know the specifics of the lynching, Rev. Higginbottom carried the tragedy within him for eight decades. He went on to experience many remarkable things in his life. He was a veteran of the Korean War, an insurance salesman and a talented gospel singer. He ran a lawn service for two decades and pastored New Abundant Life Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis for more than 30 years. He was a strict but protective and loving father to six children, doting grandfather of 25 grandchildren, and family patriarch to 61 great grandchildren and 13 great-great grandchildren. By all accounts, in his 89 years, he lived a full and meaningful life before his death from COVID-19 on April 29.
But in his home state of Mississippi, two tragically connected events shaped E.W. Higginbottom’s life most prominently—the first his father’s lynching near the beginning of his life and the second near the end. When he was 86 years old, he returned to Oxford to learn more about his father’s history and to, eventually, celebrate his memory.
Back to Oxford, Decades Later
Through my work at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, I had helped convene a multiracial group of people in Lafayette County committed to learning more about the history of lynching here. While most of us knew that white mobs used lynching to terrorize black communities and enforce the strict social codes of racial hierarchy across the South, few of us had an understanding of how the brutal mutilations and killings had affected our own community.
On a research visit to Oxford, a young law student in Boston, Kyleen Burke, presented the history of Elwood Higginbottom’s life and lynching, and within a few weeks, she connected us with the Higginbottom family through a chance meeting via Ancestry.com. Our local group decided to extend an invitation to any family members who wanted to visit with us in Oxford, so we could show them locations we had found through Burke’s research.
That first meeting began with uncertainty. Rev. Higginbottom didn’t want to go to Oxford. But his daughters Tina and Delois nudged him to face the painful history, which most of his family knew little about. So, on a beautiful Saturday morning in September, Rev. Higginbottom rode down from Memphis with two of his six children, a son-in-law, three grandchildren and two nephews.
At the time, Rev. Higginbottom was 86 and moved slowly due to pain in his legs. He was somber but determined as we moved from site to site, his 7-year-old grandson Rico by his side.
We started at the Oxford Square, near the former jail where the lynch mob held his father after kidnapping him, and then moved to the lynching site on a quiet, wooded side road just north of the busy “Three Way” intersection in north Oxford.
There they shot and hanged Elwood Higginbottom.
In the neglected yard of an old, empty house listed for sale, the family speculated whether the giant oak at the edge of the property had been the hanging tree. Rev. Higginbottom talked about the pain of imagining the brutality his father suffered, how hard it was to grow up without him, and how he mourned not even knowing what his father had looked like. He was reluctant to leave the site.
After driving around the area where the Higginbottom family lived and farmed, we ended up in a secluded part of southeast Lafayette county where a small, old cemetery sits on wooded private property not too far from Yellow Leaf Creek. It was there we believe Elwood Higginbottom’s unmarked grave lies among several collapsed stones that predate the Civil War.
‘I Never Thought I Would Live to See This Day’
The white family who owns the cemetery had first been taken aback when I approached them to ask about a visit to that site, but they quickly warmed. The afternoon we drove up, the landowner rushed to bring a golf cart to drive Rev. E.W. to the gravesite, which was a lengthy walk across the large property.
We stood together in the cemetery, the son and grandchildren of a man lynched because he was black in Mississippi in 1935, the white family who owned the property and had spent much time and effort to clean up the overgrown cemetery to honor those buried there, my colleague Francesca who was herself the daughter of black Mississippians who had suffered deep losses because of their race, and me, a fifth-generation white Mississippian who had felt called to return to my home state for this very reason.
As we climbed in the van to drive back to their cars, Rev. Higginbottom looked me in the eye and said, “I never thought I would live to see this day. I never wanted to return here, but I’m so glad I did. I’ve met nothing but good people all day.”
That day planted the seeds of a deep and important relationship between the Higginbottom family and our community group. Using the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project model, in March 2018 we held a soil collection on the site adjacent to the lynching. We sang together, dug soil and put it in a jar to add to EJI’s collection.
The point of EJI’s model is to enable reconciliation and healing by first remembering the past. Then, the goal is to use that history to effect change now. “We also believe it is critical for communities across the country to do the difficult work of unearthing and confronting their own histories of racial injustice, while exploring how that history continues to shape the present,” EJI’s website explains.
Two Fathers, One Black and One White
The following month we took Rev. Higginbottom and several family members to the EJI Peace and Justice Summit for the opening of its new museum and memorial in Montgomery, Ala. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is dedicated to the victims of lynching, and there Rev. Higginbottom got to see his father’s name engraved on the Lafayette County monument.
The high point of our work came in October 2018, when our community hosted a memorial for Elwood Higginbottom and unveiled a marker near the lynching site. About 500 people from the community gathered with 60 Higginbottom family members, including a descendant of other family members who had fled. They were able to reconnect with Rev. Higginbottom because of media coverage of the memorial efforts.
Rev. Higginbottom called me a few weeks later to check in and tell me again how much that day meant to him and his family, how it provided him a measure of healing he’d never thought was possible after a lifetime without his father.
About three weeks ago, one of Rev. Higginbottom’s four daughters, Delois, told me that he was in the VA Hospital in Memphis with COVID-19. Before he was sedated for a ventilator, he told her he wanted to call me after he “woke up.” Sadly, that didn’t happen.
Rev. E.W. and I called each other from time to time, and in one of our last conversations, he called me to talk about my daddy. They had met at the memorial for his own father, and he wanted to share in my grief after my father passed away. Our two fathers, one black and one white, died in the most opposite ways because of that difference, and we, their children, had lives so very different because of all that history and injustice. Yet through it we found each other and created an unlikely relationship that changed both of our lives.
This essay was originally published at the Mississippi Free Press.