Apparently I hadn’t discovered the entirety of the picture when I wrote about the late Henry Presswood’s hometown of Electric Mills, Miss., in this recent post.
For that post, I did a little researching about the town itself and the significant and unique place it holds not just in Southern history, but American history.
What I didn’t think to examine at the time was the county in which Electric Mills — which effectively became a ghost town decades ago — sits. So when I searched for “Electric Mills” in some databases, up popped an article from the March 28, 1935, Philadelphia Tribune that contains reportage about the former town. Here’s the headline:
“Judge Lynch Presides: A Night in Bloody Kemper County, Mississippi.”
To stress the subject of the article, “Judge Lynch Presides” is spelled out in cursive writing made to look like rope — the type of rope used in hundreds of lynchings of black men and women throughout the entire country for decades, if not centuries.
That’s because the article is about the brutal mob beating of three African-American men in Kemper County named Yank Ellington, Ed Brown and Henry Shields. The trio were physically accosted and assaulted until they confessed to “their crime” — the March 1934 murder of a well known white planter.
Unlike many other similar examples of mob violence, the lives of these three men were spared because the local DA — and future U.S. Senator — John C. Stennis swiftly brought the three to trial six days after the killing in an effort to prevent the hoards of enraged white citizens — including officers of the “law” — from completing their task, dragging the three out of the county jail and killing them.
Of course, the trial proved to be a complete sham, a kangaroo court that ended with quickly and mercilessly imposed death sentences for all three. The proceedings led to an influential court case that overturned the convictions and sentences of the three men and effectively (if my interpretation is correct) outlawed the use of coerced confessions at trial and addressed the frequent lawlessness of the law enforcement community itself.
So Stennis may have conducted a kangaroo court — which was standard practice for black defendants during Jim Crow — he at least saved the lives of the three men by realizing that they would be murdered if he didn’t act quickly by bringing them to trial, decision that eventually led to that crucial U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Mississippi.
I digress from the history lesson and head back to the Philadelphia Tribune article. The year-later reporting repeatedly refers to Kemper County — the birthplace and home of Negro Leaguer Henry Presswood, who passed away two weeks ago — as “Bloody Kemper.” Here’s one example from the article:
“Yank Ellington was seized by the mob, said to have been led by the sheriff of Bloody Kemper, on the night of the discovery of the murder of Raymond Stewart [the white planter]. …”
“It may be that at the time this is being read that Yank will be dead — which will be just what the mob wishes to happen to him, since they are greatly angered at being deprived of the opportunity to have made eighth day of February a Roman holiday in Bloody Kemper.
“Poor Yank was the chief actor in the grim tragedy which occurred in Bloody Kemper just a year ago.
“Yank played a leading role and performed to a crowded house the night of his first appearance in the historic pages upon which have been inscribed the great number of brutal murders that have been committed in that county for more than 50 years.”
Thus it was common knowledge among African Americans in Mississippi and beyond that Kemper County — the ancestral home of Henry Presswood — was a cradle of white supremacist, mob violence. And in truth, that reputation most likely permeated the white community as well, at least tacitly.
According to the America’s Black Holocaust Museum, seven lynchings occurred in Kemper County between 1909 and 1930, including the death of a woman, Holly White, in September 1930 in the town of Scooba. The museum’s Web site lists five of those victims as “unknown Negroes.”
The appellation “Bloody Kemper” wasn’t just a journalistic termed coined for dramatic effect, either. In an interview conducted for the Civil Rights Documentation Project in 1999 and housed in the Tougaloo College Archives, Kemper County native and community activist Obie Clark, Clark describes his home county’s reputation in stark language:
“And I used the fact that when we were growing up, up in Kemper County, it was known as Bloody Kemper. We knew it as Bloody Kemper. Now there is a book, some white editor or publisher has published a book called Bloody Kemper, but it is not about what we called Bloody Kemper. It was about two white families feuding against each other. But we called it Bloody Kemper because of violence committed against black folks–lynchings and hangings and all.
“Our parents told us about that, people they knew. And so when we got to be teenagers, Mr. John Long, who owned the cotton gin, who owned the general store, and he owned the grist mill, and he owned the moonshine, you know the still that made whiskey. You know, he owned all those things.
“And our parents, when we got to be teenagers, our parents called us in and told us that it was time that we started calling Mr. Ben, Mr. John Long’s children, who were along our age, that we start calling them ‘Mister,’ and ‘Miss.’ And they told us always, they taught us, said, “If you go to the store, and the general store is closed, don’t go to the front door to get their attention. You be sure you go to the back door.” They taught us how to be second-class citizens.”
It was in this atmosphere that late African-American baseball player Henry Presswood was born in 1921. His parents, Dee and Josephine Presswood, were born in 1893 and 1892, respectively. Both of them had ancestral roots in Alabama, and Dee was, like most of Electric Mills, a worker at the famed electric saw mill that was the town’s sole reason for existence.
Young Henry later joined his father in employment at the facility. Josephine Presswood appears to have died sometime during Henry’s childhood; the 1940 U.S. Census lists Dee as widowed.
In both the 1930 and 1940 Census, the Presswoods lived in almost entirely African-American neighborhoods in Electric Mills, not surprising at all in Jim Crow.
In his later years, Henry Presswood served as an ambassador for the memory of the Negro Leagues and, through his yarns, helped heighten public knowledge about black baseball.
One of Henry’s favorite stories to tell was how and why he came to become a big-time baseball player with the Cleveland Buckeyes — he accepted the invitation of an old friend and teammate who had preceded him to the top-shelf Negro Leagues. As Mr. Presswood told journalist Nick Diunte in 2010:
“Willie Grace went to the Buckeyes and he was the one who told them about me. He was from Laurel, Mississippi. One day I was working and who was at my job, Grace and the foreman! He asked me about going, and I wanted to go you know. … I said, ‘What in the world are you doing here, I thought you were with the Buckeyes?’ He said, ‘I am with the Buckeyes, but I told them about you. I came after you.’ I was really surprised. I accepted and went on up there.”
That story unfolded in the late 1940s, and Henry Presswood no doubt jumped at the opportunity presented to him by Grace because Henry loved baseball and felt grateful to be given the opportunity to play the sport for a living.
But you have to imagine that, at least in the back of his mind, Mr. Presswood was also, in some ways, extremely glad to be leaving a county known to black residents as “Bloody Kemper.” Any opportunity to leave such a violent, unjust, deadly setting had to have been appealing.
But if that was the case, it seems like Henry Presswood never talked about it with the public in his later years. He never really discussed the societal, cultural, legal and political context of his roots and upbringing, which certainly wasn’t uncommon for aging Negro Leaguers, many of who — like many African-American citizens of Southern origin — didn’t want to revisit such a terrible era and setting.
Henry Presswood might have been content to let sleeping dogs lie, to not reopen old wounds, in his later years. The prospect of doing so might have simply been too painful.
But perhaps Henry Presswood never discussed things like “Bloody Kemper,” even reluctantly and quietly, because he was rarely actually asked about it. Maybe he never revealed that history because fans and journalists never inquired about it, never considered the context of Henry’s youth when meeting and interviewing him.
Such a situation could reflect a pair of modern realities when it comes to the public and African-American history. One, many younger generations of Americans simply aren’t aware or educated about how horrifyingly oppressive Jim Crow actually was. Younger citizens, of all races and ethnic backgrounds, experience a disconnect from historical reality because of ignorance at best and, at worst, an unwillingness to “go there.” We simply don’t want to hear about it.
The second reality Mr. Presswood’s story reveals is that amongst sports fans and sports journalists — even ones who love the Negro Leagues and are of aware of and deplore the injustice of baseball segregation — often never even realize or, worse, comprehend that there’s a larger world, a greater existence beyond a simple game, outside of merely sport. Quite ironically, and tragically, we still experience mental and journalistic segregation — the sports pages are about sports only, and everything else remains relegated to the “news” sections of newspapers, magazines, Web sites or TV broadcasts. Sports are fun, and let’s just leave it at that, we tell ourselves.
And I will swiftly state here that I am certainly guilty of this sin of omission and compartmentalization. I’ve really never asked my New Orleans friend and former Negro Leaguer Herb Simpson about what it was like growing up here, in the deep South, never probed his memories for such unpleasantness.
Why do I do this, or rather, not do it? One, because it shamefully never occurs to me; I’m too giddy looking at all his baseball memorabilia in his home in the Algiers section of NOLA. And two? Maybe because I don’t want to make Herb discuss such subjects, because I fear that it might force him to revisit possible traumas of his youth.
How did Henry Presswood feel about his youth in “Bloody Kemper”? We may never truly know for sure. But ask any of his Southern black contemporaries and products of Jim Crow, the numbers of whom are rapidly thinning and dwindling as time advances, the “hard questions,” and you might not like what you hear — any more than the person likes reliving a shameful American past.
It’s painful just to think about these modern realities. And that in itself is tragic.