By Sam Heys
The young man’s dignity and strength still shine through. His calm and confident manner, his kind smile, his flawless features. In his prime, he stares at us from out of the past—his past, our past—with eyes that are confident, yet warm, comfortable with who he is. His lips are parted in an easy smile; he seems quickly likable and approachable. He is at ease with himself, his legs crossed, his right hand relaxed, his cap cocked in the style of the day. This is a man clearly proud to wear his uniform, proud to fight for his country.
This is Thomas James Edmonds Sr., United States soldier, 1943-47.
World War II afforded Edmonds and nearly 1 million other black Americans a chance to prove their patriotism, and themselves. But that so visible confidence, that pride of being a U.S. soldier, likely got Edmonds killed on a stifling Saturday night in Boligee, Alabama, when he ran afoul of the white supremacy that ruled the South with a vengeance when victorious black soldiers marched home from World War II. The pride and inner strength that made a good American soldier could get a black man killed in the American South, long terrorized by lynch law.
Edmonds’s murder July 21, 1951 is not among the lynchings documented by the Equal Justice Initiative in its National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. No charges were filed in death, and there was no coverage by the press and no cold case investigation since. Yet, both “Murder” and “Accident” are checked under “Cause of Death” on Edmonds’s death certificate, signed by Greene County Sheriff Frank Lee, who would become the Alabama state prison commissioner.
Edmonds was only twenty-six and left behind two sons under four years of age and another one on the way. He had been eighteen when he reported to Ft. Benning, Georgia, in late 1943, ready to fight for his country. But like the great majority of black servicemen, he was relegated to a support unit—the Quartermaster Corps.
He arrived in France before Christmas 1944 but, with the Battle of the Bulge surging, he was already in Belgium by December 25, assigned to the all-black 23rd Quartermaster Car Company. Perhaps because he had earned a “sharpshooter” designation, he was chosen to drive officers and couriers of the Ninth Army’s XXVI Corps. By early March, he was driving in Germany as the XXVI Corps swept the Nazis from the industrial cities north of the Ruhr River.
Edmonds would be awarded battle stars for both the Rhineland and Central Europe campaigns—a rarity for a member of a support unit. “To get battle stars, he [Edmonds] would have been on the front lines,” said Richard Baker, a research historian at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, PA. “He probably drove jeeps mostly. They might have had a couple of cars for the generals.”
Trained and trusted as he never had been in Alabama, Edmonds re-enlisted in Berlin when the war ended and drove trucks for the U.S. Army in the rebuilding of Europe.
When he returned home at 22 in 1947, he would occasionally wear parts of his uniform in Boligee, because “the quality was so much thicker than the clothes we had,” said his son, Thomas Edmonds Jr. “My mother told me white people would tell him not to wear his uniform.”
Thennie Mae Edmonds Branch, Edmonds’s widow, died of Covid-19 on January 1 of this year. She had declined to discuss the details of the murder in a 2007 interview and rarely talked about it, even with family. But her sons remember any details she did mention.
She told them Edmonds was about 6-foot-2, stocky and solid, and “wasn’t scared of anything.” According to Thomas Jr., she said their father had told her he was married to a white woman in Germany and that he told friends he worked with at a sawmill the same story. They warned him not to talk about it.
Thennie Mae also told Thomas Jr. that a white store-owner in Boligee once told her that her husband was killed “because he was going to raise me and my brothers not to respect white people,” said Thomas Jr. “And he was not angry when he told her that. The way she explained it, he acted as if they did something good for us by killing my father.”
Only two years old when his father was killed, Thomas Jr. grew up to serve 12 years as a U.S. Air Force officer and then worked 28 years for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. His older brother, Earnest, is a Vietnam War veteran and an Alabama National Guard retiree.
Fearing Black Americans in Uniform
The white power structure of many southern towns dreaded the return of WWII’s black soldiers, believing military uniforms seemed to hint at full citizenship, medals at self-worth and authority, and that African Americans would “no longer know their place.” In Sumter County, only eight miles from Boligee, returning World War I veterans were dragged off trains and hanged in their uniforms.
Hoping their courageous service would change the future for themselves and their families, many blacks talked of WWII’s “Double V” campaign—victory at home and abroad. But after being needed desperately to win a war, blacks were still relegated to the back of America’s bus once home. Black servicemen were returning from war with a new sense of themselves, having glimpsed their power and potential, but 75 percent of them were going home to former Confederate states, where they could face as much danger as overseas.
In February 1946, on his way home from fighting in the Pacific, U.S. Army Sgt. Isaac Woodard, was taken off a Greyhound bus in rural South Carolina by two police officers who beat him with a blackjack and intentionally blinded him.
In 1946 alone, sixty black veterans were killed by whites in the U.S. One of them was twice-decorated George Dorsey, murdered along with another black man and their wives at Moore’s Ford in Georgia. The lynching was so shocking that President Harry Truman sought an anti-lynching law, but southern legislators blocked him, and lynching continued unabated. Within four months, veteran Maceo Snipes was shot in the back by four Ku Klux Klan members, enraged that, a day earlier, Snipes had become the first black American to vote in a Georgia Democratic primary.
The NAACP found that two-thirds of the victims of racial violence in the postwar South were U.S. veterans. One of them was Thomas Edmonds.
Trying to Understand What Happened July 21, 1951
In 1947, when Thomas Edmonds returned to Boligee—on the west end of Alabama’s Black Belt, just a half-hour from Mississippi—he went back to segregated Greene County Training School, earned his high school diploma, and met his future wife.
Thennie Mae Edmonds recalled that whites also told her husband not to wear white shirts, a warning rooted in an era when some southern states legally forbade slaves from dressing above their position. “My dad liked to look good,” said Thomas Jr., “so sometimes he wore a white shirt, like maybe when he went into town on Saturdays.”
Saturday was always a big day in Boligee, just as it was in small towns across the South. Field work knocked off at midday, giving country folks time to go into town to gather their groceries and goods and relax a bit. In the Black Belt, and Greene County was the blackest county in Alabama at 84 percent. African Americans would greatly outnumber whites.
Edmonds spent the early part of the day at his uncle’s house, promising Tommie Mae Edmonds, his fourteen-year-old cousin, that he would buy her a dress when he went to town. He bought the dress that afternoon at Boyd Aman’s store in Boligee. What happened that evening is less certain, but most accounts involve Boligee’s “night watchman.”
Small towns in the rural South, too small and poor for a police force, hired a “night watchman” to prevent black Americans from burglarizing stores. Although wearing civilian clothes, the night watchman could carry a gun and detain suspects until the county sheriff arrived. The night watchman also had another duty. Every evening—around nine on Saturdays—he would strike a plow sweep. “He’d beat that plow sweep with a big old ball peen hammer, and then thirty minutes later he’d go beat it again. And that meant all the black people better be out of town.” said A. L. “Buddy” Lavender, the onetime white mayor of Boligee, in 2009.
The night watchman was “a kind of law enforcement person,” according to Eunice Outland, who taught Edmonds’s three sons at Greene County Training School. She said Edmonds was “a soldier in World War II who got killed in Boligee by some white men.” “His attitude was not in line at the time with what [white] people thought it should be. ‘Uppity’ was the term they liked to use,” she said. “It was a senseless killing.”
Earnest Edmonds, a retired thirty-year forest ranger, was told by older townspeople that his father and the night watchman had a fight. “They got to fighting, and my father was beating him up and then someone shot my father, blew his brains out,” he said.
Lavender and longtime black Boligee resident James Cox agree Edmonds was winning the fight. Cox said in 2009 that he was told by witnesses that “Edmonds took the night watchman’s gun, and there was a [white] bystander there and he shot him.
Lavender was not there either but believed he received a reliable account from black witnesses. “They got into an argument, Edmonds jumped on him [the night watchman] and took his pistol away from him. And this other man came out with a .41 stack-barrel derringer, and he shot him [Edmonds],” Lavender said.
The night watchman, however, according to Lavender, claimed he had a second gun in his pocket and that he was the shooter and that would have justified the murder in the 1950s. Lavender said he could not recall the names of the night watchman or real shooter, who he said was an “old man,” a retired logger who wore a “black, uncrowned cowboy hat.”
Edmonds’s mother, Rose “Showti” Edmonds, was in Boligee that night and rushed to her son’s side as he lay in the street. “Why y’all kill my son?” she screamed, according to Tommie Mae Edmonds, who said, “Then someone cussed her and told her to shut her mouth,”
In a 2008 interview, Tommie Mae said that the night before the murder, her father, Earlie Edmonds, drove to Boligee to pick up Thomas Edmonds, his first cousin, who was returning on the bus from Birmingham. While he waited in his truck, Earlie Edmonds said two white men that he did not know drove up in a car and asked him if he was Thomas Edmonds and he told them he was Earlie Edmonds. When the bus arrived and Thomas was not on it, Earlie went home. After hearing the next night that Thomas had been killed, “my dad [Earlie] said he figured they were looking to kill him the previous night,” said Tommie Mae.
Thomas Edmonds Jr. said his mother told him that his dad and some other men were walking in town when the night watchman and another man approached them about being on the street. “When the night watchman started beating him with a gun, my dad took the gun from him, told him he did not want to fight, gave the gun back to the night watchman, said he was going home, and turned to walk away. As he began walking away, the night watchman shot him in the back of his head,” said Thomas Jr. “That’s what my mother said she was told and that what’s she always told me.”
Earnest Edmonds said he has spent much of his life trying to learn how and why his father was killed. “None of the white folks said nothing,” said Lavender, the former mayor. “I don’t know how, but they kept it quiet.”
“They knew, but they just wouldn’t tell,” said Lulu Cooks, a classmate of Edmonds and eventually a local civil rights leader. “Things that went on here in Boligee and roundabout, they had a hush-mouth on it.” Blacks did not talk about Edmonds’s killing either. “If they did, it might have happened to them,” Cooks said.
Thennie Mae gave birth Christmas Day, five months later, to her third son, Leo. She taught all three sons to read and write before they started to school—and not to hate. “My mother told me never to hate white people,” said Thomas Jr.
Leo did not follow brothers Earnest and Thomas into military careers, but one of his four children is a naval officer, with the others becoming pharmacists or engineers.
One of the Edmonds brothers’ classmates at Greene County Training School in Boligee was Henry Harris, their first cousin. He was the son of Henry Harris Sr., the half-brother of their father. The two future soldiers had grown up in the same home in Greene County. A WWII vet, Henry Harris Sr. had also re-enlisted after the war. He died in 1950, nine months before Thomas Edmonds Sr., after having a seizure in Boligee. An ambulance took him to Tuskegee Veterans Hospital in east Alabama, the only veterans hospital open to Alabama’s black veterans at the time. The ride took four hours. Harris was unconscious by the time he arrived. He died four days later at 29.
Henry Harris, the son, was just ten months old at the time. He grew up to be a high school valedictorian and an outstanding basketball player. He became the first black American awarded an athletic scholarship to Auburn University or the University of Alabama in 1968, a full twenty-two years after black veterans began returning from World War II to half-citizenship and ongoing peril in the American South.
Sam Heys is author of Remember Henry Harris: Lost Icon of a Revolution: A Story of Hope and Self-Sacrifice in America.
“Service Record,” Thomas J. Edmonds, National Archives and Records Administration, St. Louis, Missouri; “Application for Headstone or Marker” for Thomas Edmonds, Department of Veteran Affairs, December 10, 1951
Thennie Mae Branch, interview, June 11, 2007 and May 13, 2008
“Certificate of Death,” Thomas J. Edmonds, Alabama Center for Health Statistics, July 21, 1951
Thomas Edmonds Jr., interviews, February 7, 2021 and May 27, 2021
Earnest Edmonds, interview, July 28, 2008
Tommie Mae Edmonds, interview, July 28, 2008
A. L. Lavender, interview, September 22, 2009
Eunice Outland, interview, May 25, 2008
James Cox, interview, July 11, 2009
Lulu Cooks, interview, September 30, 2009
“Service Treatment Records,” Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Records Management Center, St. Louis, Missouri
“Certificate of Delivery of Patients,” Tuskegee VA Hospital, October 1, 1950
Len Cooper, “The Damned,” Washington Post, June 16, 1996
Michele Norris, The Grace of Silence, 84
Richard Gergel, Unexampled Courage, 3
Laura Wexler, Fire in a Canebreak
Dan Barry, “Killing and Segregated…,” NYT, March 18, 2007
Christine Myers, “Civil Rights Historians…,” AP, May 28, 2018
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Games, PBS, 2013
Part 1, Eyes on the Prize, PBS, 1987