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Authors: Thomas Mullen

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BOOK: Darktown
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“Are any politicians talking with your group?” Lucius asked, hoping to rhetorically lead Timmons to Representative Prescott. “Mayor Hartsfield, City Council? Senators?”

“Hartsfield only talks to Negroes when he fears we'll vote for someone else, and he knows that isn't going to happen right now, not after ‘giving us' eight colored officers.”

“How about Prescott? Have you talked to him?”

“We have written him a few letters, asking for better funding for Negro schools, in Atlanta and in the country. But I'm not holding my breath. Sometimes it's the ones who claim they're progressive who are the worst, because they act like they are the very boundary between the possible and the impossible, and they never let you cross them. Know what I mean?”

At which point Smith entered the den, smiled, extended his hand, and introduced himself to Timmons. Boggs briefly recapped what they'd been talking about.

“Oh yeah,” Smith said. “I understand there's a girl who was involved in your group, Lily Ellsworth? Just moved to Atlanta from Peacedale. Very country.”

It seemed to take Timmons a moment. “Oh yeah. Young girl, right?”

“Nineteen. Pretty, very light-skinned. New in town.”

From the front parlor, a woman cried out and a glass shattered. Laughter.

“Yeah, that's right. Nathaniel's old student.”

“Who's that?” Boggs asked.

“Nathaniel Hurst. He was her teacher out in Peacedale, said she was smart as a whip. She's exactly what I'm talking about, kind of kid who could really be something if only she was given the right tools. Lucky for her she winds up with a decent teacher, he opens her eyes, and she's off to better things. Nathaniel's an old classmate of mine, he's been helping our group out.”

“He lives here now?” This was news. Lucius remembered Otis Ellsworth shaking his head angrily at some teacher who'd filled Lily's head with crazy ideas like equality and voting rights.

“Yeah, moved a few months ago maybe.” Timmons stopped, as if he hadn't realized this was important information, or as if he hadn't meant to give it away. “How did you say you know Lily?”

“We don't, actually,” Boggs answered. “She was murdered.”

Timmons's face was fixed in place for a good second or two. Then his eyes widened, and his neck contracted a bit as he lowered his jaw, and he repeated the last word Lucius had said.

“Happened about two weeks ago. We were wondering if you might have heard anything.”

“I don't— You mean . . . you're investigating a girl's murder?”

“Yes,” Lucius said.

“You could have said that from the beginning!”

“We could have, you're right. There never seems to be a good way to say someone's been killed. Maybe we'll figure out how after a few more months. We'll probably get a lot of practice.”

“Damn. But, why are you asking
me
about it?”

“We don't know much about her,” Smith said. “One of the only things we know is she was reportedly very bright, she was new to Atlanta, and she was involved in this group of yours.”

Timmons issued the kind of theatrical half laugh one does when someone else has the wrong idea and they're desperate to correct it. “I wouldn't say she was
involved.
I mean, she might have come to a meeting or two.”

“Yet you remembered her name,” Lucius said.

Timmons lowered his chin. “She was a very fine girl. Yes, I remember her. But I can hardly think of another thing about her, other than that Nathaniel had been her teacher.”

“Tell us about him,” Lucius asked.

“Morehouse man. Decided to use his degree to help poor kids out in the country, that's how he met her. But he never really took to the sticks, so he's back here. My impression is he left Peacedale because it was in his physical best interest to do so.”

“He'd been threatened by somebody?” Smith asked.

“He never flat out said it, but . . . I had that impression.”

“Or maybe he was following her here?”

“He's a married man.”

Lucius rolled his eyes. “Oh, well in that case—”

“I can vouch for him. He is not that type.”

What type? The type that might accidentally fall for a cute young thing who looks up to you and thanks you for opening her world? The type attracted to beautiful young women? Was Timmons too naïve, or was Boggs too cynical?

“And you've never had any contact with Congressman Prescott?” Lucius asked.

“No. Why, he dead, too?” An awkward laugh.

“She worked for him,” Smith explained. “We figured, girl works as a maid to a congressman, she's part of some political group trying to get favors out of him, then she winds up dead. . . .”

Timmons's eyebrows shot way up. “We're not involved in anything that could get a girl
killed!

A middle-aged couple had been about to enter from the kitchen, behind Timmons, but on hearing these words they stopped, then turned around.

“Who has your group written these letters to?” Smith asked. “We'd love to get a list.”

Timmons shook his head, appealing to Boggs. “Lucius, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to tell you everything we've done if it means that you're going to put the Police Department's nose in it.”

“You had to know you'd make enemies,” Lucius said. “There are plenty of folks who wouldn't agree with what you're doing, and a lot of them own guns.”

“I just . . . I just don't believe that whatever happened to her could have anything to do with us.”

By which he meant, he didn't
want
to believe that his group's politics might have put her at risk. He didn't want any guilt on his soul. Lucius knew the feeling.

“Okay,” Lucius said. “Other than your group, did you ever have any reason to think she was mixed up in anything? Bad friends, loose morals, anything like that?”

Smith pressed, “She seem like the kind of girl who ran with white men?”

“Definitely not. She was corn bread pure, man. Wide-eyed and innocent.”

An hour or so later the party was winding down, Smith was seducing the nineteen-year-old sister of Reginald's wife, and Lucius had escaped to the cooler air on the front porch. Distracted, he ran the known facts through his mind:
Prescott helps with the push for Negro cops, a little. He signals he may be more open to other Negro issues. His Negro maid is involved in a new, younger Negro rights group. She may or may not have talked to him about it. She may or may not have spied on him to report back to her allies. She may or may not have sent a suspicious amount of money home to her family. She later lists a brothel as her return address. She's spotted one night by me with a white ex-cop and a bruise on her face. She's shot and killed with a small-caliber gun, possibly that same night.

“It's Officer Boggs!” boomed the unmistakable voice of Reverend King. “Put away the moonshine, everyone!”

He returned from his daydreaming and saw on the porch Reverend King from Ebenezer Baptist, Reverend Holmes Borders from Wheat Street, and John Wesley Dobbs, thirty-year veteran of the post office and Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons, standing with his father by the small table that held their glasses. They seemed to have been looking over a sheet of paper they could barely read in the dark. These were some of the men who'd been instrumental in the push for registering Negro voters, Lucius knew, and though three of them were rivals for congregants, they were always working on some civic plan or another.

The others laughed and more good-natured ribbing ensued, comments about why wasn't he in uniform day and night if Satan never sleeps, and hey that's quite a scar there on your forehead, how's the other fellow look, and when are you going to get to drive a squad car?

The smiles had barely faded when the talk turned serious.

“We've been talking about the James Jameson situation,” Reverend Holmes Borders said. “The community, as I'm sure you know, is very . . . concerned with how the Department has handled things.”

Holmes Borders handed Lucius the sheet of paper. Lucius stepped back so enough light from the front parlor could seep through the window and make it legible. It was a letter addressed to Mayor Hartsfield, Congressman Prescott, and Herbert Jenkins, chief of the Atlanta Police Department, an allegedly reform-minded man who had acquiesced
to the hiring of the colored officers and had even abolished the Klan-­dominated police union a year ago (though Lucius had heard that an unofficial all-white union still existed). It remained to be seen how far such a man was willing to push such reforms, especially if another mayor should take office.

Lucius himself had proofread for his father many similarly officious letters over the years, their tone ranging from courteous to admonishing to outraged. This letter explained that the colored community was “extremely concerned” about the way the Department had handled the “homicidal apprehension” of Jameson, and noted that there were several “unanswered questions” that needed to be asked. The letter recommended a careful but widespread investigation. It requested some seats at that table. It was signed by these four community leaders, including Lucius's own father.

Lucius read the letter once and he read it again and still he stared at the page for a long while, too angry to reply.

“We were hoping you could deliver this to Chief Jenkins,” Reverend King finally said.

“With my badge and gun?”

“I'm sorry?”

He looked up at them. “Why don't I just resign? Because that's what I may as well be doing if I handed him something like this.”

The men all shifted on their feet, took their hands out of their pockets, crossed their arms.

“Son, let's not be so dramatic,” his father said.

He tried to keep his voice calm. “You're asking me to throw a bomb at my employer.”

“That's hardly a bomb,” Holmes Borders said.

“We all respect what you're doing, Lucius,” Reverend King said.

“Don't forget who helped you
get
that job,” Dobbs snapped.

His father held out an appeasing hand. “Let's all talk this—”

“And now you want to take it away, Mr. Dobbs?” Lucius stared.

“We have been working
hard
for
years
to make things better—” Holmes Borders started.

“I realize that.”

“Son, don't interrupt the man.”

“But just because we finally have some colored men in uniform doesn't mean we're going to look the other way when the city pulls something like this.”

Lucius tried to sound reasonable as he explained, “I didn't like Jameson's trial any more than you did, but it happened two years ago and there's nothing any of us can do about it. Him busting out and getting shot, though, there's nothing
abusive
about that. He was an escaped convict and he had a gun.”

“He was shot in the back, I heard,” Holmes Borders said.

“They tortured his sister.”

Lucius shook the letter. “This is not the right battle to fight, gentlemen. I've seen plenty you wouldn't like and plenty that might deserve a letter, believe me, but Triple James getting himself killed is not one of them.”


Triple James,
huh?” Reverend Holmes Borders shook his head. “So they got you thinking like they do already.”

“I know how to think, Reverend. I respect all that you've done to get me where I am, but that doesn't mean I'm going to let you use me as some pawn between you and the chief and the mayor.” He looked at his father. “I'm no one's sacrificial lamb.”

“You watch your tone.” His father was very still.

Lucius paused. The angrier he let himself become, the more likely they were to see him as some petulant, ungrateful child. Yet his anger was too great to contain.

“None of you have
any
idea what it's like. If you send this, all it will do is tighten the vise on me and the others. There are some of us, and you do
not
repeat this, there are some of us who might quit any day now. How do you think that will go over?”

“This is about more than eight officers,” Reverend Holmes Borders said.

“You think we don't know that?” Did they think he'd be all too happy to act as their middleman, their spy into the white power structure? Or, worse, were they jealous to realize that the authority they'd built up over the years had not only crested but been transferred to the eight cops, these undeserving young men, and now the community leaders had to reassert themselves? “You think that hasn't occurred to us? You think we don't realize how important
everything
we do is?”

He dropped the letter, and the overhead fan accelerated its downward journey to the table, where it instantly stuck to the circle of condensation where someone's glass had been. The reverends and Mr. Dobbs were all watching that circle spread as Lucius walked off.

BOOK: Darktown
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