Dear Mr. Baggett,
I was appalled and saddened by parts of your review of Melanie Morrison’s book, “Murder on Shades Mountain.”
Although I commend Ms. Morrison for her quest for racial justice, equality and reconciliation, I was somewhat disturbed that she did not even attempt to interview Nell Williams’ descendants to uncover some larger truths and the complete story. Also, I am disappointed that you, like Ms. Morrison, chose to repeat salacious gossip and innuendo. This seems doubly reprehensible to me since you are a historian and archivist.
I am Julene Reese Roberts, younger daughter of Nell Williams Reese. My daughter, Emily Williams Eisele Lewis, and I have been researching and writing a book about the 1931 murders for some years now. We may have even run into you at the Birmingham Library Archives six or seven years ago. We, also, came to the conclusion that Mr. Peterson was most probably NOT the assailant. Emily and I have not been able to find an agent or a publisher yet, but we intend to press on with our project.
Ms. Morrison seemed to take quite a few liberties with “truth” and the structure of creative non-fiction. She invented scenarios, conversations and even what Mr. Peterson and others, including my mother, were thinking, with only a footnote nod to the liberties she took. The book that Emily has written is very factual and much of it overlaps Ms. Morrison’s research. However, our book includes information from audio tapes and interviews that we conducted with my mother, Nell Williams, and other relatives.
I think my sorrow at Ms. Morrison’s account is that it devolves into an “us” and “them” mentality, demonizing and even slandering the young women who were brutally attacked. Why can’t there be compassion and regret, not just for Mr. Peterson and his family and friends, but also for Jennie Wood, Augusta and Nell Williams, and their families and friends?
Anyone who knew Jennie, Augusta and Nell would find it preposterous that they “had gone to Shades Mountain to party with a married man … and been shot by his enraged wife” … or that they were “doing something morally perilous and said it was a black man to move attention from that.” It would be laughable if it were not so painful and such a cruel a lie.
Jennie Wood, Augusta and Nell Williams were not, as you said in your review, “three privileged white girls who got into trouble somehow.” They were three innocent young women who were accosted, held captive at gun point for hours, taunted, promised their freedom several times only to be told they were going to be killed because they had seen the assailant’s face. One was raped, all three were shot, two brutally murdered, and only my mother, Nell Williams, survived. She visited me over Easter of 1993, just four days before she died at age 80. She was a survivor of unspeakable horror, a victim of PTSD (although no one knew of the emotional effects of that disorder at the time) and to her dying day, she believed that she had identified the right man. I believe she was mistaken, but I will never, ever believe that she lied or was “pressured ” into identifying someone, ANYone.
My heart weeps for Henrietta and Willie Peterson and their family, Jennie Wood and her family, and Augusta and Nell Williams and their family. I hope and pray for a time of respect, equality, understanding and compassion for all.
Julene Reese Roberts