Reading Birmingham

Reading Birmingham: In Birmingham 1931, a Man Went Out for Cornbread, Died in Prison

Jim Baggett

Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham by Melanie S. Morrison (Duke University Press, 2018)

UPDATED: Victim’s daughter challenges book’s view.

Murder on Shades Mountain (Source: Duke Press)

By James L. Baggett

Willie Peterson just wanted to pick up some cornbread for supper. On a hot September afternoon in 1931, Peterson boarded a streetcar near his home in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Birmingham and rode to Southside.

After visiting his mother-in-law, Peterson walked up Avenue G (now Seventh Avenue South) toward Beamon’s Café. A slightly built African-American man, Peterson suffered from tuberculous and followed his wife’s instructions not to overexert himself. Before Peterson reached the café, three white people in a car — a man and woman in their 20s and an older woman — stopped and began to question him.

As the young man held Peterson at gun point, the young woman said, “Yes, it’s him. I know it’s him.”

When three police officers arrived, they beat and handcuffed Peterson and drove him to jail.

“You’ve got the wrong Negro,” Peterson told the officers. Willie Peterson lived in a time when being the “wrong Negro,” or just any black man in the wrong place at the wrong time, could be deadly.

In this new book, Melanie S. Morrison, a United Church of Christ minister and self-described social justice educator, researches and retells a story she heard as a child in Michigan from her Birmingham-born father.

Not quite two months before Peterson’s arrest, three young white women from Forest Park and Redmont, sisters Nell and Augusta Williams and their friend Jennie Wood, went to the movies and then for a drive along a wooded area of Shades Mountain. Later that night, Nell Williams told authorities the women had been accosted by an armed African-American man who held them hostage for hours in the woods and harangued them with racial grievances.

“He blamed the white race for the Negro’s conditions,” Nell said, “and declared the white people are forever heaping injustice on the Negro.”

When the women tried to wrestle the gun away, she said, the man opened fire inside the car. Augusta and Jennie were seriously wounded and would later die. Nell, shot through the arm, escaped and sought help.

Violent white mobs searched for the attacker for weeks. Black men and women were detained, beaten, whipped, shot and killed. Then Nell Williams saw Willie Peterson, who bore no resemblance to her earlier descriptions of the attacker, walking down Avenue G. And she said it was him.

With the arrest of Peterson, Birmingham authorities suspended their investigation, never processing fingerprints collected at the scene. Police and Birmingham’s newspapers ignored stories circulating among prominent white families — and overheard by those families’ black servants — that the girls had gone to Shades Mountain to party with a married man, and the real shooter was that man’s enraged wife.

Under repeated interrogation with no legal counsel, Peterson maintained his innocence. Even Nell Williams, the only witness, was allowed to question the suspect, and when Peterson refused to confess, Nell’s hot-headed brother Dent shot Peterson with a pistol he had smuggled into the jail. Peterson survived the three gunshots wounds.

Indicted for the murders of the white women, Peterson stood trial in late 1931, but the evidence against him was so questionable — even Birmingham’s police chief had doubts — that an all-white, all-male jury could not reach a verdict. At a second trial in 1932, when some jurors feared Klan retaliation if they did not convict, Peterson was found guilty and sentenced to death.

After two failed appeals to the Alabama Supreme Court, a sustained campaign by determined black activists, supported by white allies, and a personal appeal by Jefferson County Sheriff James Hawkins, in 1934 Alabama Gov. Benjamin Miller commuted Peterson’s sentence from death to life in prison. Willie Peterson was not executed but he never received justice, and he died of tuberculosis in 1940.

For author Morrison, Murder on Shades Mountain is a personal story. Her father was a Birmingham native who had dated Nell and Augusta Williams’ younger sister. He often told his daughter the story of the Williams/Wood murders, a story the daughter found both fascinating and infuriating.

Morrison’s father was also an admirer of Birmingham Presbyterian minister Henry Edmonds, one of Willie Peterson’s white supporters. Edmonds inspired the elder Morrison to become a minister and fight racial injustice. And the father inspired his daughter to do the same.

A minister in the United Church of Christ and founder of the organization Allies for Change, Morrison “is a social justice educator, author and activist.” Like her father, Morrison retold the story of the Shades Mountain murders many times, and in 2010 she took the first of several trips to Birmingham to research the case, to fill in the details her father left out or did not know, to try and understand why Willie Peterson died in prison, serving a life sentence for crimes he did not commit.

The best histories not only illuminate the past but also speak to the present. And the best histories recover the heart of a story. Like Willie Peterson, we live in a time when a black man minding his own business still draws suspicion.  We live in a time when a black man walking through his neighborhood with a bottle of iced tea and a bag of candy, or selling cigarettes on the sidewalk, or waiting for his buddy at a table in Starbucks can end up cuffed in a squad car, or dead on the ground. We live in a time that is not as different as it should be from Willie Peterson’s time, and that is why Murder on Shades Mountain is such an important and timely book.

Murder on Shades Mountain is about three privileged white girls who got into trouble somehow. It is about a community boiling with racial fear and hatred. But at its heart, Murder on Shades Mountain is the story of Willie Peterson, an innocent and gentle black man who worked hard, was kind to his friends, devoted to his church, loved his wife, and on his last day of freedom just wanted to get some cornbread for supper.

About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, a Birmingham archivist, has assisted with research on many of the 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama since 1970. He reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state for Birmingham Watch.  He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history. Baggett received the Alabama Library Association’s 2019 Eminent Librarian Award. In this column, he reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state, some of them not widely known to local readers. Baggett speaks and writes frequently about history and books, is a leader of Alabama historical organizations and is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Alabama.      

Daughter of Victim in Controversial 1931 Crime Critical of Book on the Subject

 Jim Baggett Responds