We know that William Smith was married but little else about his life except that his death was a result of a violent altercation with an officer of the law. News of this altercation, reported in The Citizen-Examiner in November 1912, described Mr. Smith as a “desperado,” criminal and the like.
On November 1, 1912, Mr. Smith went to a Bessemer pawn shop to pawn a watch with a general’s name engraved on it. The shop owner assumed the expensive watch was stolen and alerted the police. City Detectives Childress and Ceph Ross entered the store and confronted Mr. Smith, searching his pockets for a gun. Allegedly, a shoot-out and chase occurred between Mr. Smith and Mr. Ross. The chase went out into the street, where a mob began to form. Shots were fired, allegedly from Mr. Smith. Mr. Childress was fatally wounded. As the chase continued, Mr. Smith hid in the bathroom of J.G. Bruce on 1623 Second Avenue in Bessemer. The mob entered the house and fatally shot Mr. Smith. He was subsequently taken to Kennedy Undertaking, owned by Mamie, Connell, and W.T. Kennedy.
The coroner’s report stated, “The Will Smith, alias James Roberts, colored came to his death at Bessemer Friday afternoon, Nov. 1, by being shot, at the hands of C. Ross, Dock Parsons (policemen) and others, and that the same was justifiable homicide.”
Although both Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Childers’ deaths resulted from this altercation, far more is known about both the life and death of City Detective Childers. While little is known about the life and death of many racial lynching victims, the facts about lynchings involving law enforcement officers have been especially subverted. The power structures between African Americans and law enforcement have a long history of oppression. Residents of Bessemer described the town as home to an inordinate number of African-American citizens due to “white flight” of Caucasian residents as Civil Rights era integration began. Even today, remnants of the racial tension between Bessemer law enforcement and African- American residents remains.
University of Alabama at Birmingham
“Former Tuscaloosian is Murderously Attacked While Performing his Duty,” November 2, 1912, page 1.
“Negro Desperado Killed,” The Citizen-Examiner, November 7, 1912, page 1.
“Shooting Negro was Justified,” The Tuscaloosa News, November 3, 1912, page 1.