75 years later, lynching of a black Army private at Fort Benning remains unsolved
By ALEXA MILLS | Special To The Washington Post | Published: September 2, 2016
FORT BENNING, Ga. — Pvt. Felix Hall was strung up in a jack-knife position in a shallow ravine. A quarter-inch noose, tethered to a sapling on the earthen bank above him, dug into the flesh of his neck. His feet, bound with baling wire, were attached by a second rope to three other saplings, and his hands were tied behind him.
Hall succeeded in kicking loose his legs and freeing his left hand. Then, while he still had breath, he desperately scraped dirt loose from the ravine wall, trying to scoop out enough of the sienna-colored earth to build up a mound beneath his feet that he could stand on "to take the strain from his neck," the FBI would later report. He got the dirt up to the arches of his dangling feet. But the earth was soft and loose and ultimately not enough to support his weight.
When investigators eventually arrived on the scene and examined his body, he'd been suspended in this position, in the woods of Fort Benning, for more than six weeks. Maggots were eating his flesh.
It was early in 1941, eight months before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and with World War II already raging overseas, the United States was recruiting young men to serve their country. Hall, a 19-year-old black man from Alabama, had volunteered just a few months earlier. At Fort Benning, he was training for the possibility of fighting overseas in a unit of African American soldiers.
Instead, he became the victim of the only known lynching on a U.S. military base in American history.
The government never solved his murder.
In their investigations, the FBI and the War Department failed to obtain — and in some cases ignored — critical information about the crime. The investigation report, along with War Department correspondence, raises questions about whether federal authorities were serious about finding his killers. His lynching was an inconvenient reminder of violence against black servicemen at a time when the military was working hard to recruit young men of all races for a looming war.
The FBI compiled a 130-page investigation file, which has never been disclosed publicly until now. In the various reports, correspondence, lab results and photographs that make up this file, there is no record that anyone on base went looking for Hall when he disappeared. Although he appears to have vanished after walking through a white neighborhood on base in the middle of the afternoon, investigators did not identify anyone who could detail his movements. Nor is there any evidence that investigators pursued several accounts that Hall's white boss at the on-base sawmill had quarreled with him a day earlier and threatened to kill him.
For months after his body was discovered, military authorities told the public that Hall's death may have been a suicide, though a military physician who examined the body within two weeks of its recovery ruled it a homicide and put that on Hall's death certificate.
According to the official record, Hall's decomposing body was discovered by an engineer regiment on a training exercise six weeks after the killing. But in an interview earlier this year, a retired social worker who grew up on base revealed that her stepfather had found the body of a black man hanging in the same location in the woods in early 1941 and that he had reported it. There is no mention of such a report in the file.
Hall's lynching initially prompted a burst of publicity around the country. The public, both blacks and whites, wrote countless letters and petitions to the government demanding justice and information about his killing. But over the following months and years, the government released only a fraction of its findings. Even today, the FBI continues to redact a key part of the 75-year-old report.
In 2014, Northeastern University Law School's Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which seeks to uncover details of racially motivated murders during the Jim Crow era, began digging up documents on Hall's case. Those documents were turned over to Northeastern's School of Journalism, prompting a year-long investigation into the lynching and the government's failure to see justice done. This article is based on the FBI file, a separate War Department report and correspondence, a 500-page file maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other government records, as well as a range of archival documents and interviews with people who were at Fort Benning at the time of Hall's death or otherwise knew him, and their descendants.
Seventy-five years after Hall's life was cut short, Americans are wrestling again with questions about the value placed on the lives of young black men and the ability of the criminal justice system to transcend its historic double standard. Hall's case may be cold, but it still resonates.
Hall was born on New Year's Day 1922 in Millbrook, Ala., a rural town 11 miles north of Montgomery. His mother died of tuberculosis a week before his third birthday. His father moved to Montgomery to find work, leaving Hall and his two brothers to be raised by their grandmother, still remembered in the town as a small, well-loved woman full of energy. Hall's family and friends nicknamed him "Poss."
When he was a teenager, Hall watched his older cousins enlist in the military and leave town to train for war. The only work available to black teenagers in Millbrook was picking cotton.
Hall was 18 years old, 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds when he went to the recruiting station in Montgomery in August 1940 to enlist in the Army. He was assigned to Fort Benning in neighboring Georgia, where he would join the 24th Infantry Regiment, one of the first all-black military units, organized after the Civil War.
By all accounts, Hall loved those initial months away from home. He seemed happy in the Army and swept up with his social life. In his journal, he kept a list of every girl he was sweet on. Florence Cotton lived at 742 North McDonough Street, Montgomery. Cordelia Huffman lived at 52 Chilton Street. On one page, he declared his love for Miss Ada Mae.
Sometimes he met girls out on the town. He liked to go to a bar and get a drink in the evening, but he was never seen drunk. He liked to make conversation with everybody, white or black.
Months after Hall disappeared, the FBI interviewed Sgt. Frank O. Williams, who had trained Hall, and reported his impressions: "WILLIAMS stated that he was very familiar with [Hall's] habits, and considered him an all right individual; that he had no trouble with him during training, and that his discipline was good, although at times HALL seemed to be more of a kid than a soldier, as he was usually playing pranks on others, and almost always in a very jovial mood. Sergeant WILLIAMS knew of no trouble in which HALL had been involved, and knew no one that disliked [the] victim."
Hall went home to Alabama for Christmas in 1940. He turned 19 on Jan. 1. One week later, he had a routine physical exam at Fort Benning. He had grown half an inch and gained 15 pounds in the five months since enlisting.
On Jan. 31 he made his first and only payment, 65 cents, on a life insurance policy. He named his grandmother as the beneficiary.
On Feb. 12, he went to work as usual at the sawmill, where he was detailed by the Army, assigned to keep the fire burning. When the shift ended, he told two friends he was heading to the post exchange — the only one for blacks on the segregated base — where he could order a hot meal and eat it at the counter.
The post exchange was within clear sight of the sawmill, but Hall never made it. He was last seen alive about 4 p.m. in Block W, a poor, all-white neighborhood between the mill and the exchange. It was home primarily to noncommissioned officers, about 30 small houses arranged scattershot on a strip of land between a swampy field and railroad tracks.
At bugle call the next morning, for the first time during his military service, Hall did not report for duty.
Hall didn't seem the kind of person to go AWOL. He had two cousins on the base, and his best friend from home, who enlisted the day after he did, slept in a nearby bunk. But nearly a month after Hall vanished, he was declared a deserter.
In the reports compiled by the FBI and the War Department, there is no record of investigators asking Hall's friends and cousins whether they had looked for him after he disappeared or whether they suspected foul play. Nor is there any record in the investigation file that Fort Benning officials notified authorities in Hall's home town that he had vanished, although such notifications were routine practice in the case of missing soldiers.
All that time, Hall's body was just out of sight, no more than a 15-minute walk from the bustling center of the post. Residents of the post often hunted in the woods for food or sport. Soldiers traipsed through them to frequent bars and pick up prostitutes in an Alabama town just across the Chattahoochee River.
Hall's body was recovered on the morning of March 28,1941, by a platoon of the 20th Engineer Regiment, which was training in the woods.
"I began to smell the odor of something dead," Pvt. Banks Lawing later told a board of officers at Fort Benning. "Walking further I saw a body hanging from a tree on the embankment."
The rope connecting his wrists was loose. His skin was peeling away.
A Fort Benning physician on April 8 ruled Hall's death a homicide. The FBI later concluded there were multiple assailants. "From the position of the body and the location in which it was found," the FBI report said, "it does not appear that one man could have committed the crime."
Yet for the next four months, the War Department and authorities at Fort Benning told the public that they were investigating the possibility that Hall's death was a suicide.
On April 14, the elevator man at 409 Edgecombe Ave. in Harlem walked into work with a leaflet he'd received outside the subway in Brooklyn that morning. It had a hand-drawn picture of Felix Hall, in uniform, hanging by a noose from a tree. The headline read, "Negro Soldier Killed by Lynchers."
The royalty of black Harlem — W.E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, musicians and artists — lived and worked in the apartments at 409 Edgecombe. The elevator man handed his leaflet to Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP.
White had already received a letter describing the discovery of Hall's body. A black soldier had written home to his mother the day after it was found. "They tried to claim he hung himself," the soldier wrote. The soldier's mother handed his letter over to her local NAACP chapter in Ohio, whose director sent it on to New York. White wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, rebuking them for the suggestion that Hall's death was a suicide and demanding an investigation.
White also began exchanging letters with Jonathan Daniels, who was editor in chief of the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina and later served as Roosevelt's press secretary. Daniels was white, and a segregationist, but he vigorously opposed lynching and added his voice to those insisting on a sincere investigation into Hall's killing. At the end of May, Daniels published an article in the Nation criticizing the government's silence regarding Hall's death.
A month later, in a letter to the War Department, Daniels wrote that "the delay in any report on secret hearings about a homicide, lynching, or suicide (whichever it was) seems to me pretty bad. If a Georgia County was as secretive about the investigation of a possible lynching, everybody would say it was a cover up."
Now, the FBI says that all racially motivated crimes are a high priority, though the bureau declined to discuss the specific Hall case.
"Crimes of this nature are not only an attack on the victim, but are meant to threaten and intimidate whole communities of people," FBI spokeswoman Samantha T. Shero said in a written statement to The Washington Post. "The FBI is committed to working with both our law enforcement and community partners to aggressively investigate these types of allegations and bring justice for the victims and their families."
But at the time,the FBI conducted a tag-team investigation over the course of 17 months. The bureau rotated at least half a dozen agents through the Hall case. None were seasoned agents — the youngest investigator was just 24, the eldest 31. Fort Benning officials and military police also had a part in the probe.
The FBI ultimately identified two "best" suspects in the lynching. Both men lived in Block W, where Hall was last seen alive.
The first suspect was Sgt. Henry Green.
His neighbor, Mrs. S.S. Thompson, reported at the time that Green had been sitting outside his house with a shotgun, prepared to shoot a "colored Peeping Tom" who had been disturbing the residents. "There had been a number of reports of Peeping Toms turned in to the Provost Marshal's office from this area immediately prior to the murdering of the victim, but none were made after his disappearance," an FBI agent reported.
Green and his brother-in-law, Sgt. Ace Milliard Allison, were off work the day that Hall disappeared. The FBI developed a theory that the two men spent the day drinking at Green's house and captured Hall when he was passing by on his way to the post exchange.
Green admitted that he had a gun and that he had said he would kill any black Peeping Tom who came to his window. But he denied that he sat outside waiting for one, and he denied having any involvement in Hall's death.
The second suspect was Sgt. James C. Hodges.
Hodges's house was along the route Hall took each day, walking between the sawmill and his barracks. According to the FBI, Hall was last seen alive in the vicinity of Hodges's house. Capt. Marvin J. Coyle, who as provost marshal was head of the military police at Fort Benning, believed that Hodges had a motive to kill Hall and a reason "to commit this crime in the manner in which it was committed," according to the FBI.
But two paragraphs detailing Hodges's possible motive remain redacted from the investigation report 75 years after they were written. The FBI continues to withhold this information, citing a legal exemption designed to prevent the disclosure of information that would be considered an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. When asked for a more specific reason, an FBI official said the information was probably redacted because it pertained to individuals who were 100 years old or younger and still thought to be alive, thus protected by the exemption. The official did not say who they were. Hodgesdied in 1961. An appeal of this redaction was rejected by the FBI earlier this year.
Dorothy Carter, Hodges's eldest living child, was 12 in 1941. In a telephone interview, she remembered her father as a drunk — a man who would beat her and her siblings, then lapse into tears. She wasn't surprised when told during the interview that her father had been a lynching suspect.
"I wouldn't doubt it. I wouldn't doubt it at all," she said. She added: "If a group got together, he would have been right in the middle of it saying, 'Let's go. Let's go.' He was a coward. He wouldn't have done it on his own, but if a group was going, he would have been right in the middle of it."
The government did not prosecute either Green or Hodges. No other suspects were seriously considered by the FBI, records show.
According to the accounts of black soldiers, someone had threatened to kill Hall just a day before he vanished: Henry J. Smith, the white civilian foreman at the sawmill.
Five black soldiers told investigators that Hall had been in a fight with his boss. Several named Smith, but none claimed to have witnessed the encounter.
Pvt. Willie Ellison reported to the FBI that he'd heard from two people that Smith had threatened to kill Hall if he did not call him "Sir." According to Sgt. Osie Goldsby, Hall had said that he was planning to desert the Army because, an FBI agent wrote, "he was afraid of a foreman by the name of SMITH at the saw mill who had threatened to kill him because the victim and other negros at the saw mill had been teasing SMITH."
Pvt. Willie T. Smith, another black soldier, reported that Hall said that his boss had threatened to strike him and that to defend himself, Hall picked up a cant hook, a long metal pole with a hook at the end used for handling logs. Pvt. James Arthur Perry, also black, heard that Hall was ordered not to return to work.
In contrast, five white people, including four civilian sawmill employees and one soldier, reported knowing nothing of a fight between Hall and Henry Smith.
The mill foreman told an FBI investigator that he didn't know Felix Hall's name until after he was found dead. He said that he couldn't remember the last date he had seen Hall at work, that he'd never argued with a black soldier and that he did not manage black soldiers. Both the sawmill manager and clerk concurred with Smith's account.
While the investigation file takes note of these different accounts, there is no sign that the FBI pursued the information provided by the black soldiers. There is no record of follow-up questioning of witnesses or any other effort to distill the truth from the conflicting information, no attempt to get to the bottom of what transpired at the mill. In short, the accounts provided by the black soldiers — who in the Jim Crow South would ordinarily have been afraid to tell a white investigator anything they knew about the hanging of a black man — were simply set aside.
Smith, who died in 1951, was never named as a suspect.
Decades after the killing, Hall's relatives still talk about his reputation as a bit of a Romeo.
His cousin James Fenderson was only 6 when Hall died but grew up hearing that Hall had flirted across the color line, which could easily get a black man lynched in the South. Hundreds were killed for interacting with white women, sometimes after nothing more than a glance. Hall was known to speak with white people of both genders and all ages, more casually than was considered appropriate at the time, Fenderson recalled in an interview.
Kenneth Thomas grew up with a similar understanding, even though he is from a different branch of the family tree. Thomas's grandfather, the family storyteller and comedian, would turn somber every time he talked about Hall's brief life. "My grandfather said Felix was a lady's man," Thomas recounted in an interview.
Back in 1941, the word at Fort Benning was that Hall "had his eyes on a white woman" and was killed for it.
That was the rumor that Pearl Follett heard. She was 12 at the time, a white girl living with her family in the Bradley Area neighborhood of the post. Now 87, Follett is a retired social worker with short white hair and pale blue eyes. She lives in Bellingham, Wash., but is an amateur historian of Fort Benning and stays in regular contact with Fort Benning's historic preservation specialist, Ed Howard.
In an interview, she said she remembered the spring day in 1941 when her stepfather, Army Sgt. Howard W. Gillispie, a World War I veteran, came home after hunting in the woods. As soon as he was through the door, he told her mother that he'd found the body of a black man hanging in the woods.
"He wasn't a coward, so it stuck in my mind that he was afraid," Follett said. "That really stuck in my mind. Why was he afraid? He wasn't afraid of anything."
She recalled that she and her older sister had listened through their bedroom wall to their parents as they talked over what they should do.
"As my memory has it, he got other men to go to the site," Follett said. She is confident that he reported what he saw. "He was a man by the book," she said. "Whatever happened, he would have done absolutely what the law required."
Last winter, as part of research for a book about Fort Benning's history, Follett dug into Hall's case by ordering old issues of the Columbus Ledger through her local public library. She found a 1941 article in the Georgia newspaper describing where Hall's body was found by the 20th Engineers. It matched the place that her stepfather had described.
The FBI's investigation file makes no mention of an earlier discovery by Follett's stepfather.
"My sister said — and she got around the neighborhood more — that the neighbors said they weren't supposed to talk about it," Follett said. "When scary things happened, they were hushed up."
On Sept 8, 1941, William H. Hastie wrote a memo to his boss, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, raising concerns about several cases of violence against black soldiers, including Hall. In each instance, the War Department had done little to investigate the incidents and even less to communicate with the public.
Hastie, an African American, had already been a successful lawyer and a federal judge when Roosevelt appointed him to the War Department in 1940 as civilian aide to the secretary. His mandate was to improve race relations in the military.
"The War Department remains silent," Hastie wrote to Stimson. "The public interprets this silence as indicative of indifference."
Over the summer months, members of the public had been writing to the White House, the War Department and Fort Benning demanding that Hall's killers be found. A dentist from New Jersey, the women of a Baptist church in Alabama, a World War I veteran — from around the country came letters of anger and concern.
As the months passed and accounts mounted of other black soldiers being beaten or shot on military bases, Hastie grew increasingly frustrated. Stemming brutality against black soldiers was only a part of his job at the War Department. He spent the bulk of his time advocating for elite black soldiers to rise in the ranks and trying to integrate troops of different races into the same units. But the War Department, alongside the American Red Cross, thwarted even his effort to integrate the blood at blood banks.
Hastie resigned his post in January 1943.
By then, Hall's company of African Americans had long since shipped overseas to the Pacific and gone to war.
There is no known gravestone for Felix Hall. His death certificate does not say where he was buried. His father, James Hall, and grandmother Sarah Hall received $5,000 from the government and $1,000 from the life insurance company, paid in monthly installments of approximately $30.
James Fenderson is probably the last living relative who knew Hall. Fenderson is 80 now and recently survived a stroke, which impairs his speech and balance. He walks with a cane.
When Fenderson was 15, his mother warned him against becoming too friendly with a white boy in Millbrook and used Hall's death as a life lesson.
"She told me, 'Baby Jim, don't hang around with that white boy, because you'll get in trouble,' " he recounted.
"I said, "What do you mean, Mama, I'll get in trouble?' "
"She said, 'You don't know what happened to Poss.' "
"I said, 'What happened to Poss?' "
"She said, 'He was lynched.' "
"I said, 'Lynched?' I said, 'What's that?' "
His mother and other older relatives told Fenderson that Hall's ghost still roamed the railroad tracks in Millbrook.
Fenderson left Alabama a year later, at 16. "I was afraid the people were going to lynch me, too," he said. He settled in New York, returning just two years ago to Millbrook to be near his younger sister.
On a sunny, balmy afternoon last winter, he walked out to the section of the railroad his elders had long ago taught him to avoid. He tapped his cane against the rails as he thought back about his cousin.
"I'm peculiar about ghosts," Fenderson said. "That's why I don't come down this way."
Alexa Mills is a recent graduate of Northeastern University School of Journalism's master's program in Media Innovation. Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Pvt. Felix Hall's body hung in this position for about six weeks. His feet rest on the dirt that he dug out of a ravine wall in an effort to release the pressure of the noose around his neck. Photo by Sgt. Robert Templeton, Fort Benning Military Police Detachment, U.S. Army, March 28, 1941.
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS RECORDS