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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Civil Wrongs

Family tree’s branches reconnect through research about lynching

historic marker under a tree by a road
Elwood Higginbottom was 28 years old when he was lynched in 1935 in Oxford, Mississippi, near this historic marker. (Laura Kebede-Twumasi)

In college, Tina Higginbottom Washington felt her quick friendship with Meckaela Langhorn had a deeper connection.

They had the same major and similar interests. After graduation, they both moved to Memphis and taught high school Spanish. Even their birthdays align. Washington was born one day before Langhorn in 1978.

Turns out, these friends were actually cousins. They likely would not have known about their kinship without the efforts of a group in Oxford, Mississippi that researches racial terror lynchings. Soon, after some publicity around a historical marker commemorating the Depression era lynching of Washington’s grandfather, she got a call from Langhorn’s father, who suspected they were related.  

“Her father called me and said his last name and I said, ‘Do you know Meckaela?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s my daughter.’ I said, ‘That’s my friend.’” she said. “When God wants you together with someone, he’ll bring you together with them.”

As more and more communities attempt to reckon with their painful racial history and how it connects to today, public discussion generally focuses on macro issues, like vigilantism and corruption in the criminal justice system. But often there’s another, more personal, effect. The same research that highlights how communities have been divided is reconnecting families torn apart by tragedy. 

Washington and Langhorn’s ancestor was Elwood Higginbottom. In 1935, a group of armed white men led by Glen Roberts went to Higginbottom’s house to confront him over a property dispute. Higginbottom warned them he would shoot if they tried to come into the house. Inside was his wife and their three young children. 

Elwood Higginbottom (second from left) had three children, including Tina Higginbottom Washington’s father. (Courtesy of Tina Higginbottom Washington)

Roberts ignored the warning and attempted to come in. Higginbottom shot and killed him.

Higginbottom fled but was eventually captured. Four months later, before Higginbottom could stand trial for Robert’s death, a mob of about a hundred people dragged him out of jail and shot and hanged him. 

He was 28 years old. Washington’s father was just four at the time. Washington said Higginbottom’s decision to defend his family is the reason she’s alive today. 

“He preserved generations because of his sacrifice,” she said. 

After Higginbottom’s lynching, his wife, children, siblings and their families fled the state to avoid becoming victims of retaliation. Scattered across the country, family connections were frayed, and many lost touch. The next generation didn’t even know those other family lines existed. That is until Kyleen Burke, a Northeastern University student working with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, began digging into the family’s past.

Through her research, the Lafayette Community Remembrance Project erected a historical marker at Oxford Square. The square the bustling center of town with restaurants, boutique shops, and at the heart, a looming two-story white stucco courthouse – the headquarters of the county justice system that failed to protect Higginbottom and at least six others from lynching.

“We have come together as a community through song, prayer, contemplation, speakers, memories to recognize the men lynched in Lafayette County and the families they were so brutally taken from,” one speaker said at the 2022 dedication ceremony.

The ceremony came about five years after Washington’s father, E.W. Higginbottom Sr., then in his 80s, went back to Oxford for the first time since his family fled when he was four years old. He died in 2020. April Grayson, one of the Lafayette Community Remembrance Project founders, said the recognition was transformative and gave his life greater context.

Some descendants of Elwood Higginbottom spoke at the “Memorialization Gathering” hosted by the Lafayette Community Remembrance Project to share resources with similar organizations on June 8, 2024 in Oxford, MS. (Laura Kebede-Twumasi)

“I do think that family, the reconnecting families, is such a really concrete and moving form of healing,” Grayson said. “They were able to see some healing in him and that gave their whole family some healing.”

A few months after the dedication, another descendant of Elwood Higginbottom visited the courthouse square and reconnected through the historical marker. 

Brandy Price of Memphis went to Oxford as part of a rally to push Lafayette County officials to do more to find Jay Lee, an Ole Miss student and drag queen who was missing. As a transwoman who supports many progressive causes, Price said knowing her family history has reinforced her activism.

“It was a literal sign saying that, hey, this is not fake, this is really what happened,” she said. “And it will continue to happen if we don’t do something about it now.”

As Price connected to more and more family members she had never met before, the toll of just Higginbottom’s lynching began to sink in. 

“Because of trauma inflicted on us by the state and by white supremacy, it creates a huge hole and creates more holes in our lives and we get further and further apart,” Price said. “So, in the parts that cannot be filled by documentation, history, we’re going to fill it ourselves with connection, with our family, and actually forming our family.”

The Lafayette Community Remembrance Project has gathered soil from lynching sites. (Laura Kebede-Twumasi)

It’s a hole that Washington first felt on her ninth birthday, hearing her father’s story and crying for a grandfather she never knew. 

“My father always talked about it. I think it bothered him a lot,” Washington said. “So, maybe that’s why it bothered me, you know, and it was my birthday that day and I wanted a grandfather like everybody else had a grandfather.”

Washington and her family members remain active with the Lafayette Community Remembrance Project. Earlier this month, the group joined with similar community organizations across the region to share resources and best practices. 

Because of this ongoing research, the Higginbottoms and other families once torn apart by tragedy now have a chance to reunite and create new memories. 

Laura Kebede-Twumasi is coordinator of The Institute’s Civil Wrongs project exploring racial injustice in Memphis and the Mid-South. She is a corps member of Report for America and covered education in Memphis for several years for Chalkbeat Tennessee.

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