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Legacy Of A Murder by Benjamin Greenberg

Legacy Of A Murder by Benjamin Greenberg



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Published by Benjamin Greenberg
This Colorlines Magazine article by Benjamin Greenberg tells the story of the 1959 racial murder of Samuel O'Quinn in Centreville, MS. The article sets the unsolved murder case in the context of current government initiatives to addressed unsolved racially motivated crimes from the Civil Rights era.
This Colorlines Magazine article by Benjamin Greenberg tells the story of the 1959 racial murder of Samuel O'Quinn in Centreville, MS. The article sets the unsolved murder case in the context of current government initiatives to addressed unsolved racially motivated crimes from the Civil Rights era.

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Published by: Benjamin Greenberg on Mar 31, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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and I said, ‘That’s Mother, that’sMother.’ And we all started running to look.” It was August14, 1959, near midnight, in Centreville, Mississippi. LauraO’Quinn Smith, then 33, and her brother Clarence, then32, rushed from the house and found their father, SamuelO’Quinn, shot in the back outside of the front gate ofWhitaker Plantation, the 235-acre family land.Clarence got his mother and wounded father backinto the car and drove to the Field Memorial CommunityHospital. Samuel O’Quinn died en route, in the arms ofhis wife, Ida. He was 58 years old and the father of 11children. No one has ever been charged with the crime.Today, Laura and Clarence, now ages 81 and 80, areliving in Springfield, Massachusetts, along with two othersiblings, Phalba and Rance. They are one of numerousfamilies who are still waiting for justice in racial murders
theoF a
racial killings om h civil ighs a sill hanamilis and h cony.
By Benjamin Greenberg 
Jim pruitt/istoCKphoto
from the civil rights era. “It would give closure for us,” saidPhalba O’Quinn Plummer, who is now 71. “It would reallyhelp a lot for all of us to know what happened.”The FBI is currently reviewing approximately100 cases that it may reopen; 84 of the victims have beennamed, and of those, 34 are from Mississippi. The truenumber of unresolved cases, however, is unknown. A re-view of a relatively narrow set of FBI and state documentsfound references to at least seven murders in Mississippithat are not on the published FBI list.The lack of justice for Samuel O’Quinn and otherBlacks murdered during the civil rights struggles of the1950s and ‘60s is the haunting background for currentevents that every so often lay bare the broken promises ofa supposedly post-civil rights society: the double standardof justice meted out to the Jena 6; the vast numbers ofpeople, overwhelmingly Black, treated as disposableduring and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; the Klan-liketorture and rape of Megan Williams.Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives passedthe Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (known asthe “Till Bill”), which would allocate $13.5 million annuallyfor a special FBI office and Civil Rights Division unit toinvestigate civil rights-era crimes in coordination withlocal and state authorities. The Till Bill passed the Housein June, but Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma placed ahold on the bill, keeping it stuck in the Senate through atleast the winter recess.
The O’Quinns were a prosperous Black family in 1950’sMississippi. A graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, SamuelO’Quinn was a certified plumber, electrician and carpenter.After working as the assistant town engineer and as theonly plumber in Centreville, he opened O’Quinn’s Café withhis wife, Ida, in 1937. He also owned and operated33 jukeboxes throughout southwest Mississippi.In the mid-1940s, O’Quinn obtained his mortician’slicense and opened a funeral home. He sold the jukeboxroutes and invested in real estate. The O’Quinns ownedmost of the properties in the Quarters, which was low-income housing for Blacks and essentially the ghetto ofthe small rural town of 1,200 people. They bought theWhitaker Plantation on Highway 33 in the late 1940s andfarmed the land, raising and selling peppers, soy beansand cotton.On Sundays, O’Quinn went from one church to anotherselling burial policies, which a person could pay into andeventually meet the cost of his or her own burial. Duringthese visits, he also organized benevolent associations,community groups that together paid into a fund for com-munity members when they were in need.“It was kind of a self-help group,” explained RanceO’Quinn, one of Samuel O’Quinn’s sons, now 70, “but theylater grew, and every time you organize people, others getsuspicious.”The O’Quinns were, in fact, as well-to-do as anyone inCentreville, Black or white. The 11 O’Quinn children neverhad to work for whites, which was most unusual and anaffront to the white supremacist mentality of the time.On August 14, 1959, Samuel O’Quinn picked up hiswife at their café, just off Main Street, as he did every nightat 11:00 pm. That night, their 7-year-old son, Roy, was withIda at the café. On the ride home, Roy stood between hisparents on the front seat. As usual, O’Quinn stopped, gotout of the car to open their front gate and then drove thecar in. He was shot when he got back out of the car toshut the gate.
O’Quinn’s children say their father became a target formurder because of rumors circulating about him. In 1957,O’Quinn had spent three weeks in Springfield, Massachu-setts. The speculation in Centreville was that he had gonenorth to attend the NAACP convention.Within a week of O’Quinn’s murder, NAACP Missis-sippi Field Secretary Medgar Evers went to Centreville toinvestigate.Centreville is in southwest Mississippi, an area notori-ous even in Mississippi for violence and unusually heavyKu Klux Klan activity. An NAACP memo relayed Evers’findings: “Mr. O’Quinn [was] not a member of the NAACPnor an advocator of its program. He was not even aregistered voter and, therefore, his murder was not reallyconnected with political activities. Rather, it is believedhe was murdered by someone interested in obtaining
o’Quinn’s Children saY their Father beCame a target For murder beCause oFrumors CirCulating that he had gone north to attend the naaCp ConVention.
marCh–april 2008
the valuable land which he owned on the highway [and]refused to sell despite numerous offers from whitepurchasers.”It was all the more surprising then when, not longafter Evers’s visit, a plain white envelope arrived at theO’Quinns. In it, the family found an NAACP membershipcard for O’Quinn. The O’Quinns, however, don’t believethat any whites could have known Samuel O’Quinn hadjoined the NAACP right before his death. “That’s the ironyof the whole situation,” said Rance. “His NAACP activitieswere very secretive. We didn’t even know until afterwardsthat he was applying for membership.” His own wife didnot know. But the rumors were there.“There was no investigation,” Clarence O’Quinn said.“I didn’t even know the name of the Sheriff of WilkinsonCounty until you told me. No one offered any expressionof sympathy during our immediate bereavement,” headded. “I don’t think anything was done.”The only physical evidence that the O’Quinns recallwas found were a couple of shells and a white glove,known to be a calling card of the White Citizens Council,at the spot where the gunman was thought to have stood.In the days following the murder, a six-paragraph UPIarticle mentioned a letter, found on the O’Quinn farm,saying, “Mr. Sam O’Quinn: You were too hard-headed.You wouldn’t listen to reason and have been nothingbut a troublemaker for the NAACP.” News reports alsomentioned an unnamed white businessman who cameforward claiming to have received a letter threateningO’Quinn, “purportedly from a local Negro…sent because‘white people might be blamed.’”The O’Quinns actually now believe that a Black manmurdered their father, but they suspect the killer was paidby whites to do the deed.Several years after the murder, a friend of SamuelO’Quinn’s started trying to contact Ida. The friend hadcancer. He wanted Ida to come see him, but his conditionworsened, and his children took him to Charity Hospitalin New Orleans for treatment. One of the nurses therewas from Centreville and knew the O’Quinns. She calledIda and said, “You should be down here. He’s on hisdeathbed. He’s saying that his finger on his right hand isthe cause of Sam O’Quinn dying, that for $500 and a car,he killed his best friend.” The man died before Ida coulddecide to travel to New Orleans.
Four months after the murder of Samuel O’Quinn, Mis-sissippi State Sovereignty Commission investigatorZack J. Van Landingham paid a visit to the WilkinsonCounty Sheriff, J.T. Falkenheimer. “The sheriff said thatever since the killing of the Negro Sam O’Quinn,” VanLandingham reported, “there has been no activity on thepart of the NAACP or the Negroes in that community.These were the regular rounds of a SovereigntyCommission investigator. The commission was anagency established by the Mississippi State Legislaturein 1956 to monitor and oppose civil rights activity. Thecommission was disbanded in the 1970s, and its fileswere declassified in 1998 and are available online.The investigators went from town to town, gatheringintelligence about civil rights activity from local officials,White Citizens Council members, paid informants andothers. Investigators had specific people they inquiredabout. Whether or not the person in question actually wasinvolved in the NAACP, if several city officials were askedabout the activities of Samuel O’Quinn, the word got outthat there was that suspicion.According to the 1959 news reports, Sheriff Falken-heimer led the investigation into Samuel O’Quinn’smurder. Now 84 years old, he still lives in Mississippi andsays he doesn’t remember the murder or even SamuelO’Quinn’s name. “All that stuff is all behind me, and I’mlooking forward to the future,” Falkenheimer said. He
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