“Dead Negroes in Swamp”

[June 7, 2020: This will add history to the events of the past two weeks.]

White Mob Closes In

Mary Robinson and I were writing a book about her life. The daughter of African American share croppers in Alabama, she organized as a textile and civil rights activist as an adult. In 2020, I handed Mary a copy I had made of the Alabama Journal, from December 30, 1932. In bold letters it said, “POSSE CLOSES IN ON NEGRO REDS IN SWAMP,” then described 20 automobiles loaded with armed white men who left Tallassee, Alabama to hunt blacks who were trying to organize a black and white share croppers’ union.

I also showed Mary the Montgomery Advertiser, from the same time. It talked about “four or five dead negroes” laying about in the fields. Mary ran her fingers down the pages, shook her head, and clicked the roof of her mouth with her tongue. “The talk about them like they was dead cows. Why didn’t I know about this?” she wondered.

Alabama Share Croppers Union

I had been at the Library of Congress reading old files from the NAACP when I came upon information about the Alabama Share Croppers’ Union from the 1930s. I made copies of the newspaper articles and took them to Mary the next time I went to Montgomery and saw her.

Mary suddenly said, “They refer to the Greathouse boys of Liberty Hill. Maybe they be talking about Rev. Greathouse’s kin? He be from up there by Camp Hill. We’ll ask him.”

We made phone calls for directions, left Montgomery, drove north, and began to wind our way through the Piedmont uplands of Tallapoosa County with its green wooded hills and bluffs. We eventually crossed the Tallapoosa river to Tallassee, the community out of which the posse rode.

Finally, about thirty miles from Mary’s childhood home, we arrived at a yard filled with flowers. We walked up to the front door of the blue frame house and knocked. No one answered. We rounded the corner, stepped beneath an arch of pink flowers, and rapped at the door. A balding man, maybe in his late sixties, answered the door. He recognized Mary. “Hey, Rev. Greathouse,” Mary said enthusiastically.

Revolt in 1932

Mary introduced me, then took out the newspaper article. “Mr. Greathouse, Fran brought this from the NAACP Collection at the Library of Congress. It said something about a big revolt, a riot, they had about 1932, and it talked about the Greathouse boys. I wondered if they was kin to you?”

Rev. Greathouse skimmed the article. “Yes, they are,” he said. “They’re some of my brothers and my father, too, Tomas Gray. He was one of the leaders. The posse shot my uncle, Ralph Gray. Through the mouth.

“See, I was born in 1928, the youngest in a family of nineteen kids, so I’m too young to be involved, but I knowed about it. You should talk to my oldest brother. He’s ninety-three and can remember everything. The shoot-out was a big event.”

Posse in the Woods

He gave us directions to his half brother’s house. We thanked them, left, and drove down a curved, country road. Thick trees lined the path on both sides. I pictured people trying to outrun a posse in those woods. We finally came to a brick house, set back from the road, and were met at the door by Grady Canada’s polite sixty-two year old daughter. Mr. Canada was a tall, very dark, strong appearing man of ninety-three, with large ears and hands, deep blue eyes, and prominent cheekbones. He was African American, but also part Crow and Comanche Indian. An oxygen tank sat next to him.

Mr. Canada said he knew a great deal about the Share Croppers’ Union, although he had not actually joined. Instead, he had worked in the local textile mill for thirty-two years, two months, and seventeen days.

As an illegitimate child of Tomas Gray, he had been raised by his grandfather who taught him to be a blacksmith, so he had not been as deeply influenced as much as his siblings by his father’s and uncle’s radical ideas.

High Powered Rifles

“Did you ever attend any of the Share Croppers Union meetings, Mr. Canada?” I asked.

“Yeah, just once,” he answered. “It was in an abandoned house. Me and a couple of boys got there just about good sundown, between sundown and dark. There were about six men standing out there with high power rifles.

They said, ‘Go in.’ We did and there wasn’t hardly any room to sit down. A man was up making a speech, but there was so much smoke in there from cigarettes and kerosene lamps that you could just see the top of the men’s heads. We sit there about five minutes, and I told the boys, ‘I’m leaving.’

“‘We too, we too.’

“We hightailed it back home. We didn’t go back no more. I was scared when I seen them men standing out there with them rifles. I knowed they expecting trouble, that something was going to happen. I got eight kids depending on me.”

“Why were they forming the union?” I asked.

“See, the whites they worked for wasn’t giving them nothing. They’d work them and cheat them out of what they made, so they made a union out of it.”

Joined Together

“Did people say it was Communist?”

“Yeah, they said it was, but it WAS NOT. I don’t know if it was a branch off of it, but they called it a union. A Share Croppers’ Union, that was the name it was. Black, colored people, weren’t the only ones who wanted it. Poor white people did too. They all joined in together.”

“Were the people religious?” I asked.

“Yeah, some of them was. And some of the meetings was in churches. I would say that they, the union, was in the right, but I just don’t like rioting.” He laughed, “Not me.”

Gun Down His Mouth

“That meeting that you went to, was that before your Uncle Ralph was killed?”

“Yeah, it was eight or ten months after that when Ralph was killed in front of his family. They stuck a gun down his mouth and pulled the trigger, but his daughter fought them like a lion.”

Mary Robinson, 1980

I had read about a young woman named Eula Gray, a daughter of Tommy, and I asked Mr. Canada if he knew her.

“Sure did,” he said. “She was my half-sister. She was Secretary of the Share Croppers’ Union. So, anyway, when it was too dangerous for my daddy to run the union, Eula took over.”

“She was young when she did it, wasn’t she?” I asked.

One of a Thousand

“About eighteen or nineteen. Eula was one in a thousand. She stood her ground. From the time she was a little girl, she was strong. See, I was born out of wedlock so she was my half-sister, but I was the oldest of all the kids and she was the third. I was four months older than my younger half sister, and Eula was two years younger and we played together.

“She was always into something. Our daddy raised peanuts. He’d have two or three or five bushels of peanuts, and he’d hang them up in a room, and Eula’d take her finger and run it around in the sack and get them so that the peanuts would sift through holes, and she could get them out. Anything Daddy put out, peanuts, peppermint candy, she’d get in and take some out. She wasn’t mean, just mischievous. She loved to get into things. The only way to keep her out of a cookie jar was to hide it.”

Sewing Meetings

“I read,” I said, “that women were really involved with the unions, that they had what they called ‘sewing meetings’ where they’d organize and study.”

“Yep, Eula organized the whole thing, the Union. She was the head of it for awhile, but womens had separate little meetings of their own. If it was too dangerous to leave literature around, they stuffed it into the stomachs of dolls they made at the sewing meetings where they would organize.

“The sheriff, them, knowed about Eula, but they couldn’t hurt her too bad. My brothers was too close by. The sheriff said they didn’t want to have to kill them all. They knowed they’d bother one, they’d have to kill them. They didn’t want to do that, but they was cruel. They was rough.”

Across Generations

We continued to talk, then Mary and Mr. Canada turned to religion. I listened with interest and thought about Eula Gray. I thought about contemporary women union organizers I’d met when Mary introduced me to them.  I pictured them talking to Eula Gray across the generations.

I did not think to interrupt Mr. Canada and Mary to ask what eventually happened to Eula Gray, but I imagined with her spunk, Eula Gray ran up again the power establishment at various times.  I would have loved to learn more about Eula Gray’s life, but my time in Montgomery was limited and my attempts to find out more information let to dead ends. When I think of her and her family I think of the courage it took to risk all in such a difficult time.

This entry was posted in African American, farm workers, Injustice, murder, oral histories, Poverty, poverty, Racism, Roots of Injustice, Social Justice, Unions, violence, white Americans, Women's Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Dead Negroes in Swamp”

  1. Anne Rakow-Weist says:

    Thank you for sharing this experience, Fran. Those of us who are privileged whites, need to listen to these struggles and find as many ways possible to re-educate ourselves. It is so important that you have taken these oral recollections and written them down.

  2. Beth Shelby says:

    Fascinating and insightful narrative, Fran. Thank you!

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