Coley did not believe her.
Yet, a mama’s recollection of events the night before seems as clear as the stars on an autumn night in rural Alabama. Mrs. Hamilton’s words — captured more than half a century ago in the official report from Alabama Bureau of Investigation’s Agent Coley — display a clear sense of what happened and a clear sense of the fear a mother felt for her child.
It was turning cold by late October 1957. The dozen-plus children under the roof of Beatrice Hamilton’s sharecropper shack off Alabama 97 outside Hayneville in Lowndes County were crammed into big beds, piled high with blankets.
Most were deep asleep after midnight, when a pickup rambled down a long dirt lane, now called McCurdy Road, toward the shack, tucked in the edge of some woods beyond a field about a mile off the highway. The truck, carrying at least two men, traveled over the red clay, past the turnoff to the house of George McCurdy, the landlord. It passed through a cattle gate set between barbed wire fences and continued on up a few hundred yards to the shack.
Mrs. Hamilton said she heard the truck come toward the house, that it drove into the yard and turned around. Then, she said, she heard a man call out for Rogers, twice.
Rogers Hamilton was the 18-year-old man of the house. Since Rogers’ father died three years before, George McCurdy had relied on Rogers to do a lot of the work around the farm. So it stood to reason, at least in Beatrice Hamilton’s mind, that it was McCurdy who had come calling after Rogers for some late-night chore, not men out to murder him.
So she roused her child from his slumber, telling him Mr. George needed him, and sent him out into the yard before realizing it was not McCurdy waiting beside that green pickup, but another man.
It was something in the muffled conversation she heard, or the body language she saw, or the mother’s intuition she felt that caused her to order one of her charges nearby to go and fetch her coat. She was going after Rogers.
By the time she was out the door, the truck was lumbering down the lane with Rogers inside. So she ran, she told Agent Coley, through the yard, across the cattle gate and down the dirt lane, with the moon and stars to light her way, though she had a flashlight.
Then, in the distance, she saw the pickup stopped in the road. Rogers was standing there, the other man beside him. As the man reached into his pocket and pulled out a handgun, she only had time to shout, “Lord, don’t shoot my boy,” before a blast rang out and her child fell to the ground.
The man got into the truck and drove away as Beatrice Hamilton continued running toward her fallen son.
When she finally switched on the flashlight, it was to illuminate the face of her dead son, a bullet hole in his forehead.
She turned then and made her way to the nearby McCurdy residence.
The next day, Agent Coley arrived with a deputy sheriff named Joe Jackson in tow. Standing there at the Hamilton shack, she told Coley what happened, and he didn’t believe her.
Coley was a stranger to Beatrice Hamilton. He was, current law-enforcement agents say, from the Mobile office, unfamiliar with the territory and surely, when he first came to town on the day after the murder, unfamiliar with where a certain sharecropper’s dwelling might be. So Coley did what most out-of-county law enforcement officers would do then or now, he dropped by Sheriff Frank Ryals’ office to ask for assistance in finding George McCurdy’s place and the Hamilton shack that sat on it.
He was given Deputy Joe Jackson, a veteran law officer — someone Beatrice Hamilton would have been familiar with, someone the entire black community was familiar with.
Blacks and whites in and around Lowndes County make mention of Joe Jackson even now, but his brother, Lux, comes up more frequently, often in connection with his heavy drinking, and his tendency to beat up black people.
When Coley arrived, he conducted a number of interviews. He spoke to George McCurdy, who told him Rogers had worked for him all his life and never given anyone any trouble. He talked to Preston Field, a cousin of Rogers, who offered few clues.
Coley also interviewed two girls Rogers was thought to be sweet on, Hattie Mae Edwards and Hattie Lewis.
Edwards told Coley she had stopped seeing him two months before. Lewis said she had recently been seeing him and that “she had been going with no one else since that time, that she turned down all the boys for Roger(s)”.
And he talked with Rogers’ mama, Beatrice.
She told him, in great detail, what she saw and heard that night, the color of the truck, the license plate — though she was not able to read the numbers on it — and the man who talked to her son, the muffled voices, the clatter of the truck as it left the yard with Rogers inside.
She told Coley plenty, but she did not volunteer, nor does he appear to have asked, who took her boy away and put a bullet in his head.
She also didn’t offer any other thoughts, including that Lux Jackson had, to say the least, a certain reputation for violence. That was something Beatrice Hamilton wasn’t likely to share with an out-of-town detective, especially when she was standing next to the man’s brother.
At the end of his report — a four-page document that contains the only substance in the FBI file on the case — Coley wrote, “since it was 1:30 in the morning, it is doubtful that Beatrice Hamilton could have determined the color of the truck or the color of the men who carried him away.”
He concluded the report by writing, “It is the opinion of the writer that Beatrice Hamilton, although sincere in her belief that her statement is true, that due to emotional upset of her son being killed that in all probability she is mistaken in many respects to what she stated. At the present time, there is no clue as to what could have been the motive for this killing.”
On Monday, the story of Rogers Hamilton turns to a park in Cleveland, Ohio, followed by a visit with an old friend of his in Lowndes County and, finally, a love not forgotten.