Nancy Cooks, 81, of San Jose, California, was just an infant when her cousin Felix Hall was killed. Their tightknit families lived near each other in Millbrook, a small city that lies about 100 miles west of Fort Benning. Cooks, who is named after Felix Hall’s late mother, Nancy Hall, believes her cousin was lynched because he was Black. She wants his killers brought to justice.
“It hurts so bad. You had seen it,” the retired IBM supervisor said of lynchings. “But you never did think it would happen to people that were that close. We were first cousins.”
Hall enlisted in the Army in August of 1940, becoming a rifleman in the segregated 24th Infantry Regiment, one of the famed “Buffalo Soldier” units formed after the Civil War. By then, Germany had already invaded much of Europe and Japan had signed an alliance with Italy and Germany and was at war with China.
Records obtained from the FBI through the federal Freedom of Information Act and from the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project describe Hall and the search for his killers. The FBI records are heavily redacted.
Fellow soldiers called Hall likeable, jovial and disciplined, though they said he enjoyed playing pranks. He was last seen alive during the afternoon of Feb. 12, 1941. Fellow soldiers who saw him working at a sawmill that day told authorities he was heading to a store on base. He never arrived there. By early March, he was declared a deserter.
Later that month, military engineers were training just north of the regiment’s swimming pool when they discovered Hall’s body in a heavily wooded area. Hall’s hands were bound by rope and he was hanged in a shallow ravine in a “jack-knife” position. His neck was tied to one tree with a slipknot, while his feet — they were bound with baling wire — were tied to another tree. He managed to free one arm and his feet before attempting to scrape enough dirt under his feet so he could lessen the strain on his neck. He ultimately died of strangulation.
In April of 1941, the NAACP wrote President Franklin Roosevelt, urging him to do a “prompt and thorough investigation, and to take the action deemed necessary to discover and punish the perpetrators of this crime.”
“Any other course of action, such as an attempt to dismiss this as suicide, or a whitewash of the whole situation, would be a further blow at the morale of colored Americans who are being urged daily to give unstinted support to the national defense effort,” Roy Wilkins, then the NAACP’s assistant secretary, wrote Roosevelt.
The FBI investigated the case, concluding Hall had been “undoubtedly murdered by hanging.” Based on how Hall was killed and where his body was found, the FBI added, “it does not appear that one man could have committed the crime.”
Whoever killed Hall “went to a great deal of trouble and took considerable unnecessary risk to hang Hall rather than to beat him up, shoot, knife, or beat him to death,” the FBI said in one of its reports.
“In order to hang him, they risked detection from some outcry that Hall might make or observation of the proceedings by other soldiers, indicating that the subject or subjects had determined to see him die by hanging, which might possibly be considered the way a Southerner would handle the matter, where a negro had over-reached himself.”
The FBI outlined several theories in its reports: Hall was killed because he had come into contact with white women in a white noncommissioned officers’ neighborhood. Or he was caught peeping into the windows in that neighborhood. Or he had trouble with one of the white bosses at the sawmill where he worked.
Other Black soldiers told the FBI a white civilian boss at the sawmill threatened to kill Hall unless Hall called him sir. Ordered not to come back to work, the soldiers said, Hall returned anyway and then disappeared the same day. The sawmill foreman denied threatening Hall, the FBI’s records show.
The shortest way for Hall to return to his quarters from the sawmill would have been through a neighborhood occupied by white noncommissioned officers, according to the FBI’s records. A woman who resided in the area told the FBI that a white sergeant had complained about Black people peering through his windows and had sat outside at night armed with a rifle, seeking to catch one of them. The FBI interviewed that soldier and his roommate and they both denied involvement.
In a letter he wrote in June of 1941, Maj. Gen. L.R. Fredendall, then Fort Benning’s commander, said Hall’s death was “believed to be a sex murder” that had been “greatly exaggerated by Communist and other organizations.” Fredendall does not explain what he means by “a sex murder” in his letter to S. Ralph Harlow, a Smith College professor, author and civil rights activist.
“Colored soldiers receive exactly the same treatment here as whites,” Fredendall wrote. “Private Hall’s death is believed to be a sex murder rather than the result of any race feeling.”
Asked about the status of its investigation, the FBI declined to comment other than to point out the federal government was given authority to prosecute violent hate crimes under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
“Hate crimes are not only an attack on the victim, they are meant to threaten and intimidate an entire community,” FBI spokesman Kevin Rowson said in an email. “Because of their wide-ranging impact, investigating hate crimes is a high priority for the FBI.”
Remembering Pvt. Felix Hall
Hall was among thousands of Black U.S. military veterans who were threatened or assaulted and many were lynched during the 19th and 20th centuries, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit human rights group. The report cites examples:
In 1898, for example, Pvt. James Neely, a Black U.S. veteran of the Spanish-American War, was gunned down in Hampton, Georgia. Wearing his military uniform, he entered a drug store and ordered a soda at the counter. When the white storeowner told him Black customers had to order and drink outside in the rear, Neely protested. A crowd of armed white men chased him down the road, firing weapons. He was later found dead from gunshot wounds.
In July of 1946, Maceo Snipes, a Black World War II veteran, was mortally wounded by a white gunman after Snipes became the only Black person to vote in the Democratic gubernatorial primary election in Taylor County, Georgia. It happened at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was threatening violence against any blacks who would dare to do what Snipes did.
Just days after Snipes was killed, two Black couples were gunned down by a white mob near Moore’s Ford Bridge about 50 miles east of Atlanta. The victims included George Dorsey, a World War II veteran who had been home for only nine months after serving in the Pacific for five years.
Felix Hall is commemorated in the EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is dedicated to victims of American white supremacy. The memorial sits in Montgomery, Alabama, a short drive from where Hall lived in Millbrook.
In 2016, The Washington Post published an extensive article about Hall’s lynching based on records gathered by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. The Post followed up with a piece in May about a Black soldier, Pvt. Albert King, who was fatally shot by a white military policeman near Fort Benning in 1941, the same year Hall was lynched there. The policeman was found not guilty of manslaughter.
The memorial Fort Benning is preparing to dedicate to Hall Tuesday refers to President Harry Truman’s 1948 order to desegregate the U.S. military and says the “U.S. Army remains focused on reflecting on the past, present and future to ensure every single soldier is afforded an opportunity to excel in supporting the army’s mission.”
Margaret Burnham, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project’s founder and director, applauded Fort Benning’s move.
“It is an acknowledgment by the military that they didn’t do enough during World War II to protect African American soldiers,” she said. “It should represent not a coda but an opening for further investigations by the military itself into the cases of other African Americans who suffered as a result of the racism within the military at home and abroad.”
U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, who represents the Columbus area where the base is located, said his office has collaborated with Fort Benning about the memorial to Felix Hall. The marker, he said, will serve as a “reminder of the potential of the life of Private Hall and what he might have become had his life not been tragically cut short.”
‘They took something they cannot give back’
Nancy Cooks’ brother, James Postell, 85, resides in Millbrook in a modest brick ranch house he once shared with Felix Hall’s late brother, James. The house sits less than a mile from Goodship Cemetery, where James Hall, Hall’s father and other relatives are buried. Postell searched for Felix Hall’s headstone there recently but couldn’t find it, suspecting he is buried in an unmarked grave.
A retired chef, Postell remembers his cousin Felix Hall as a handsome, friendly man with a good heart. Hall was known to stroll along the railroad tracks near Jackson Lake Island, Postell said, and he once worked in a garment factory in Ohio.
“He didn’t stay around here too much. He didn’t like Alabama either. It was really bad around here,” Hall said, referring to violent racism Blacks endured in the South.
Postell suspects those who lynched Hall did it because they were jealous seeing a successful Black man.
“He liked to go carry a lot of money around in his pocket and do stuff like that, and somebody got jealous of him there in the barracks,” Postell speculated. “He was a good-looking man.”
In a way, Postell pities Hall’s killers because he believes their consciences must have tormented them.
“I feel sorry for them, if they are still living, because they took something they cannot give back,” he said. “That is going to worry them the rest of their life.”
AJC photojournalist Alyssa Pointer contributed to this report.