By Michael Lollar
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Thursday, January 10, 2008
The front-page headline in a 1919 edition of The Commercial Appeal told of what was believed to be a first in the South: "Negro Kills White Man; Is Acquitted."
It was a verdict delivered by an all-male, all-white jury that made headlines as far away as Chicago in an era when white vigilantes were staging 50 to 100 lynchings a year in the South.
When black planter Ben Ingram killed white neighbor Green Brumley, 500 friends, black and white, built a bonfire on Ingram's land and stayed the night to protect him and his family in Byhalia, Miss. The trial was held three months later in nearby Holly Springs, Miss., with Ingram freed as a rare symbol of tolerance and justice in a part of the world where "justice" often came without a trial in the form of a noose.
Ingram would sleep with a pistol under his pillow for the rest of his life. Some believe his story partly inspired William Faulkner's novel "Intruder in the Dust," released almost 30 years later. Faulkner's novel became a Hollywood movie, and almost 60 years since its release, Ingram's family is on a mission to return to the source with a nonfiction account in the form of a documentary, a book, a feature film and an opera.
It is a story that Ingram's descendants hope might have the impact of "To Kill A Mockingbird" in the 1960s. In that story, an innocent black man died. In Ingram's story, good triumphed over evil.
"If they hadn't been good people, my dad would have been hung," says Alfreda Ingram Moore, who celebrated her 81st birthday Wednesday at the Village of Germantown, a retirement community where she has been recuperating from a broken ankle. Moore, the only surviving child of Ben Ingram, has lived in Memphis since 1998. She is touring her old home in Byhalia today before moving to Denver, where she once lived. When she returns, she says, "It will be in a box."
Like most of the family, Moore plans to be buried in the family cemetery in Byhalia.
Her daughter, Schyleen Qualls, is spearheading the book and movie project, researching the 1918 shooting incident, which the newspaper described as a "duel." Dorothy Darr, the wife of one of Qualls' cousins, is focusing on a documentary film as a first step in letting the world in on a side of the South seldom acknowledged.
The women first learned of the incident through family lore. Qualls, of San Francisco, has been researching the story for 35 years with her mother's help. Darr, of Santa Barbara, Calif., began interviewing Ben Ingram's relatives in 1996 when all but one of his 17 children were still alive. Her husband, Memphis-born jazz musician Charles Lloyd, had spent summers on the farm with Ingram, his grandfather.
Ingram's story inspired Lloyd's opera-in-progress that combines the field music of the era with his love for Ingram as a heroic figure and for the people who protected him in 1918.
"I'm very touched by the respect and humanity that lives in the hearts of all. It's a beautiful thing," says Lloyd.
The 1919 newspaper article said testimony at trial showed Ingram and Brumley had a "discussion" over the boundary between their large farms. The names are familiar in Marshall County, where two of the first roads that drivers encounter in Byhalia are named after the two wealthy landowners.
To resolve their boundary dispute, Ingram hired a surveyor. Qualls says Brumley had slowly and systematically encroached on Ingram's 1,000-acre farm, planting crops on a little more of it each year and building a barn and other out-buildings on Ingram's land as if it were his own.
The newspaper story said when Brumley learned that Ingram had hired a surveyor he "became enraged at the action the Negro had taken, and, according to testimony, had threatened the life of the Negro." Brumley followed Ingram into town, making clear to townspeople that he was out to kill Ingram.
A white businessman hid Ingram to help avoid a confrontation, but Brumley later showed up, armed with a pistol, at Ingram's farm. Brumley fired and missed, while Ingram defended himself with a shotgun. "Some of the shots took effect in Brumley's body," according to the 1919 newspaper story. When Brumley reloaded and tried to shoot again, Ingram grabbed the pistol and struck Brumley on the head with it. "Brumley sank to the ground after he and Ingram had clashed to rise no more," the story said.
Moore, who was born nine years after the shooting, says she learned about it through family members and through her father's memories. But she knew her father mainly as a gifted businessman with a sense of when to buy and sell. His farm made the family virtually self-sufficient and turned him into one of the wealthiest men in the region. "He was never subservient to anybody," she says.
Moore says her father sent her and the other children to boarding schools, and she was unaware of whites-only water fountains and that some black people were forced to enter only through the back doors of buildings. "He bought a brand new Ford every year," she says. When they drove it to Memphis, they used the car and did not have to use buses. She did not know the buses were segregated, nor the public restrooms.
In her hometown, Moore says her father was respected by everyone and treated well, while the town realized their neighbor was a thief and bully. When the dispute ended in death, the town "was open enough to open their minds and hearts. So it puts a different light on the South and Mississippi in history."
Qualls says the verdict and the town's willingness to protect Ingram did not mean there were no prejudices in Byhalia or North Mississippi. "This will not be a Pollyanna story. But what it means is that when push came to shove, they did the right thing."
Darr says she and Lloyd have talked to Oprah Winfrey and to a longtime producer for late movie director Robert Altman about support for the project. The first priority is the documentary, which will include Alfreda Moore's final visit today to the family farm in Byhalia. Of her father's 1,000 acres, 700 remain in the hands of Ingram's descendants.
The documentary will be followed by the book then a movie, says Darr.
Qualls, who owns 80 of the remaining 700 acres of family land, says she hopes to use any proceeds from book or movie sales to build an academy for the arts on her grandfather's land.
Darr says her husband's opera will be like staging an epic duel between good and evil. It builds to the tragedy of death, the threat of harm to an innocent family and the verdict that, for Hollywood, would be the reward of a happy ending.
-- Michael Lollar: 529-2793