Once Lost, Now Found

A Long Time Coming: Accompanied by Emory students, Dorothy Nixon Willams (center) and her husband, Sam Williams, walk through Old Salem Cemetery to where the students found the grave of her father, Isaiah Nixon.
Kay Hinton

On a dreary day in January, five Emory students stood silently in a muddy cemetery, their cheeks damp with rain and tears.

It was a moment none could have imagined when they signed up for a class focused on the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project—a moment set in motion by an act of bravery almost seventy years ago, brought full circle now through research, determination, and what more than one person called a miracle.

With the students watching under the gray Georgia sky, seventy-three-year-old Dorothy Nixon Williams rested her hand on a rough concrete headstone etched with the word Father, bent to touch the concrete slab beneath it, then wept in the arms of her son.

Her father, Isaiah Nixon, dared to vote in the 1948 Democratic primary in Montgomery County, Georgia, only the second held since the US Supreme Court ruled all-white primaries unconstitutional. Isaiah Nixon was gunned down by two white men that evening on the front porch of the family’s home when Williams was just six years old.

Nixon’s grave had been lost in the rural cemetery after Williams, her mother, and five siblings fled to Jacksonville, Florida, shortly after his death. And now the grave has been found by Emory students who signed up for a class and discovered a piece of history.“I don’t know anyone who is not moved by the story of Isaiah Nixon, and it is because Isaiah Nixon matters,” said their professor, Hank Klibanoff. “His life matters, his death matters, his disappearance from history matters. And what matters more is that he has now reappeared, and I just think that is miraculous in so many ways.”

The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project launched at Emory in fall 2011, directed and taught by Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory, and Brett Gadsden, associate professor of African American studies. The undergraduate class is cross-listed in history, journalism, African American studies, and American studies, and will soon be listed through creative writing, illustrating the interdisciplinary approaches both professors and students bring to the cases they examine. Each semester, students take an in-depth look at one case, exploring primary evidence ranging from FBI records and court transcripts to personal archives and contemporaneous media accounts. Their goal is not necessarily to “solve” the cases—in many, the killers are well known—but to better understand the context in which racially motivated murders went unpunished in the Jim Crow South.

Klibanoff said he and Gadsden chose Nixon’s case as the focus of the fall 2015 course based on its importance and the many themes it invoked, including the history of all-white primaries and all-white juries in Georgia, the struggle for voting rights, and the involvement of the NAACP, among many others. “It had enough angles that a class full of students could take it on,” he said.

Klibanoff secured access to 235 pages of previously unreleased FBI files and Nixon’s death certificate, and students dug in. They constructed an intricate timeline of events and strove to understand the relationships among key players in the case.

Lucy Baker, a sophomore from San Francisco, spent time outside of class to make trips to the archives of the University of Georgia in Athens and the Georgia Archives in Morrow in search of clues. Her research led to the discovery that Nixon’s killers and the sheriff-elect at the time of his death were first cousins.

Then came the biggest discovery of all.

Baker and classmates Ellie Studdard, a junior from Atlanta, and Emily Gaines, a senior from New York City, felt drawn to actually see the places they were studying in such detail. In November, they decided to take a road trip to the area where Nixon lived and died. When he learned of their plan, Klibanoff offered to drive.

The students visited the tiny public library in Mt. Vernon, then the Montgomery County Courthouse. There they met James Harris, whose father had also voted in the 1948 primary. Harris takes care of Old Salem Cemetery, just south of Mt. Vernon near Uvalda, Georgia, where Nixon was believed to be buried, but where his grave had never been found.

As Klibanoff and the other students walked with Harris through the cemetery, Studdard drifted away from the group, walking down each row. She reached the end of a line, where the grass gives way to fallen leaves, pine needles, bushes, and trees. Then she noticed a bit of concrete showing through, similar to the slabs that marked other graves from the 1930s and 1940s, with names written with a finger or stick before the cement dried so long ago.

Looking closely, she could see part of a word, starting with “I.” Quickly she brushed more dirt and leaves away. The beginnings of “September,” the month of Nixon’s death, appeared. Heart racing, she scraped away more leaves, more dirt, wanting to be sure.

She hurried back to the group with muddied hands, bringing a part of the story they had never expected to uncover. “I found it.”

Though cracked, its inscription was now clear: Isaiah Nixon, with the dates of his birth and death, April 3, 1920, and Sept. 10, 1948. The once-hidden slab adjoined a headstone bearing that single word: Father. The students grabbed a smartphone and contacted Williams, who still lived in Jacksonville, but had flown up to Emory earlier in the fall to visit their class. She returned to Georgia in January to see her father’s grave.

For Baker, a biology major with a minor in history, meeting Williams made it “even more important that we get to the truth and be accurate, because this is someone’s life we are dealing with. It’s not just a history textbook. It made a difference to somebody.”

“Of course, what the students discovered is important,” Klibanoff says. “But just as important is what they learned.”—Laura Douglas-Brown 95C 95G 

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