"Communing with My Ancestors: Eli Hilson Sr.’s Legacy"
By LaWanda Black Dickens, Magnolia Literacy Project Founder
Memories of her grandfather, Reves Black, Sr., inspired LaWanda Dickens to research her family's history on the land where she grew up in Brookhaven, Mississippi. She discovered the powerful narratives of Eli Hilson, Sr., her third great grandfather, and Eli Hilson, Jr., her third great uncle, whose life is memorialized at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, MS, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. This narrative chronicles Dickens' connection to Hilson Sr. through his son, Jacob, father of her great grandmother, Luvinia Hilson Black.
"Communing with My Ancestors: Eli Hilson Sr.’s Legacy"
When I was a young mom, I used to watch my girls play on the family’s land, where I grew up in Brookhaven, Mississippi. Every summer, we’d take a road trip from the eastside of Detroit, Michigan to the country. My parents looked forward to hosting their grandchildren, who enjoyed being the center of attention. At the intersection of daughter and mom, I viewed the land as a structure of continuity, fastening my parents and my children together.
Now that I have relocated back to the property, my gaze is different as a 52-year-old with grown children. Walking the hills and trails, I wonder about the history tied to this land, what it was like before my childhood here. I’ve even considered tracing my lineage on the Black side of the family but never really took any concerted effort to mobilize my thoughts, until recently. Through a combination of divine intervention and an ancestral nudge, I was set on a path of nostalgia, curiosity, inquiry, and dialogue that would reveal a family bloodline of both prestige and terror. What I gained was a history lesson larger than any schooling experience I’ve ever had.
About seven months ago, I went into Kroger at the corner of Hwy 18 and Government Street in Brandon, where I lived for a few years after moving back to Mississippi from Detroit. Brandon was a good location because it’s close to my job, Jackson State University, where I teach in the English Department. That day, I went to the supermarket in search of the biggest, prettiest, and, hopefully, sweetest watermelon I could find. As I rummaged through melons in the produce area, a memory of my Paw Paw, Reves Black Sr., materialized.
Growing up, I felt inspired by him, an accomplished Black man from Brookhaven, not from town, but from the country – out 84 West, close to the Franklin County line, as rural as it gets. Paw Paw graduated from Alcorn State University and Tennessee State University. With a thirst for knowledge, he also studied at Fisk University and Tuskegee Institute. A farmer and retired school administrator, he lived meaningfully. Paw Paw died in 1997. Naturally, I thought of him from time to time, but that day in Kroger was unlike previous memories. That day, the re-experience felt more tangible. It was the first in a series of remembrances that would gently elbow me throughout the summer of 2022. Paw Paw was the star of each recollection.
Inspecting the weighty green ovals in a brown, wooden crate at Kroger, I remembered the first time I picked my own watermelon from a field on one of Paw Paw’s properties, where I lived with my parents and two brothers next door to Uncle Jesse and his family. Seven-years-old, I awoke one Saturday morning with a craving for a cold, triangular shaped slice of watermelon. Back then, I thought the triangle with the half-circle bottom was just as important as the taste. It made eating the melon more fun. While there were plenty of watermelons growing in an expansive field of natural foods to the right of our mobile home, there were none in the house.
Momma was cleaning, and Paw’s Paw’s namesake, Reves Jr., my dad, was cutting the grass. I knew there was no chance either one of them would stop what they were doing to bring a watermelon in, so I settled for the next best thing, a bowl of Kellogg's Dig’em Smacks and milk. I pulled one of the hardwood, ladder back chairs from the kitchen table into the living room; turned on the colorless TV, placing my chair directly in front of it; and watched The Jetsons while eating my cereal. Within minutes of sitting down, I could hear Paw Paw’s 1960 Chevy pickup. That’s when I knew my ticket to a refreshing slice of watermelon had arrived! Jumping from the chair, I ran to the front door, where I saw my family’s Commander-in-Chief’s green truck emerging from the sharp curve of the long, winding gravel road, which terminated at our trailer, sitting atop freshly cut grass carpeting a hill with red clay edges. The most important part of this memory is Paw Paw and me walking together into the field, strolling between the rows of green vines until he spotted the gigantic, gorgeous melon, soon to be my snack.
“Wanda Girl,” the medium-beige toned, slender elder said to me, “Turn this one here over. Let’s see how it looks at the bottom.”
I kneeled down and did as he told me, noticing a big, yellow spot, which Paw Paw said was a sign that the melon was “ripe and ready to go with us”. He kneeled beside me, pulled out his pocket knife, and placed it into my hand, showing me a dried out, brown area on the stem.
“That’s the tendril. I want you to cut it right there.”
He guided my hand as I snipped the tendril. Grinning, I felt so accomplished!
I returned the knife to him. He slid it back into his pocket, then picked up our prize, and we walked back to the house. Paw Paw placed the watermelon on Momma’s picnic table. As he rinsed it off with the water hose, he sent me into the house to get a kitchen knife, old newspapers, and plastic wrap. Together, we spread the newspapers over one side of the table. Paw Paw put the melon on top of the papers and cut it. He knew just how to slice my share. When he handed it to me, I wrapped it in plastic and instantly ran back into the house to put my red triangle with the white and green half-circle bottom in the deep freezer long enough for it to chill.
Finding a watermelon that I liked at Kroger took a little longer than usual. Maybe the memory of Paw Paw made me want to find one that he too would have approved of.
As the summer progressed, additional memories and representations of Paw Paw started planting themselves into my spirit. One day as I was exiting I-55 at Pearl Street, heading to Jackson State for a colleague’s retirement party, Paw Paw appeared with a five-year old version of me. We were in his yard picking up sweet, tangy cherries that had fallen from the tree which birthed them. That same week, I saw a silver, 1993 Grand Marquis, just like the one Paw Paw drove, pass by me in the parking lot of Wigs Beauty Plus in Brookhaven. I smiled, walking into the store to get some EZ Edges. These thoughts of Paw Paw were as sweet as the honeysuckle that always grew freely on our family's land when I was a child.
The memory that really put me on pause for a minute was the day I stood in front of a group of youth at the Lincoln Lawrence Franklin Regional Library. Teaching a Juneteenth workshop for The Magnolia Literacy Project, I was positioned front and center in the glass-walled Vernon room. From corner-eye vision, I glimpsed a slim, elderly gentleman, dressed in earth tone colors. Every bit of this man said, “Reves Black, Sr.” His tan fedora; tea green dress shirt with sleeves rolled slightly below his elbows; and flat-front khaki slacks double-took me. For a few seconds, I wandered from my audience mentally, but the reality of the White man who looked like my Paw Paw reconnected me with the red square on the white board displaying the point I was making about strawberry pop and red velvet cake. The cherries, the Grand Marquis, and the White man, who could pass for Paw Paw’s twin, rekindled other memories. I could smell Paw Paw’s Octagon soap; the rose bush just outside of his pasture, where he and I frequently hung out and watched his cattle; and the sweet potato pie I fed him in the nursing home days before he died.
On the heels of those memories was a bitter end to the summer of 2022. During the first week of August, after I had spent months redecorating my Brandon apartment, I found myself locked in a choke-hold by the sight of black mold lining the window of my bedroom. Resistance from an unscrupulous landlord, refusing to accept responsibility, suddenly landed me at my credit union, applying for a mortgage loan. In a good news, bad news turn of events, I was approved but battled increased anxiety while hastily seeking out realtors and later touring homes. Simultaneously, I was preparing for the new academic year with classes starting in just two weeks and assisting Natalie, my youngest daughter, with the dormitory move-in process for her senior year of college. The bad news kept sucker-punching me. On a Friday night, four days after the mold discovery, I got an 11:00 P.M. phone call from my brother, Derrick, in Brookhaven.
“Hey, we out here with Momma at the hospital. It’s pretty bad this time. I don’t want you getting on the road tonight, but I think you better come on down first thing in the morning.”
I felt paralyzed.
That next morning, when I walked into King’s Daughters Medical Center in Brookhaven, and saw Momma in high spirits, smiling at me, I could feel mountains of pressure releasing from my body. I instantly knew that my place was in Brookhaven, at home with her, the woman who will always be the foundation of everything good I’ve ever done with my life.
A taxing series of events brought me back to the land that nurtured all of those memories of Paw Paw. It was a stage-setting experience, guiding me to discover Eli Hilson, Sr., Paw Paw’s great grandfather, my third great-grandfather, who died 65 years before I was born. According to the Homestead National Historical Park, Eli Sr. claimed 79.98 acres of land in Lincoln County on August 1, 1870. Reading the report was galvanizing. This was most definitely news to celebrate. Looking back on my research and learning process, which took place primarily upstairs at my parents' house on Hilson property that my Paw Paw inherited, I wonder if I was sitting on a part of the 79.98 acres my third great-grandfather had purchased.
My knowledge of the Black family’s Hilson ancestry began one evening after my 60-minute commute home from Jackson State. When I pulled up to the house on the hill of red clay, now a two-story addition to the trailer, Dad was sitting on the carport in conversation with his fur buddies, a cohort of cats and dogs.
“Hey! You done made it on back, huh?”, he said, gazing in my direction as I disembarked from my candy apple red 2020 Honda CRV.
“Yep. How was your day?”
“It was just a day,” he responded, ordering Doppler, one of the puppies, to stop chewing on his shoe string.
I laid my purse and lunch bag on the bench and sat down next to him. We only talked for a few minutes, but I walked away from our chat feeling as though I had read a manuscript on the family’s roots.
“Dad, tell me something. When Paw Paw bought the land out here, how many acres was it originally?”
“Showa didn’t buy this land.”
“Showa” is the only name I’ve ever heard Dad use when he talked to or about Paw Paw.
“You know what? I’ve always wondered why you call him ‘Showa’.”
“Because when he used to be talking to people, after they finished a sentence, he would say, ‘showa, showa’, meaning ‘sure’, I guess to let’em know he was on the same page wit’em. When we was kids, we started calling him ‘Showa’, and the name stuck.”
He and I both laughed.
“Come to think of it, he did say that all the time. But back to my question, how did he get this land then?”
“It belonged to Mo Venie’s daddy, old man Hilson. I don’t know what his real name was, but they called him Kit.”
That was the first time I heard the name “Hilson” in connection with my ancestry.
“What? Really? So that means Paw Paw inherited it from her?”
“I guess. Had to. She was a Hilson before she married Paw Black, and she grew up over here.”
“Wow, you just schooled me! I did not know that.”
Mo Venie was Paw Paw’s momma. I knew about her but only saw her once. One day when Dad and I were in town, he took me to see her. She was in the old Silver Cross nursing home, near the railroad tracks, not too far from Brookhaven’s bus station. A tiny lady, she sat in dormancy, in a silver and black wheelchair. I think I was about eight-years-old then. Although I heard Auntie Venie, her namesake and Dad’s only sister, mention her occasionally, I never knew anything about her, other than she died a centenarian.
I was a talkative child, so as Dad and I sat with Mo Venie, I initiated a one-way conversation with her. It didn’t matter to me that she didn’t talk back.
“Hey,” I said to her, caressing her arm, then holding her hand.
“Tell her who you are,” Dad said.
“My name is Wanda.”
Dad cut in, “Mo Venie, that’s your great granddaughter. That’s my lil girl. You remember me? I’m June, Reves’ son.”
Enthralled by her, I moved in closer, “I like your house shoes. They’re pretty. They match your robe. Purple is a pretty color.”
I don’t remember what else I said to her, but the slippers and robe stood out to me. I won’t ever forget those two details about my great-grandmother. When it was time for us to leave Silver Cross, Dad kissed her on her cheek. I did the same.
“Bye, Mo Venie. I love you.”
Those were my final words to her, the woman I had always known as Luvinia Black, until last fall, that day I came home from work and made small talk with my 80-year-old dad. I don’t think he has any idea how much his tidbit about Mo Venie meant to me then and now.
From a fifteen-minute dialogue with her grandson, I gained a stronger sense of Mo Venie’s identity. Before that day, all I knew about her is that she married Jesse Black, Jr., Paw Paw’s father, who passed away before I was born. Now, my perspective of her is situated in her wholeness as Luvinia Hilson Black. And as far as I know, she was heavily responsible for Hilson land being passed down to my Paw Paw.
After learning that she was reared on the very land that I had returned to, I thought about her daily. On my evening walks in the country, I wondered what she looked like as a little girl, if she played in the same spaces where I played as a child, or if she frequented the same areas of the property that I cling to now. Curiosity consumed me.
I was so excited to learn more about her story that I started talking about her to my daughters and closest friends. The most impactful of these conversations was with Beverly, whom I met as a freshman at Jackson State. Several weeks after I placed the Hilson name onto her radar, the social media specialist and information powerhouse dropped a mind-boggling bombshell on me.
While we were on the phone one Saturday night, she asked me if anyone in my bloodline had been murdered in the area.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“There’s a Facebook page, African-American Families and Genealogies of South Mississippi. I came across a post by someone named Linda Durr Rudd, who shared the link to a newspaper article on Eli Hilson, Jr. He was supposedly killed out that way. I thought about you since you told me your Dad said y'all had Hilson family members. Do you know who he is?”
“No. What did you find out about him?” I felt an instant rush of anticipation and excitement, wondering what was next.
“I’m going to send you this link, and I want you to read about him.”
I went straight to my Gmail and retrieved the information, but I was not prepared for the news of a documented, historic lynching that took place in the Brookhaven/Lincoln County area nearly 120 years ago.
According to a December 23, 1903, article in The Leader, now known as The Daily Leader, Eli Hilson Jr., whom I would later learn was my third great-uncle, was lynched by White Caps, a White nationalist group known for terrorizing Black families in the South. Their goal was to seize and take control over Black people’s property.
What I learned was disconcerting. The act itself was no surprise, but processing it from a descendant’s angle was paralyzing. The Leader wrote, “Last Winter Hilson, who lived on a farm of his own and was prosperous, was warned by the whitecaps to leave, which warning he disregarded. About three or four weeks ago his home was visited in the night by whitecaps and several volleys fired into it. His wife was sick in bed at the time, with an infant only a few hours old. He still disregarded the warning, and remained on his place. Saturday, he brought a young daughter to town in his buggy to spend Christmas holidays with his brother G. N. W. Hilson, of this city, and as he was returning home between sunset and dark was assassinated. Hilson is the second negro murdered by whitecaps in that portion of Lincoln county within the last month.” For years, I had been studying the history of lynching and had recently read Ida B. Wells’ On Lynchings. Just two weeks prior to learning about Eli Jr., I gave a lecture on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” in my Advance Composition course at Jackson State during our "Identity and Intersectionality" unit. Plus I had been following movements surrounding the Emmett Till tragedy. This story, though, about Eli Hilson Jr., hit differently.
Pictured below is the buggy Eli Hilson Jr. was riding when he was lynched. -- Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The mom in me cannot shake traumatizing thoughts of Hannah Kelly Hilson, Eli Jr.’s young wife, lying in bed with their newborn child, as the family’s horse towed her husband’s gunshot-inflicted, lifeless body onto the property in his buggy. Who was there to protect Hannah and their children? Eli Jr.’s lynching was more personal for me than the others I had studied.
I withdrew from the article and sat silently, wondering, asking myself, “Who was he? If he was one of my relatives, where do I fit in his line of ancestry?” I had forgotten that Bev was still on the phone.
“Let me call you back. I’m about to go downstairs and talk to Dad.”
“Okay. Do that, and let me know what he says.”
Regaining my bearings, I sprinted at lightning speed from my bedroom and across the living room of my apartment above Momma and Dad’s home, but I still couldn’t get to the stairs fast enough. On my way down, I think I jumped every other step. It’s only by divine design that I didn’t trip and fall or break any bones.
“Hey Dad! Do you know who Eli Hilson, Jr. is?”
“Naw. That name don’t ring a bell.”
“I was just on the phone with Bev, and she found some information on Facebook about a man named Eli Hilson, Jr. She said he was killed in our area in 1903. I wonder if he was one of our family members.”
“I don’t know, maybe one of Mo Venie’s brothers or uncles. I ain’t never heard nothing about that, but then again, when we was kids, old people didn’t tell us bad news. They tried to shield us from stuff like that.”
“I’m going to look into it some more. I need to know what Mo Venie’s father’s name was. I think that will help me figure out if there is a connection between her and Eli.”
“Okay. Let me know what you find out. You oughta call E.C. He might be able to give you some information.”
Uncle E.C. (Earl Chester Black) is my Dad’s older brother. He lives about ten minutes farther west of us off of 84 on land that Paw Paw purchased to build a house for Mo Mo, Ida Mae Edwards Black, my grandmother, once their children were grown. According to Dad, Mo Mo didn’t like living on the Hilson property Paw Paw inherited because she thought it was too far back in the woods. I guess Uncle E.C. and Uncle Hollis, my grandparents’ youngest child, who is now deceased, must have both preferred the newer property because that’s where they decided to build homes for their families.
I went back upstairs to call Uncle E.C. He answered the phone in his usual genuine, welcoming tone.
“Hey girl, they told me you done moved back.”
“Yeah, I had to come on back out here so I could see about Momma.”
“Well I’m glad because she needs you, and truth be told, June does too.”
“I know. He actually told me that.”
“What? You mean that old stubborn joka admitted that he needs you?”
“He sure did, Uncle E.C.”
“Well, listen, I am glad you’re back, girl. You hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“I am so happy you called. It’s always nice to hear from you. What’s going on?”
“I’ve been doing some research on our family, and I came across a man named Eli Hilson Jr., who was lynched in this area, according to the The Leader, which is now the Daily Leader. I’m trying to find out if he was related to us. Does that name sound familiar to you?”
“Naw. I don’t know who that is.”
I read the article to Uncle E.C. Like Dad, he had not heard anything about the lynching. Our conversation continued.
“Well, do you know what Mo Venie’s father’s name was? If I can figure that out, I think I can find out what the connection is to Eli. Dad said they called him Kit, but he doesn’t think that was his real name.”
“Let me see. I don’t know what his name was either, but I can tell you that Mo Venie had a brother named Ezra if that will help you any.”
“Okay. How was his name spelled?”
“It was E-Z-R-A. I remember him clearly because he used to come to the house, and I remember Momma cooking for him.”
“That’s good information. I’ll see if I can connect any dots by looking him up. Dang. I wish I would have known about our Hilson lineage before Auntie Venie died. I bet she would have had answers for me.”
“You got that right. One thing about my sister is that she kept up with the family history, so she probably would have known.”
We chatted a few minutes longer before getting off the phone. I didn’t go to bed until 4:00 the next morning, spending hours Googling and taking notes. Putting the pieces of my family’s story together was like reading a good book, the kind that some of our elected officials would surely ban.
Several searches led me to more information about Eli Jr. I learned that newspapers across the country covered his lynching. The Belvidere Daily Republican in Illinois, presented details which mirrored The Leaders’ reporting. I also discovered from The Leader and Indiana’s The Waterloo Press that his lynching was unique compared to typical assassinations of Black men. One factor is that the White Cappers did not hang him. Instead, they shot him. The Leader wrote: “The bullet which killed him entered the side of his head near the ear and came out at the mouth. Death seems to have been instantaneous. The horse went on home, and his owner was found dead in the buggy on his arrival.” I will never unsee the vision or unfeel the chill that shot through my body when I read this for the first time.
Since I’m not blind to the facts of history, I was not surprised. But what I did find shocking was The Waterloo Press’ report that his murderer was brought to justice. In an article dated December 24, 1904, the publication wrote, “Oscar Franklin was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Eli Hilson, a negro”. Reading this, I felt as though I was watching a movie, cheering, and yelling victoriously, as my people are known to do.
Over the next couple of weeks, I came across additional information about my slain ancestor, as well as his father, Eli Hilson, Sr. That’s when the family's history became even more palpable. The bodies of both men are buried at the Greater Mt. Olive M.B. Church, where I worshiped every Sunday throughout my childhood, where Paw Paw served as a deacon. The Leader characterized Hilson Sr. as “thrifty and industrious”, also describing him as a man who “always made a good living for himself and his family and enjoyed the confidence and respect of his white neighbors.” Hilson Jr., according to The Leader, “lived on a farm of his own and was prosperous”, yet his father’s role as a pillar of the community was not enough for his life to matter, nor was his own standing as a thriving citizen. It was liberating to learn, however, that his life is memorialized at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, MS, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL.
I located a copy of the 1870 United States Federal Census, which confirmed that Eli Sr. had a son named Jacob Hilson. I later learned that Jacob's children included a son named Ezra and a daughter named Luvinia, which led me right back to my conversations with Dad and Uncle E.C. Documented data and oral history make the perfect team! At that point, I felt a full-circle connection to the land where I grew up. I wonder where Jacob was when he heard the news of his brother’s lynching. Sometimes when I walk the trails on what is now my father’s, auntie’s sons', and uncles’ property, I wonder if I’m ever – at any given time – near the space where Eli Jr.’s life was taken. I’ll never be able to stroll the land again without imagining him or thinking about his relationship with Jacob, or “Kit”, as Dad called him. I wonder how he got that nickname. In learning about Jacob, I learned who I am.
I am the third great-granddaughter of Eli Hilson Sr. His son, Jacob Hilson, is my second great-grandfather. Jacob, to my knowledge, is the only child of Hilson Sr., with descendants still residing on Hilson land, Jesse Black III and Reves Black, Jr. I wonder about that part of Jacob who fathered their grandmother, Luvinia, my great grandmother, the woman I visited at Silver Cross nursing home, Mo Venie, the one with the pretty purple slippers and robe. I didn’t know her well because I was so young when she died, but what I do know is that she raised a remarkable son, Reves Black Sr., my grandfather, who treasured the land passed down to him. He, along with Mo Mo, raised their children there – on Hilson property. I am the product of their son, Reves Black, Jr., and I will forever cherish the land, a portion of which shall someday belong to Luvinia Hilson Black’s second great granddaughters, Jasmine and Natalie Dickens, my daughters, the fourth great-granddaughters of Eli Hilson Sr.
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