Thursday, April 14, 2011
Ben Ingram story in works
By SUE WATSON
A descendant of the late Ben Ingram Jr. is putting together a history of the trial and acquittal of her grandfather nearly a century ago.
Schyleen Ingram Qualls, the granddaughter of Ben Ingram Jr., was guest speaker at a recent Holly Springs Rotary Club meeting, where she read from a book she is writing on the Ingram family. She describes the events which took place in Byhalia in 1918 and her grandfather’s acquittal by an all-white jury. Ingram, age 42, was charged with the murder of his neighbor, Green Brumley, with whom he had a long-standing dispute over property boundaries.
Prior to the shooting, Brumley was in town saying “I am going to kill Ben Ingram.” The black farmer, respected by blacks and whites alike, was tried and acquitted of the charges of murder in 1919.
Qualls was invited to speak to Rotary by Roy Ray after his wife, Eleanor, saw a letter to the editor from Qualls that ran in the March 17 edition of The South Reporter. Several Rotarians said it was the best program the club has ever had.
Qualls said Eleanor Ray helped her find her first juror contact – Dan Gill, grandson of Gus Gill.
Qualls, who has interviewed family members about the incident and collected newspaper articles and other documents about the trial of her grandfather, read excerpts from her book, the first reading, she said, to Rotarians.
Several influential white businessmen – Maynard Nichols, the banker, W.D. Fitts of McCrary’s Store, and J.L. Burrow Sr., of Burrow and Sons – hid Ben for three hours in the basement of Burrow & Sons store to protect him from Brumley, who was also in town in his buggy. These men and others, including men in the area like Sim Watson, Sye Bogan, Cal Matthews, Osborne Bell Sr., and Sam Richmond later helped protect the Ingram family following Ben’s arrest and throughout his trial.
Qualls’ mother, Alfreda Ingram Moore, tells some of the story in the book along with Robbie Ingram Warren, her aunt, Hubert Ingram, her uncle, and Clara Woods Adams, her cousin, and 14 other people, most of whom Qualls interviewed in the early ‘70s. Qualls said she wants to talk to people whose families played various roles in the saga - descendants of attorneys for the defense, witnesses at the trial and especially of the 12 jurors. Several individuals have already contacted her and shared valuable information and photos for her book which helps give these wonderful and courageous people their place in history, she said.
“Photos really help to tell the story and are so valuable,” she said. “So many of our grandfather’s photos were lost when my grandfather’s house burned in the ‘50s.”
Qualls continues to talk with people who are helping her weave together the fragments of this phenomenal historic event in the history of Byhalia and Marshall County. It is almost a singular, positive story of Southern justice, she said.
“My grandfather grew up in very turbulent times,” Qualls said. “He defied customs – saw everyone as equal – and was a dreamer.”
Ben Ingram was a highly successful farmer and businessman who owned about 2,200 acres of land in the Byhalia area, 700 acres of which still remain in the family. The only thing Ben’s family needed outside world was coffee, flour, and salt. He planted orchards, ran a blacksmith shop, had a miller’s barn, a smokehouse, farm animals, cotton and grain - everything needed by farming families. He had a Delco electric system and indoor plumbing for his home long before TVA provided service for the area.
He was one of the first men in the county, black or white, to own an automobile, Qualls said. Ingram’s white friends helped him buy his first car in 1914, because dealers would not sell a car at the time to a black man. Thereafter, Ben Ingram had a standing order for a new car every year in Holly Springs.
Qualls said telling the story of her grandfather will open the door for others to talk about other successful black men in Mississippi during the era.
Some successful contemporaries and best friends of Ben Ingram’s from Holly Springs included Dr. Lee McCoy (president, Rust College), Dr. Robert Macintosh (a dentist), Jordan Brittenum (funeral home), Holmes Teer (a prosperous landowner) and Robert Church Sr., who established black-owned bank in Memphis.
“My grandfather had close white friends and he seemed to be able to get along with anyone except for his neighbor, Green Brumley,” Qualls said. She referred to the period of 1918-20 as one of the lowest in the United States for African Americans. About 250,000 blacks left Mississippi in 1920, she said.
“The people in Byhalia grew up together and had good relationships around farming and supported each other,” she said. “The town was not perfect, but people living there were moving forward. They took pride in keeping the Klan from completely controlling the area at the time.”
Qualls’ mother, Alfreda Ingram Moore, was born nine years after the 1918 incident. If Ben Ingram had been convicted of the murder or his neighbors had not protected him, Qualls said she would not be here to tell this compelling story about her grandfather.
Her mother tells part of the story:
“Papa had a rule never to answer the door after dark and never to go out after dark without a companion.”
Robbie Warren Ingram, Qualls’ late aunt, confirms that white friends hid Ben and then gave him a gun and ammunition; Ingram went on home to face his fate. Brumley came up to the Ingram farm on 309 South near Isaac Chapel CME Church, where he and Ruth were early members, and started shooting from his buggy at Ben who was standing beside his house. Ben Ingram tried to get closer to Brumley hiding behind trees to evade gunshots. He had dropped the gun he was carrying on his way out of the house.
Several of the Ingram family went outside, risking being shot at the time during the showdown. Brumley was shot and killed - Ingram sustained a gunshot wound to his leg.
People, black and white from all over the area, about 500 in all, poured onto Ben’s farm after the shooting - to protect the family. Doc J.B. Bailey was called to the Ingram’s home to tend Ben’s wound. Ben Ingram was arrested the next day. To protect him from lynching, deputy sheriff Edgar Williams arranged a protective caravan and he was taken to a Memphis jail to await his trial.
The weeks of the trial, many businesses closed around the courthouse as people packed the square with horses and buggies. The courtroom filled to overflowing. Blacks were not allowed to sit on a jury at the time or to vote.
During the trial, Ben’s attorneys Lester Fant, William Alexander Belk, Clyde Wright and Lemuel Augustus Smith argued they had to let Ingram go or they would not be following the law. At the end, Ben Ingram testified, telling his story “straight as a dime,” from start to finish. He was taken out of the courtroom while the jury deliberated.
“People said, no matter what, they were probably going to hang him,” witnesses told Qualls in her 1970 interviews.
“The family went back to Byhalia,” Robbie Warren said. “The jury found Daddy not guilty. The whole house broke loose when they got the call. He came home the next day. People advised him to leave Mississippi, but he stayed until he died of heart failure at age 68.”
Ingram died on Qualls’ mother’s 17th birthday, Jan. 9, 1944.
“And my mother has been the inspiration to write this book,” Qualls said. “She is the youngest and only child still alive of Ben Ingram’s 17 children and five nieces and nephews which he and his wife Ruth reared.”
Nearly 35 prominent men and women of all walks of life served as witnesses for the defense.
“I think it was who he was that saved him.” Qualls said.
Qualls said once the book is published, she will put her energy into her dream of getting a major feature-film produced. Then, she plans to set up a Ben Ingram Jr. Foundation in Byhalia that will build an educational center for children. She has already established a Ben Ingram’s Scholars Program at Rust College.
“I want to share my grandfather’s story because it turns conventional wisdom on its head and creates a space for us to view Mississippi and its people in a new and multidimensional light,” Qualls said. “I am grateful to these people who did what they did. There were loving, compassionate and great people in Mississippi then as there are now.
“It’s important we embrace this as our collective history. We are not separate from each other. Whatever has been done to one of us has been done to all of us. We are not separate from anyone’s suffering just as we are not separate from anyone’s joy or triumph. It is important to consider human dignity. Perhaps there is something you or I will have an opportunity to do in our lives like the people of Marshall County did in 1918. Maybe 133 years from now, someone will say, I would not be alive if it were not for an act of courage or love by one of us. Wouldn’t that be a blessing?”
Qualls provided a list of people she hopes to find descendants to talk with. Anyone who has any information or photographs that would add to this story is asked to get in touch with her.
To contact Qualls, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call 415-830-2977. Learn more about Qualls’ other artistic works and activities at www.schyleen.com.
The list of jurors:
Capt R.L. Roper, foreman
Some of the many witnesses for the defense Qualls would like photos of include:
News: (662) 252-4261 or email@example.com
Questions, comments, corrections: firstname.lastname@example.org
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