Algood, Tenn., resident Shun Mullins filed a complaint last summer about the mishandling of his mother Dorothy's death by the local fire department, and for reasons that are inexplicable to decent people, the state investigator, a 40-year veteran named William Sewell, saw fit to tell Mullins the tale of a gruesome, 120-year old lynching that involved the hanging and mutilating of a black man, a story that had been passed down to Sewell through generations. The investigator has since lost his job, but he doesn't think he did anything wrong.
According to the local NewsChannel5 out of Nashville, Shun Mullins' mother, Dorothy, passed away recently, and according to Mullins, when the Algood Fire Department showed up, no one did their job:
Mullins claimed Algood's deputy fire chief refused to do CPR on his mother because she was black and then falsified medical reports to cover it up.
State investigator William Sewell met with Shun Mullins and two women to look into the complaint: Nashville's NAACP executive board's Sheryl Allen attended the meeting, and an acquaintance (of Allen's or Mullins, unclear) named Judy Mainord was also present.
Sewell got down to business investigating this serious, racially charged complaint. Just kidding! The first thing he did was ask Mullins if he'd ever been to the penitentiary, because of course that would have a critical bearing on whether Dorothy Mullins was refused CPR by the Algood Fire Department. I guess if Mullins WAS in prison it would mean he was lying or something? But that line of questioning didn't really pan out for Sewell, since Mullins did not, in fact, do any prison time. So Sewell, model of professionalism, moved on:
After asking about prison and hearing about the final moments of Dorothy Mullins life, Sewell ended the meeting in a shocking way.
"Mr. Sewell goes into a story about a hanging, that he had been told, about the hanging of a black man," Mullins said.
Affidavits from all inside the meeting alleged that Sewell went into disturbing details about a lynching — and the mutilation of a black man's body — in Sewell's hometown of Baxter many years ago.
"They hung him, and they started carving his skin out of his back. It was like he got excited telling this story," Allen remembered.
Judy Mainord said Sewell continued the story by saying, "They lowered the body, and all the white men standing around took turns removing the skin from the black man's back."
But that's not all! Sewell had a special racist knack for specifics:
The three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a "strap" of the lynched man's skin, passed down from his grandfather.
"They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener," Allen remembered.
"It was like a trophy to him, and that concerns me," Mainord said.
Shun Mullins said, "It was my impression he still had it at his house. The way he enjoyed telling the story, I thought perhaps he was still using it."
When I first saw this story linked on FB from a high school classmate who lives in Algood, one of a mere handful of black kids I went to school with in the extremely homogenous South, I had to check if it was real and not satire. Not because I don't think racism is alive and well in Dixie, but because this was shocking even by the usual standards of what I know goes on there. Algood, Tenn., is a tiny town that borders my hometown of Cookeville. I went to elementary school there for a few years. As of the year 2000, the population was not even 3,000 people. Much like Cookeville where I grew up, it is about 95% white. I can't speak for an experience that is not my own, but I personally heard constant, unceasing racist attitudes there from some of the best folks around, the kind that's hard to explain to people who did not grow up in towns like this, especially because the people are racists there are also often local leaders and respected people and whatnot. People used the 'n' word pretty freely and arbitrarily refused things to black people because they felt like it and because they could. (I still have a vivid memory from 1st grade of an elderly teacher separating the two black kids in our class and denying them a snack because they "were colored." Confused, I tried to tell a babysitter about it, whose husband was a cop, and they grilled me for what seemed like hours about it, insisting that if I let the story get out, the teacher would lose her job and many many people would suffer. By the end, they convinced me I'd made it up.)
Racism in the South is everywhere and nowhere, it's louder and somehow quieter. Sometimes it's so blatant you can't believe it's actually happening, that no one is saying anything about it, and then you come to realize that it's a fact of life that everyone seems inured to, and that most people learn to look the other way, stay out of trouble, and choose their battles wisely.
No matter the progress, sometimes it seems it just cannot outrun its past. Some 3,500 blacks were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, according to the Tuskegee Institute, 204 of those in Tennessee. And as a result of that level of violence, some 7 million blacks left the South from 1910 to 1970 because, shocker, it wasn't hospitable to them. And though most people would argue things are a lot different than they were in the 1870s or even 1970s, Cookeville (Algood is in the same county), isn't doing so hot. Once voted the most affordable city in the nation, it is now ranked the sixth poorest place in America, with a median income of $31k.
Of course, as someone in the news story linked above says, they don't consider themselves poor. And I bet they don't consider themselves racist. But it's hard to deny that here we have Shun Mullins, who did what anyone ought to be able to do to file a claim about his mother's potentially wrongful death, and that EVEN WITH a representative of the NAACP present — one of the most visible organizations representing fairness for minorities, as well as one of the major organizations who campaigned for the passing of federal laws against lynching at the turn of the 20th century, by the way —William Sewell still thought he lived in a world where he got to tell his terrible little anecdote with no repercussions. Until now. Nearly 120 years after that lynching he's so fond of recalling.
An internal Health Department investigation obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates revealed the department believed Sewell told the story to put Mullins on the "defensive" and intimidate him because Sewell had close ties to many officials in Algood and possibly knew the deputy fire chief, who was being investigated.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Mullins, "Were you intimidated?"
Mullins responded, "By all means, I felt threatened."
Of course, Sewell claims he was trying to show Mullins that he understood racism in small towns, and maybe he really did mean that, but even if we give him the maximum benefit of the doubt, he's got a batshit way of going about it.
"It was a gruesome story. I got caught up in the moment trying to convince these people that I understood, and I just went too far," Sewell continued.
He said that he was trying to show Mr. Mullins that he understood bias in small towns.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "When you left that meeting did you think you had done anything wrong?"
"No, no," Sewell responded.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates questioned, "Even though you asked if he had been in prison and told that story?"
Sewell said, "Yes, yes."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "How could you not think you did anything wrong?"
Sewell said, "We concluded that meeting with handshakes, thank yous and with appreciation for their time."
Uh, does anyone think Shun Mullins had any other option in that situation but to put up with Sewell's entitlement and intimidation and still act nice? Could everyone have stopped the meeting and refused to go further until Sewell explained himself/apologized? It seems highly unlikely.
Oh, FYI, Sewell said he went and looked for the "strap" in his garage and he just couldn't seem to find it. He says he got it from his grandfather but it must be in a landfill now. And a local historian confirmed there was indeed a lynching in nearby Baxter in 1896, the only one to ever happen there, so Sewell's story is, in fact, fairly accurate (he later claimed he had no idea if the lynching was even true). And his grandfather who passed it down? The former mayor of Baxter. Legacy, indeed.
And yet, Sewell's idea of a good anecdote to bond with minorities is certainly not indicative of everyone who lives small Southern towns. My friend who originally posted this on FB said: this isn't a good representation of the awesome people I know and grew up with in Algood. Keep the Mullins Family in your prayers and in your hearts.
And a commenter who also grew up in Algood/Baxter said:
I have hated the racism that exists in this area since I was a child. The real issue is that someone didn't receive equal medical care because of the color of her skin. Then the good ole boys tried to cover it up like always!
But the real victim here is, of course, William Sewell, according to him:
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Who is the victim in this situation?"
Sewell responded, "I am."
"And why are you the victim?" we asked.
"I am the victim because I made a mistake," Sewell said.