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New History for an Old Lynching

Liz Jones

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Booker Townsell in uniform.
(Courtesy Townsell family)
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Growing up in Milwaukee, Lashell Drake spent a lot of time with her grandfather. They were close. He liked to talk. But one thing he never talked about was World War II. Lashell learned that early on. She remembers one time when she had to write a school report about the war.

"And I said, 'Grandpa weren't you in the war?'" she recalls. "And my grandma said, 'No, no, no honey. We don't do that. Come here. Come here.'"

Lashell watched her grandfather's entire demeanor change.

Lashell calls those his "quiet moments." They stood out because her grandfather, Booker Townsell, was someone whose personality filled the room. He raised his children and grandchildren to be proud, to be fighters.

"He wanted us to sit up straight," she explains. "He wanted us to look people in the eye. He never wanted us to have bad posture. I think he wanted us to fight our own battles because that was taken away from him."

The battle Townsell couldn't fight was for his own innocence. It began during World War II when he was stationed at Fort Lawton in Seattle. One night, an Italian prisoner of war named Guglielmo Olivotto was found lynched.

Townsell was accused in connection with his death. And in a rushed military trial, the Army found him guilty of rioting. He was dishonorably discharged and served two years in prison.

The story would've probably ended there, if not for Seattle journalist Jack Hamann. He recently wrote a book that re-examined this 60-year-old case.

We meet at the former fort and walk down a shady path, past a sprawling, 100-year-old maple. Hamann says the trees witnessed it all.

We approach what used to be the fort's segregated, black barracks. Italian POWs were housed nearby. Hamann unravels how the conflict started that night.

Four Italian soldiers were returning from a night out drinking. Four black soldiers were walking up the path the opposite way. Many of them had been drinking, too. Insults started to fly back and forth. Then, it came to blows.

"And within just a few moments there were laid out three different African American soldiers, and a fourth down here, all bleeding," Hamann says. "Then another one who, the rumor went out incorrectly, looked for all the world like he might even be dead. That's when black soldiers here said, 'Oh my gosh, we're under attack.'"

A riot broke out between hundreds of black and Italian soldiers. The next morning, the Italian soldier was found hanging on wires below a wooded bluff.

Townsell and 42 other black soldiers stood trial in connection with the lynching. More than half were found guilty of rioting. Two were also convicted of manslaughter.

But a few years ago, Hamann found a key document that rewrote this piece of history. It was a previously top-secret report by a high-ranking Army general.

"It all started to make sense," Hamann says. "He saw really the truth, but the truth at that time was classified."

The general's report raised questions about the role of a white military policeman during the riot. Relations were tense between white and Italian soldiers, mainly because they were courting the same American women. The report points to the white MP, not just the black soldiers, as a possible suspect.

What's more, the 43 defendants had only been given two lawyers and 10 days to prepare their case. It appeared some men were accused merely because they had the same first name as someone else. And the prosecution suppressed key evidence that could have helped the soldiers.

Last year, the Army ruled the trial was flawed and unfair. All the convictions were overturned and the dishonorable discharges reversed.

"Now it all makes sense," Lashell Drake says. "This was something that he was carrying on his heart very heavy. And he carried it with him to his grave."

Lashell might never have known all this. But one day a few years ago, her cousin randomly did a Google search on her grandfather's name and found Hamann's research. Lashell pored over a binder full of documents he'd gathered.

She remembers sitting in her mother's kitchen, reading her grandfather's court testimony. A prosecutor was grilling him about where he was the night of the lynching.

She recalls the prosecutor accusing her grandfather of lying.

"And my grandfather said 'I beg your pardon,'" Lashell laughs. "And I can just see his face - 'I beg your pardon.'"

Last year, the Army gave Booker Townsell a military burial, his honorable discharge and an apology. He'd passed away 25 years before.

Like Lashell's grandfather, most of the 43 defendants have died. Only two are still alive. Of the others, just 10 of their families have been located.

Lashell has connected with most of them. She calls and emails, and she'll finally meet several in person this weekend at a tribute in Seattle. She'll continue to help find the other families who still don't know about this missing piece of their history. She wants them to have what her family now has: the truth.

"There is a completion, there's wholeness, there's a healing," Lashell says. "There's been restoration just in knowing the complete person. Pieces of the puzzle that we didn't have of their lives have now been filled."

Comments

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  • By carol blalock

    From milwaukee, WI, 07/31/2008

    Story on Daddy

    By Jane Fandray

    From Charlotte, NC, 07/26/2008

    Not long ago I had an reminder that illustrates how our experience influences how we interpret what we read. I had moved to a relatively small city on the eastern shore of MD, and subscribed to the local paper (This was before I found out that I could get THE WASHINGTON POST delivered daily). I opened the Sunday paper at the end of the driveway, read the headline and commented to a neighbor: "Wow. That's harsh! I can't believe this is in the paper, let alone the headline," I huffed. The headline in bold, 3 inch letters read: "DYKES DEAD IN CRASH!"
    The neighbor informed me that Mr. Dykes was a former mayor of the town. OOPS.

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