Student reflects on research of 1948 murder for CRRJ Clinic
On the morning of July 2, 1948, William White, a 41-year-old father of five young children and a skilled painter, was living with his family in St. Louis. He went to work that day with another painter named Rufus Irons. The two Black men had been employed to paint the exterior of a house.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police report of the incident contains Rufus Irons’ statement about what occurred. Irons recounted that the two painters were working on different stories of the house that morning. White was painting the house from the ground level, while Irons painted the next story from the second-floor porch. William White was underneath the porch of the house where Irons stood when two white men pulled up to the house in a taxicab.
These men were John Schumann and Ellis McKinley. McKinley got out of the cab and approached White beside the house. Irons could not see the men, but he heard McKinley ask White whether he was in a union. White responded that that was none of McKinley’s business and that the two should leave the property and leave him and Irons alone. Instead, McKinley and Schumann beat White to death with a paint can before Irons could climb off of the porch.
After the perpetrators fled the scene, leaving White unconscious, he was brought to a hospital and pronounced dead on arrival. Both Schumann and McKinley had fled to the homes of friends in the city to hide, where they were later found by police.
At the time of White’s killing, the story was heavily covered by local press. Delois White, William White’s widow, made a statement to the press. She mentioned that William White actively avoided trouble with the union by keeping away from disputes among union painters and rejecting jobs that the union objected to. She also stated that White never knew his killers.
Despite press coverage, however, the story of what really happened to William White was lost to his family for decades; neither White’s widow, nor his children, ever talked about their loss or the damage it had done to their young family.
One of William White’s granddaughters, Anise White-Goff, has taken particular interest in her family’s history. From her home in California, she shared that her generation grew up in the dark about the details surrounding their grandfather’s death. The only record they had was one newspaper article in the mainstream press. The article named their grandfather’s killers before naming the victim, and this injustice plagued Ms. White-Goff until the spring of 2023, when a student from the Civil Rights & Restorative Justice Clinic reached out to her.
Dominique Agnew, a third-year law student, researched the case of William White while participating in last spring’s CRRJ Clinic.
The clinic’s mission is to help communities in the US engage with historical injustices. Each spring, a few select Northeastern Law students, in collaboration with their professors, professional archivists and historians, track down materials from government repositories; conduct interviews; and, where feasible, visit the region where the events took place. Applying tools and insights from the fields of restorative justice and transitional justice, law students work closely with families and local communities to memorialize these past events.
Upon completion of her research, Agnew wrote about her time as a student at the clinic and the impact White’s case has had on her.
This July marked the 75th anniversary of the murder of William White in Saint Louis, MO. William White was one of my assigned clients during my participation in the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic in the spring of 2023.
When I was first assigned White’s case, I thought I was given most of the information I needed to understand his story. The initial documents in White’s folder were newspaper clippings giving the names of the client, the two perpetrators, and an important primary witness. I learned that White was a painter who was taken from his wife and five children on July 2, 1948.
Little did I know that those details were just the beginning of what I would eventually learn.
When I first joined CRRJ, I knew I would learn important academic and legal skills, but I didn’t anticipate how much my personal growth would be impacted.
William White’s case was more than just those details given to me in the initial files. I tried to get ancestral information first – information about his father, Andrew White, and his mother, Susie Munson. Then I tried to learn about the procedure of the case, requesting Coroner’s Inquest transcripts and police records.
Knowing when to contact a victim’s descendants, if they are located, is always a challenging aspect of the clinic’s work. When I was finally able to send a message to White’s family, it was one of the most frightening things I did during my time at CRRJ. I didn’t know how they would respond, or whether our information about the story might conflict with their memory. I was an outsider, a student, looking into their family’s past, an event that was probably one of the most traumatic in the family’s history. How would I contribute to this story? How could I be a part of the conversation without seeming overbearing? Those thoughts ran through my mind when I sent my initial Ancestry message to the creator of the White family Ancestry Tree, Mrs. Anise White-Goff.
White-Goff, who is White’s granddaughter, responded to me in less than an hour. We met via Zoom after our initial conversation and had one of the best conversations I have ever had. We talked about her family and how her grandmother never talked about what she went through, and the impact of their father’s death on her aunts’, uncles’ and father’s childhoods. Anise told me that she was proud that I was looking into the case. Her pride and enthusiasm for my work calmed my nerves and made me feel less like an outsider. I was someone who could help her and her family get what they needed to heal.
Mr. White’s story came to me in files. I tried to tell White’s story accurately – something that had not been done before – although I started with biased information from white newspapers. I tried to place the incident in context so that his living relatives would appreciate that his story was part of a bigger picture. For example, he was one of the many Black workers affected by violence perpetrated by white workers. I wanted to situate Mr. White in that world.
I met with Anise earlier this summer over Zoom to record our interview for the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice website. We discussed how her family was affected by the final presentation of the case, which was recorded and shared with the White family. She informed me that they were happy I had told their story and were amazed by how I created context around the events.
When I first joined the clinic, I was not confident that I could do the work. I didn’t think I could study Black trauma and make a dent in it. But Anise White-Goff and her family have taught me that when people come together there can be change. I am grateful that the clinic gave me a chance to work with the White family. Although the clinic lasted for a few months, its impact will remain with me for a lifetime.
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