Owning the narrative: Erin McCrady and the killing of Edward Williams

A semester at the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic was, for Erin McCrady (NUSL ’21) a detour on an otherwise direct route to a health policy career.

“It was a really challenging experience,” said McCrady, who now works for the office of the general counsel for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, working on Medicaid policy in Massachusetts.

“I really struggled with what my role was in trying to encourage family members to participate in this process,” she told CRRJ in a recent interview. “Who was I to be digging up this part of their past?”

But this was not the first time McCrady had grappled with questions of personal narrative and representation. After graduating from the University of Ottawa, she worked for three years at Parks Canada, in their Indigenous Affairs Division, “thinking about how we tell the stories of our history and from whose perspective we’re telling those stories from.”

With this perspective, McCrady joined CRRJ in 2020 during her third year at Northeastern Law, excited to combine her pre-law experiences with her legal training, she said.

“It was a great clinic experience, coming to the end of my legal education,” she said, “because the work you get involved in is starting from a place of understanding that the legal system is an imperfect system and is sometimes going to produce unjust results. It focuses on what can you do to rectify those wrongs.”

The legal system was certainly “imperfect” in the case of Edward “Edwin” Williams.

Williams, 32 years old, was killed by three sailors in Algiers, Louisiana on April 27, 1943. While walking home from church with his wife and four sons – aged between 18 months and 8 years — the sailors began harassing the family, throwing glass beer bottles at them as they walked overhead across a bridge. When Williams protested, the group descended to street level and beat him, stabbing him to death with a beer bottle.

Walter C. Sherwood, a nineteen-year-old Coast Guard member from Texas, stood trial in Orleans Parish, but was acquitted by the jury.

Lillian Alveris Williams, his wife, initially championed the case but rarely spoke about her husband’s murder after the acquittal. “And that approach filtered down through the generations,” said McCrady, who spent over two years researching the case and, when she was finally able to be in touch with them, working with family members on restorative measures.

“His grandchildren knew of their grandfather and that he had died in a fight. But that’s all they knew,” said McCrady.

As a result, the story of Williams’ murder was largely controlled by white-owned newspapers. Many accounts described Williams as the aggressor. This gross misrepresentation “was a kind of a second taking of the person that the family cared about,” said McCrady.

Edward Edwin Clifford Williams killed 1943, Louisiana.
Edward and Lillian Williams, courtesy of The Louisiana Weekly, May 8, 1943.

“A big part of the restorative justice process with this family was having them take back that narrative and be the ones to put forward the person that they knew, and have their version of these events out there,” she said.

Initially, McCrady said she faced hesitancy from Williams’ descendants. “I think for his sons who had closed off that part of their lives, having a complete stranger reaching out to them from a law school in Boston wasn’t really something they were ready to face yet,” she said.

But she was certain that she could not continue with her research without the family’s support.

“I was very mindful that there were generational dynamics and family dynamics at play,” said McCrady.

I felt very strongly that having the family leading that narrative was something that we needed to move the case forward.”

McCrady searched ancestry websites until she identified a grandson of Williams. She reached out to him, with the help of Ada Goodly Lampkin, CRRJ affiliate and director of the Louis A. Berry Institute for Civil Rights and Justice at Southern University Law Center. After numerous phone calls and visits by both McCrady and Goodly Lampkin, the younger generations of the family were ready to participate in a restorative process.

“From there the case took off and the family were incredibly engaged in the process,” said McCrady.

“One of the most impactful aspects of that case was the way the family took the reins and gave themselves restorative justice,” she said. “That was something incredible to see and something I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.”

On June 19, Father’s Day 2022, Williams’ descendants, in partnership with CRRJ, hosted an event at Beautiful Zion Baptist Church in Algiers to commemorate his life and legacy. The program included remarks by Williams’ children and grandchildren, and the unveiling of a historical marker, to be installed where Williams was killed.

“It was really special to share that with the family,” said McCrady, who travelled down to Algiers to be there at the memorial.

After graduating, McCrady took a two-year fellowship position with the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School.

Now at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, McCrady appears well on her way to a successful career in public interest and health policy. But she will always take with her the lessons about narrative ownership and restorative justice learned during her time at CRRJ.

“Going to court is not always going to be the solution to the problem,” she said. “Even when you have a solution, that’s not where the work ends,” she said. “There’s a whole other story after that resolution that’s important to keep in mind.”

Williams left behind a wife and four children. Photo courtesy of the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive: https://crrjarchive.org/incidents/649

Read more about Williams’ death on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

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