Women’s History Month: The Killing of Della McDuffie, 1953

In the heart of the Black Belt, Wilcox County, Alabama, in 1953, Della’s Place was the spot for a late-night meal and some jukebox music once the bars in town had closed.

The bustling café, established by Della and Will “Snowball” McDuffie, on U.S. Highway No. 5 was popular with young and old alike. Diners usually headed there after watching a movie at the local movie theater, owned by the McDuffie’s son, James.

On the evening of April 25, 1953, Della McDuffie watched the crowd of movie-goers and families filling her café from her wheelchair. Friend and young mother, Zora Hayes sat beside Mrs. McDuffie, cradling her two-year-old child.

It was a little past midnight when Wilcox County Sheriff, Columbus “Lummie” Jenkins, entered Della’s Place with two highway patrol officers.

Della’s Place was meant to close at 12 a.m. and Will McDuffie had, moments prior to the sheriff’s arrival, instructed an employee to shut down the Rockola and start closing-up for the night.

Not satisfied with the haste with which patrons were departing the café and under the pretense of keeping the peace, Jenkins and the officers fired their guns and beat Della’s customers with blackjacks. Stunned, men women and children scrambled to escape from the attack and flee the café. But Della McDuffie, who was wheelchair-bound, could not escape.

Fearing for the safety of her child, Hayes ran from Della’s side and hid in the McDuffie’s living quarters above the café. The mother would later testify to investigators that she saw Jenkins entering the café with a blackjack in his hand and heard the shooting from her hiding place.

Della McDuffie's death certificate says she died from cerebral hemorrhaging with an antecedent cause. Courtesy of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive.https://crrjarchive.org/documents/m040dq80c
Della McDuffie's death certificate says she died from cerebral hemorrhaging. Courtesy of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive: https://crrjarchive.org/documents/m040dq80c

Read more about Della McDuffie’s 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.

After the attack, Will McDuffie approached his wife and found her dazed, her left arm limp. In his affidavit later given to investigators – now preserved in the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive — he said he observed blood close to her right ear.

Mrs. McDuffie was carried into her bedroom, where she told her husband she had been hit. Will McDuffie recalled asking his wife, “Sure Mr. Lummie didn’t hit you?” She confirmed that he had. Della McDuffie told her husband that Jenkins ordered her to stand up and when she was unable to comply he had struck her.

Della McDuffie died shortly after the beating in the early hours of April 26, 1953.

Despite witnesses to her injuries, there was no autopsy and Della McDuffie’s death certificate states she died from a pre-existing blood condition.

Will McDuffie took his wife’s case to the NAACP and spoke with the well-known Mobile branch secretary, John LeFlore. LeFlore helped Mr. McDuffie prepare an affidavit which was given to Attorney Thurgood Marshall.

Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP, forwarded Mr. McDuffie’s affidavit to the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and requested an official investigation, which the DOJ subsequently conducted with the help of the FBI.

Two FBI Special Agents interviewed witnesses and those involved with the incident, including the McDuffie family, the director of the funeral home where Della McDuffie’s body was examined, Sheriff Jenkins, and Alabama Highway Patrolman Don Kimbro.

No-one admitted to witnessing the sheriff strike Della McDuffie. According to her husband, one patron told him he saw Jenkins hit his wife, but when interviewed by FBI agents this witness refused to confirm what he had seen.

Witnesses were reluctant to testify against Sheriff Jenkins, who had a reputation for brutality against Black Wilcox County residents. The FBI investigators were most likely accompanied in interviews by local law enforcement officers, who could be expected to pass on the witnesses’ statements to Jenkins. Fearing intimidation and retribution, many witnesses remained silent.

In September 1953, FBI agents informed Thurgood Marshall that in their view there were no civil rights violations in Della McDuffie’s case. The letter stated, “Our investigation does not indicate that Mrs. McDuffie met her death as a result of being struck or mistreated by any law enforcement officer.”

Letter to Thurgood Marshall, form the Assistant Attorney General, September 25, 1953. Courtesy of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive: https://crrjarchive.org/documents/4f17tr16p
Letter to Thurgood Marshall, from the Assistant Attorney General, September 25, 1953. Courtesy of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive: https://crrjarchive.org/documents/4f17tr16p

Neither the federal government nor the state initiated a prosecution in Della McDuffie’s case. Sheriff Jenkins continued to serve as the Sheriff of Wilcox County until 1971.

On May 11, 1954, a little over a year after his wife’s death, Will McDuffie’s body was discovered by his grandchildren, drenched and lying in the back doorway of his home. His grandson suspected that his grandfather had been drowned. The cause of Will McDuffie’s suspicious death is listed as cerebral hemorrhaging, just as Della’s death certificate states. The same doctor authored both reports.

A year after his father’s death, James McDuffie, his wife Fannie and their children fled Alabama and moved to New York. In the weeks leading up to this move, law enforcement officers visited his home, and James McDuffie disappeared for several days. Upon his return he refused to speak of what happened to cause him to disappear. The family fled in the middle of the night, leaving behind land, businesses, and their family home.

Della McDuffie is one of many Black women who died as a result of racist violence in the Jim Crow South. The injustices she endured not only took a wife, mother and grandmother on that day in 1953, but it robbed the McDuffie family of the generational wealth they were successfully building.

This Women’s History Month, we honor Della McDuffie by retelling her story and in doing so, lift up the many untold stories of Black women throughout history.

Will McDuffie's grandchildren suspected he had been drowned. Death certificate, courtesy of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive.
Will McDuffie's grandchildren suspected he had been drowned. Death certificate, courtesy of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive. https://crrjarchive.org/documents/4f17gf120

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