Tara Dunn, Henry “Peg” Gilbert and a Southern Family’s Secrets

When Tara Dunn (NUSL ’17) graduated from the Air Force Academy and applied to law school she was one step closer to realizing a childhood dream.

“My mom found the letter that I wrote in fifth-grade saying that I wanted to be a civil rights attorney,” Dunn told CRRJ in a recent interview. “I doubt I even knew what that was back then.”

What Dunn, now a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Angel Kelley, did not foresee was the enduring bond she would build with a southern community rocked by the murder of a church deacon almost 80 years ago.

“I would continue to do whatever I need to do for that case because it’s something that doesn’t end and I don’t want it to end,” she said. “The more exposure the story gets, the more opportunities there are for the family to get some resolve.”

Dunn’s journey into this family’s hidden history began when she joined the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project in 2015, and was handed a slim folder that contained brief reports from African American newspapers about the death of Henry “Peg” Gilbert.

In 1947, Gilbert — a prosperous farmer and community leader, father of four daughters and church deacon at Union Springs Baptist Church in Jones Crossroads, Georgia — was alleged to have aided in the escape of a man who killed a white farmer. He was detained in the county jail for what authorities thought was his role in the getaway of Gus Davidson. Davidson was accused of shooting the farmer, Olin Sands, following an altercation concerning a cow that belonged to Sands and that Davidson had accidentally killed with his vehicle.

Two weeks after Sands’ death, officers from Harris County, including Police Chief W.H. Buchanan, arrested Gilbert and took him to the county jail. Buchanan claimed that Gilbert attacked him in jail and the police chief had fired shots in self-defense.

“That was all I knew about him,” said Dunn.

After Google, Dunn turned her search for information about Gilbert’s death to ancestry.com. “I started picking through family trees and, on one tree, something that popped up was his nickname,” she said. “I thought this had got to be something.”

Dunn reached out to the creator of the family tree through ancestry.com. She relayed some case details and asked if they were related to the Gilbert.

The creator was indeed a relative “and then it just went from there,” said Dunn. “It blew up into something pretty amazing after that.”

Read more about Gilbert’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.

Dunn built connections with Gilbert’s descendants, requested governmental records pertaining to the case, and constructed a timeline of facts. But what she really needed to fill in the missing details was an interview with Gilbert’s surviving daughters, Recie and Mattie Gilbert.

“It took a while to be able to speak to relatives who actually knew something,” she said.

Initially, the daughters were hesitant to speak with Dunn. “The majority of the family had never heard about what had happened to Henry because the daughters were traumatized and they didn’t want to talk about it. They were embarrassed,” explained Dunn. “Their father as murdered and they were run out of town, and before all of that happened they were the beacon of the community.”

The Gilberts were prosperous, well-respected and well-liked within their close-knit, rural community. “It was embarrassing to the girls who, as children, never understood why their father was arrested, and why later their mother too was arrested.”

A family photo of Henry Gilbert, courtesy of the Burnham Nobles Digital Archive: https://crrjarchive.org/people/451
Mae Gilbert, Henry "Peg" Gilbert's wife, was arrested after his murder.

Shortly after Henry Gilbert’s funeral, Mae Henry Gilbert, his wife, was taken into custody on the same charge as her late husband. A white attorney, Dan Duke, represented Mrs. Gilbert and she was eventually released without charge.

Once Gilbert’s daughters completed their own research on CRRJ, the clinic and Professor Burnham, they agreed to communicate directly with Dunn. She then travelled to Georgia to meet them, with fellow law student Ariel Kong (NUSL ‘17) and a Northeastern journalism student.

“The first thing we had to do was drive this yellow Volkswagen bug to the middle of nowhere,” said Dunn, who described the group as a “rag-tag team driving in the middle of nowhere on the border of Alabama and Georgia.”

“We went to this very traditional southern Black church,” said Dunn. “They invited us to this reunion. It was a potluck, with collard greens and amazing southern food.”

They interviewed some church-goers and set up further conversations to be conducted during the trip.

When she finally got to speak face-to-face with Recie and Mattie Gilbert “we took a stroll with them and they showed us where their father was buried,” said Dunn. “They showed us where the calf was and where the altercation happened.” They spoke about their childhood and the happier memories of their father.

After the church visit, Dunn viewed documents, requested ahead of the fact-finding trip, at the local archive. “We were tracking down all of that information, which was incredibly powerful, blowing the dust off of these records and trying to follow signatures on the transfer of land,” said Dunn.

Following his murder, Gilbert’s 111 acres of land was divided and sold, largely to the widow of the slain farmer, Sands.

In 2015, Tara Dunn and Go Eun Lee spent several days in Troup and Harris counties in Georgia investigating a 1947 jailhouse killing of a prominent farmer, Henry “Peg” Gilbert.

Then, Professor Burnham joined the team in Georgia to conduct a formal interview with Gilbert’s daughters.

“That interview was very emotional,” said Dunn. Recie and Mattie were there, along with their grandson, and they showed the group albums of photographs. “It was difficult for Recie to relive all of those painful things that she hadn’t talked about in years,” said Dunn. Her grandson had never heard any of the stories shared that day. “It was amazing, but it was also emotionally exhausting,” she said.

Dunn returned to Georgia on a few more occasions. “It wasn’t always a welcoming situation,” she said, as she and the investigating team were often perceived as “meddling outsiders.”

“Each trip was fulfilling in a different way,” she said. “I’m hopeful but I don’t think I’ll ever have an experience that was more impactful than that.”

In 2017 the team’s interviews, video footage and materials were pieced together to create the documentary, The Lynching of Henry Peg Gilbert, which aired on television stations across the country and has been streamed by millions since its release on Hulu in 2020.

On her second trip, Dunn was invited to a family reunion to watch the film with the family. “That was very difficult for the family,” she said. “A part of me wished that I wasn’t there. This should have been a moment for just the family, but I think seeing everything together, the two daughters who were still alive finally understood what the point of all of this was. It was really powerful.”

Dunn continued working on the case through an independent study with Professor Burnham, and beyond graduation. She now serves on the CRRJ advisory board, which is comprised of several graduates of the program.

“It’s not this outdated story,” said Dunn. “It very much provides the context and the history that schools are fighting to keep out and get rid of…

I’ll continue to work with the family – whatever they need from me. It’s very important work.

After graduating, Dunn took part in an honors fellowship at the Massachusetts’ Office of the Attorney General. As an assistant attorney general, Dunn spent two years rotating between three different divisions – environmental protection, civil trial and civil rights divisions. She then went on to pursue a career in criminal defense at a boutique litigation firm in Boston. Among her diverse case load, Dunn represented some of the parents charged as part of “Operation Varsity Blues,” the scandal involving parents of high school students who used bribery and fraud to illegally secure their children’s admission to top colleges and universities.

Her clerkship with Judge Kelley ends in September. Dunn said she is trying to find “the magical place where I can make a living in Boston and have a place that’s supportive of doing good work.”

She hopes to find a workplace that is supportive of both her personal principles and professional development. “Trying to talk to seniors from the Deep South, getting them to trust you and invite you into their home, that is a skill that I will need to continue to hone,” she said.

No matter where she goes, she will take the lessons and memories gleaned from her experience at CRRJ almost a decade ago. “When things get tough and I’m tired,” said Dunn, “I think about that case. I think about the kind of contribution, the difference I can make.”

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