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Recent graduate shines investigative light on 75-year-old civil rights cold case

09/20/16 - BOSTON, MA. Alexa Mills CAMD'16 poses for a portrait on Sept. 20, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Who killed Pvt. Felix Hall? It’s a mystery dating back to 1941, when the 19-year-old African American from Millbrook, Alabama, was lynched in the woods of Fort Benning, Georgia, strung up in a shallow ravine and left to die.

Now, thanks to the work of Alexa Mills, this 75-year-old cold case—America’s first known lynching on a U.S. military base—is finally getting the attention that it deserved some three-quarters of a century ago.

Mills, MA’16, dedicated more than a year of her life to piecing together the facts of the case as part of her course work in the School of Journalism’s Media Innovation program, which is designed to empower working journalists to become digital storytellers. She combed through thousands of pages of government files, conducted interviews with the victim’s descendants, and then wrote a 4000-word feature for The Washington Post, a front-page story that ran on Sept. 4 under the headline “A lynching kept out of sight.” “I was motivated to do everything I could to tell Felix Hall’s story,” Mills says.

It was emotionally difficult to write this story. It has no relief point.
— Alexa Mills, MA’16

Since the Post story ran, she has been busy, fielding inquiries from military historians and exploring fellowship opportunities that would enable her to report on other unsolved lynching cases. She wants to write a retrospective on her reporting experience for Storybench, a news site born in the offices of the Media Innovation program that offers an “under-the-hood” look at the latest and most inventive examples of digital journalism. “It was emotionally difficult to write this story,” she recalls. “It has no relief point.”

‘We needed the skills of a journalist’

Mills has a history of reporting on the forgotten killings of the Jim Crow era. In fall 2013, she enrolled in the School of Journalism’s graduate program and started working on a case involving the murder of three unarmed black World War II veterans who had been shot to death by three white streetcar operators in Atlanta in 1946.

The case was initially brought to the School of Journalism’s attention by the School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, an interdisciplinary initiative aimed at uncovering the truth behind racially motivated murders in the South between 1930 and 1970. Mills investigated the murders for months, reporting to Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalism professor Walter Robinson and sharing her findings with law professor Margaret Burnham, founding director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. When The Boston Globe published a story on the case, in December 2014, she was credited with contributing to the report.

Almost two years after she had begun working on the case—after she had taken an extended leave of absence from Northeastern and then enrolled in the Media Innovation program—Mills and Burnham met again. It was summer 2015. This time, Burnham asked Mills to join her Civil Rights and Restorative Justice seminar, which tasks each student with investigating a different Jim Crow era cold case. A law student named Zahava Stern, L’15, had spent a year working on the Hall case, going so far as to secure a 42-page portion of the FBI’s 130-page investigation file on the lynching, but she had exhausted all the legal avenues available to her and had hit a dead end.

Hall did everything he could to survive his lynching. As Mills puts it in the Post, "He des­per­ately scraped dirt loose from the ravine wall, trying to scoop out enough of the sienna-​​colored earth to build up a mound beneath his feet that he could stand on to take the strain from his neck." Photo by Sgt. Robert Templeton, Fort Benning Military Police Detachment/U.S. Army, Department of Veterans Affairs records.

Hall did everything he could to survive his lynching. As Mills puts it in the Post, “He des­per­ately scraped dirt loose from the ravine wall, trying to scoop out enough of the sienna-​​colored earth to build up a mound beneath his feet that he could stand on to take the strain from his neck.” Photo by Sgt. Robert Templeton, Fort Benning Military Police Detachment/U.S. Army, Department of Veterans Affairs records.

Burnham turned to Mills. “We had done as much as we could on the legal side,” Burnham explains. “Now we needed the skills of a journalist and I knew Alexa had those skills.” According to Burnham, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project is so good at getting to the bottom of segregation-era cold cases precisely because of the importance it places on the interdisciplinary collaboration between lawyers, activists, and journalists. As she puts it, “It is quite clear that journalists are essential to uncovering facts that had grown cold and getting the word out to the American public.”

Mills accepted the Hall case, eager to pick up where Stern had left off. But when she combed through the 42-page FBI file, its dearth of telling information left her reeling. She needed more—especially if she were to going to write a compelling story about Hall’s life, his death, and his murder suspects—so she contacted the FBI, requesting the file’s remaining 88 pages. She received all of them, including a “really rich” 68-page section that included the FBI’s interview with Sgt. Frank O. Williams, who had trained Hall for the possibility of fighting overseas. “Williams described Hall as a hardworking young kid,” Mills says, “an individual who had never missed a roll call in the morning.” As the FBI report states, “Sergeant Williams knew of no trouble in which Hall had been involved, and knew no one that disliked [the] victim.”

As she continued reading through the 75-year-old report, key sections of which have remained redacted to this day, two other things stuck out: Although Fort Benning authorities told the public that they were investigating the possibility that Hall’s death was a suicide, the file revealed that he had done everything he could to survive the lynching. As Mills puts it in the Post, “Hall succeeded in kicking loose his legs and freeing his left hand. Then, while he still had breath, he desperately scraped dirt loose from the ravine wall, trying to scoop out enough of the sienna-colored earth to build up a mound beneath his feet that he could stand on to take the strain from his neck.” The report also shed light on three potential suspects. One of them was Hall’s boss, Henry J. Smith, the white foreman at the Fort Benning sawmill where Hall had been assigned. According to five black soldiers who spoke to investigators, Smith had allegedly threatened to kill Hall the day before he went missing.

Finding Mr. Fenderson

Mills saw a story here, one that resonated amid today’s racially charged climate. After her Civil Rights and Restorative Justice seminar ended in August 2015, she continued to pursue the case through the Media Innovation program, where she had the freedom to focus on this one big assignment. “Northeastern supports investigative journalism and teaches you how to dig for information,” she says. “The other students in the program weren’t all interested in longform journalism,” she notes, “but I was able to learn a great deal from them in terms of sticking with a project.”

Throughout the next several months, Mills secured thousands of pages of crucial documents, including a War Department report and a 500-page file maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs. It wasn’t easy, not by a long shot. “I failed more times than I succeeded,” she explains. “For every file I managed to get, there were two or three or four times as many failed attempts to get something that I was denied or didn’t exist.”

Mills spent months tracking down the last living relative who knew Hall, a first cousin named James Fenderson who was just 6 years old when Hall died. She documented her search for the family of the murdered soldier in a story for Medium, an online publishing platform developed by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. “I was very nervous before the interview,” Mills recalls. “I had performance anxiety and [was concerned] that I would probably only have one chance.” When she finally met him at his home in Millbrook, Fenderson, now 80, explained that he had lived most of his adult life in New York City. As Mills notes in the Medium piece, “He had fled the South as a teenager, largely out of fear of lynching. But his conclusion, after 26 years in New York, was that his two homes were equally racist.” When she asked him what Hall had been like when he was alive, he recalled that he was always running around, full of vim and vigor. He also happened to know that Hall had been known for flirting across the color line, a practice that could get a black man lynched in the 1940s South.

In her reporting, Mills left no stone unturned. “She went down lots of rabbit holes,” says Dina Kraft, coordinator of the Media Innovation program, “but she was dedicated to getting every bit of this story together.” Burnham praised Mill’s Post piece, calling it the perfect embodiment of the Civil Right and Restorative Justice Project’s mission. “The Hall article puts all the material together for the first time and makes clear that the government has not been fully transparent,” she says. “Alexa is the consummate journalist.” Mills, for her part, knows that there are many more Pvt. Felix Hall’s out there, innocent black men and women who the justice system has failed. “I think the American public has to deal with the truth of any number of race crimes,” she says. “Hall’s is one, but there are many more that deserve just as much attention.”