Felix Hall, a Soldier Lynched at Fort Benning, Is Remembered After 80 Years

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No one was ever charged in his death in 1941. This month, a memorial was dedicated in Georgia — and a historian finally found a photograph of the young soldier.

A plaque at Fort Benning in Georgia was dedicated to Felix Hall this month.
Credit...Matthew Odom for The New York Times

Aug. 20, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ET

Felix Hall joined the Army in 1940, just as the United States was emerging from the Great Depression and on the verge of deploying millions of troops to fight in World War II.

Private Hall, a Black teenager from Alabama, was stationed at Fort Benning, a segregated base just across the state line in Georgia. But instead of fighting overseas, he lost his life on American soil. He was hanged at Fort Benning in February 1941, when he was 19.

This month — more than eight decades after Private Hall’s death — a plaque at Fort Benning was dedicated in his memory. But major details about his death remain unclear. Officials have been accused of failing to fully investigate what happened, and no one was ever charged.

“The sad thing to me is that this was 80 years ago, but things like that are still happening today,” said Nancy Cooks, Private Hall’s first cousin, who was a baby when he died.

Representative Sanford D. Bishop Jr., a Georgia Democrat, said efforts to erect the plaque began last year amid widespread protests against racism after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Mr. Bishop said that he and a former staff member, Lauren Hughes, dug into what happened to Private Hall after a constituent asked about it. They ultimately worked with Army officials to unveil the marker at Fort Benning in a ceremony on Aug. 3.

“It is important that more people know about Pvt. Hall, and that his lynching was investigated by the F.B.I.,” Mr. Bishop said in a statement. “But the perpetrators were never brought to justice.”

There was another new development this month — new, at least, to modern researchers, who had seen gruesome photographs of Private Hall’s body but never his face. A local historian who had been interested in the case for years revisited old news clippings and found a photograph of the young soldier in a 1941 newspaper.

The historian, Dave Gillarm Jr., had searched for photographs of the private in military documents and newspapers that had been published during his life. But just hours after the ceremony at Fort Benning, it occurred to him that news outlets would have been far more likely to publish photographs of Private Hall after he was found dead in March 1941.

“When he was lynched, it became national news,” Mr. Gillarm said. “So I had to shift and start looking for him after he died.”

He found what he was looking for in an online database. The third page of an 80-year-old issue of The Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally circulated Black newspaper, carried a black-and-white photograph of a young man in his Army cap and tie, looking into the camera.

“His Death a Mystery,” the headline said.

Image

Credit...The Pittsburgh Courier, via Dave Gillarm Jr.

According to research compiled by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law, the private was last seen alive in a white neighborhood at Fort Benning on Feb. 12, 1941. Then he seemed to disappear for weeks — F.B.I. records suggest that Army officials did not look for him — and was declared a deserter.

But on March 28, 1941, some soldiers found his body in a wooded area, tied to a sapling and hanging against the edge of a ravine. A pile of soil under his shoes suggested that in his final moments, Private Hall had been trying to use his feet to claw his way up, to breathe.

Although the death certificate said he died of homicide, some military officials claimed that he might have taken his own life. F.B.I. reports about the investigation, many of which are still significantly redacted, suggest that some avenues of inquiry in the case were not pursued — including investigations into possible suspects — despite pressure from journalists, civilians and the N.A.A.C.P.

One F.B.I. agent wrote in 1941 that the bad publicity surrounding the case had been caused by “the misstatement of facts by the Communists.”

As recently as this month, the F.B.I. declined a request under the Freedom of Information Act to review and lift redactions throughout the reports, responding that the records in question “do not qualify for reprocessing.”

Questions about the death have persisted for 80 years, prompting the research at Northeastern, a 2016 investigation by The Washington Post and other coverage in multiple news outlets.

Private Hall was a member of the 24th Infantry, a regiment of Black Army soldiers who have also been referred to as Buffalo soldiers.

The 24th — or “deuce-four,” as it is sometimes called — was formed after the Civil War, as were other Black regiments like the 9th and 10th Calvaries that were deployed along the Western frontier of the United States.

The 24th regiment also served in the West. But its legacy suffered after an outbreak of violence on the eve of United States involvement in World War I, when about 150 soldiers, reacting to racism, segregation and police violence in Houston, participated in an uprising there that resulted in the deaths of civilians, police officers and soldiers from the 24th. Some members of the regiment were later executed.

In later years, soldiers of the 24th regiment would serve in the South Pacific during World War II, including Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands and the Kerama Islands near Okinawa. They also fought in several major Korean War battles, including Inchon and the Pusan Perimeter. The 24th was dissolved in 1951 but reconstituted in 1995, no longer a Black regiment.

“The deuce-four — regardless of all the hard stuff they went through — they accomplished something that’s just remarkable in my eyes,” said Darrel Nash, the historian for the regiment.

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Credit...Matthew Odom for The New York Times

For Mr. Gillarm, a historian for a Masonic lodge in Georgia and an Army veteran, researching the death of Private Hall and other lynchings from that era has been a way to cope with post-traumatic stress after two deployments to Iraq.

“This is my outlet: research,” he said. “It helps clear my mind, to research and to be able to present these stories that have been forgotten about.”

Now, his work has given a face to Felix Hall’s name. Though she has no memory of him from when he was alive, Ms. Cooks, his cousin, said the picture brought tears to her eyes. She could see that he was family — his eyes and nose reminded her of her own brothers.

“They don’t know who killed him,” she added. “That’s the sad part.”

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