Tina Washington can’t remember being told that white men lynched her granddaddy back in 1935. Somehow she’s always known. The crime echoed in her father’s character, in his watchfulness and distant love, in the yawning void left in place of memory. As a child, she tried to pry answers from her tight-lipped parents. “Where is my granddaddy?” she would ask. “I want to know my granddaddy.” Now, at 39, she asked different questions but mostly to herself. Would her father have gone to college if his daddy had lived? What did her granddaddy look like? What sparked his murder? Who were his people? She had no photos. Nothing.
But one hot and clear afternoon in September, a day before the 82nd anniversary of her paternal grandfather’s death, Washington sat in the back seat of her sister’s car ready to crack open her family’s painful history. Her father, E.W. Higginbottom, sat beside her in a white dress shirt and cuff links, and her sister and brother-in-law, Delois and Irven Wright, rode up front. Washington’s children — Trinity, Bailee and Rico — squabbled quietly in the S.U.V.’s third row.
They had left the suburbs outside Memphis, Tenn., and were headed south, past deep green woods and an old railway line, toward Oxford, Miss., where Washington’s grandfather lived and died. The family planned to meet there with staff members from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, a Mississippi nonprofit, and tour sites significant in her grandfather’s lynching: the county courthouse, the killing grounds and two graveyards where he might be buried.
Washington, who wore rectangular glasses and a sleek ponytail, teaches high school Spanish and possesses an educator’s enthusiasm for history. She has visited Tuskegee University and George Washington Carver’s birthplace. She has walked across the Selma bridge, where Alabama state troopers beat nonviolent voting rights activists in 1965, and traveled to Booker T. Washington’s grave. The broad sweep of black history has come easily; her black family’s experience remained frustratingly elusive. “I’ve kind of seen the house where my mama lived as a child,” she said a few days earlier. “It was built over, but I kind of know where it is. I can go there. But I don’t know any of my daddy’s history.”
Higginbottom was 4 when the mob came for his father. He is now 87, with eyes set in a perpetual glaucoma squint and the strong voice of a younger man.