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New Article: The Legacy of a Murder

My latest article, about the 1959 racial murder of Samuel O'Quinn in Centreville , MS, was published today in Colorlines Magazine. The article is not yet available online, so here's a teaser for you until I have a link to the whole thing.

The Legacy of a Murder

Racial killings from the civil rights era still haunt families and the country.
By Benjamin Greenberg
Colorlines Magazine (March/April 2008)

"I heard a scream, and I said, 'That's Mother, that's Mother.' And we all started running to look." It was August 14, 1959, near midnight, in Centreville, Mississippi. Laura O'Quinn Smith, then 33, and her brother Clarence, then 32, rushed from the house and found their father, Samuel O'Quinn, shot in the back outside of the front gate of Whitaker Plantation, the 235-acre family land.

Clarence got his mother and wounded father back into the car and drove to the Field Memorial Community Hospital. Samuel O'Quinn died en route, in the arms of his wife, Ida. He was 58 years old and the father of 11 children. No one has ever been charged with the crime.

Today, Laura and Clarence, now ages 81 and 80, are living in Springfield, Massachusetts, along with two other siblings, Phalba and Rance. They are one of numerous families who are still waiting for justice in racial murders from the civil rights era. "It would give closure for us," said Phalba O'Quinn Plummer, who is now 71. "It would really help a lot for all of us to know what happened."

The FBI is currently reviewing approximately 100 cases that it may reopen; 84 of the victims have been named, and of those, 34 are from Mississippi. The true number of unresolved cases, however, is unknown. A review of a relatively narrow set of FBI and state documents found references to at least seven murders in Mississippi that are not on the published FBI list.

The lack of justice for Samuel O'Quinn and other Blacks murdered during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s is the haunting background for current events that every so often lay bare the broken promises of a supposedly post-civil rights society: the double standard of justice meted out to the Jena 6; the vast numbers of people, overwhelmingly Black, treated as disposable during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; the Klan-like torture and rape of Megan Williams.

Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act (known as the "Till Bill"), which would allocate $13.5 million annually for a special FBI office and Civil Rights Division unit to investigate civil rights-era crimes in coordination with local and state authorities. The Till Bill passed the House in June, but Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma placed a hold on the bill, keeping it stuck in the Senate through at least the winter recess.
• • •

The O'Quinns were a prosperous Black family in 1950's Mississippi. A graduate of the Tuskegee Institute, Samuel O'Quinn was a certified plumber, electrician and carpenter. After working as the assistant town engineer and as the only plumber in Centreville, he opened O'Quinn's Café with his wife, Ida, in 1937. He also owned and operated 33 jukeboxes throughout southwest Mississippi.

In the mid-1940s, O'Quinn obtained his mortician's license and opened a funeral home. He sold the jukebox routes and invested in real estate. The O'Quinns owned most of the properties in the Quarters, which was lowincome housing for Blacks and essentially the ghetto of the small rural town of 1,200 people. They bought the Whitaker Plantation on Highway 33 in the late 1940s and farmed the land, raising and selling peppers, soy beans and cotton.

On Sundays, O'Quinn went from one church to another selling burial policies, which a person could pay into and eventually meet the cost of his or her own burial. During these visits, he also organized benevolent associations, community groups that together paid into a fund for community members when they were in need.

"It was kind of a self-help group," explained Rance O'Quinn, one of Samuel O'Quinn's sons, now 70, "but they later grew, and every time you organize people, others get suspicious."

The O’Quinns were, in fact, as well-to-do as anyone in Centreville, Black or white. The 11 O’Quinn children never had to work for whites, which was most unusual and an affront to the white supremacist mentality of the time.

On August 14, 1959, Samuel O’Quinn picked up his wife at their café, just off Main Street, as he did every night at 11:00 pm. That night, their 7-year-old son, Roy, was with Ida at the café. On the ride home, Roy stood between his parents on the front seat. As usual, O’Quinn stopped, got out of the car to open their front gate and then drove the car in. He was shot when he got back out of the car to shut the gate.

(Photo: Samuel O'Quinn, early 1950s. Courtesy of Rance O'Quinn.)

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • davidoquinn76 May 4, 2010, 1:56 am

    If you read the book “Coming of Age in Mississippi” by Anne Moody she has an account of the shooting. She grew up in Centreville with my family. I'm David, son of Sam & Ida's youngest daughter Denise. It's definitely heartbreaking that I never met my grandfather, but reading how much he contributed to his family and the community (black and white) is comforting!

  • Ben May 4, 2010, 2:10 am

    David, thank you for leaving your comment. I'm honored to have you here on this site. I know Anne Moody's book well; I'm glad you mention it. As you may know, Anne Moody's uncle, Clifton Walker, was also murdered, 5 years after your grandfather, just outside of Woodville. I am investigating the Clifton Walker murder, too. If you haven't already found the full article that I wrote about your grandfather's murder elsewhere on my site, here is a link you can use to download it: http://hungryblues.net/docs/BGreenberg_LegacyOf… As you will see, I interviewed your four aunts and uncles who are living in Springfield, MA. I'm also in touch with your cousins, Lavalle and Bea. If you'd like to be further in touch, please drop me a line at minorjive [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • davidoquinn76 May 4, 2010, 2:14 am

    Amazing. Thanks Ben! I am also going to send this link to my mom. She was in the car when he was shot and about 5 at the time so I know she doesn't remember much about the shooting, but she always talks about their life after and growing up on the farm. Thank you so much for this article and we will DEFINITELY be in touch.

  • Patricia August 7, 2010, 5:09 am

    I am Patricia, one of Sam O'Quinn's grandchildren. My late mother, Dorothy O'Quinn Brightmon was one of the older daughters who lived and died in New Orleans, LA. I shared this article with my sister, brother, neices and co-workers. My cousin LaValle was the one who told me about the article. Thank you so much for caring.

  • Ben August 13, 2010, 5:18 am

    Patricia, Thank you for your comment. I'm pleased to know that you and your family members have read the article

  • N_irvin August 18, 2010, 5:09 pm

    Hi Patricia,rnrnI tried to respond to your are you’re cousin David. My grandfather migrated to CA in the early 1960’s form Mississippi. We know little about my grandfathers family. His name was J.B. Oquinn he died in thernmid 1980s. If we are related I think this would be your grandfather’s son or nephew. I look at your grandfathers picutres and he favors my grandfather. Have you guys heard of any your parents on any lost brother or uncle. n_irvin@hotmail.com

  • Sylvia Kittrell February 4, 2011, 1:03 am

    Wow! What a shame? Many of our grandparents were killed for no reason but racial hate. There was no justice then for the black man and I find no real justice today either. There is white justice, black justice and ohers justice. Will it ever be equal? My heart goes out to you and your family. Today it’s a little different, we are murdered by jailing, drugs, drive bys, and the inability to find or get a job whether educated or not. We are racial profiled at every end of he stick. The killers are not dressed like the KKK or the good ole boys. They wear suit and ties, they sit in high places in diguises. When will we have the justice we are due? When will we be judged for our contributions and not the color of our skins? May God give you peace and his justice to the coward who killed your grandfather. Peace and Love to you!nSylvia

  • robert otkins February 20, 2012, 12:38 pm

    Thank you so very much for your article on my grandfather. I am Robert son of Phalba,it is nice to know that he did not die without everyone knowing the good he did for everyone+

  • Robert Otkins February 21, 2012, 1:10 am

    I am Robert son of Phalba it is very refreshing to read about such a great man and then an honor to be related to such a pioneer. He was so far ahead of the times that his own kindness and trust for everyone ended up costing him his life. It is nice to see that people did not forget him, because his murder was not investigated to the full extinct of any law. So thanks and to my cousin David O’Quinn good to see that we all think alike. I guess it comes from the greatest man in our lives second only to GOD and that’s Mr. Samuel O’Quinn.

  • Ben February 21, 2012, 5:14 am

    Thank you for your comment, Robert. So pleased to know you’ve found the article. Did you find the link above, in my reply to your cousin David, to download the full piece? It means a lot to me to hear from you and other members of your family.u00a0

  • Guest October 4, 2012, 3:48 pm

    I am Clarence W. plummer, son Of Phalba O’Quinn Plummer. This article is a insight to the hardship and segregation of what Black families endured growing in the South. Myself now having 2 children, one 8 the other 9, both of them half Spanish and half black. It is interesting to see how the past can become diluted with so much history then forgotten. This article is truly a blessing, and I am very appreciative that this article tells the story of my Grandfather’s murder and how OUR U.S government sweeps these tragedies under the rug and then forgotten. I truly love my family’s lineage and rich culture, and I thank you for creating this article to keep my Grandfather’s memory alive. Thank you so much Ben…

  • Ben October 4, 2012, 4:06 pm

    Clarence, thank you for your comment! It means a great deal to me to hear from you and others in your family. I hope that I have done some justice to your grandfather’s legacy. I am also the father of 9 year old son, so I can relate to the need to convey this history and our parents’ legacies to our children.

  • Dannette Supermompreneur Henry October 23, 2012, 4:55 pm

    So Love this article! I am the the granddaughter of Samuel O’Quinn. It is good to see that his murder has not been forgotten!

  • Arlean Edwards July 9, 2016, 11:02 am

    I am the first grand child of Sam O’Quinn. My late Dorothy O’Quinn was the first born of six children. I was 5 years old when my grand father was taken from me. For years I was haunted by how he was killed as well as to why people can hate to the extent that his life just didn’t matter. I am a radio/tv broadcaster and appreciate your telling my grand-father’s story.

    Arlean J. Edwards, Creator/Host
    The Talking It Up Show

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