Nina Zachery-Black, 73, is sitting home alone today in Minneapolis-St. Paul, admittedly frustrated over the lack of help she’s received from the FBI in trying to find out what happened to her grandmother.
Forty-four years ago, Adlena Hamlett and Hamlett’s friend, Birdia Keglar, were both killed after their car was hit head-on by a drunk driver in Sidon, Mississippi. The women were on their way home from a civil rights-related meeting in Jackson.
Family members of both women reported seeing “something very wrong” at the funeral home when it appeared the women’s body parts had been severed.
“The first woman I spoke with at the Minneapolis FBI office was sympathetic but she didn’t know much at all about what the times were like when my grandmother was living in Charleston, Miss. She had no idea of how frightened people were then — and even now — to talk about this incident and everything else they faced when they tried to vote or went up against Jim Crow,” she said.
But Zachery-Black started to believe the FBI might actually take some interest in her grandmother and Keglar when they called her again last week and said they were going to transfer and reinvestigate this case in Jackson, after all, as a cold case.
The second call from the FBI came after Zachery-Black contacted her freshman senator, Al Franken, and complained how the first agent told her the cold case happened too long ago to investigate and would have had to occur on federal land.
Stunned at this explanation, Zachary-Black says she recorded the agent’s later phone message that repeated the message and even chided her because the family didn’t call the police and complain at the time of the deaths.
Other family members actually wrote a letter to the U.S. Dept. of Justice over their concerns back in 1966 but received no answer, she confirms.
Hamlett and Keglar, the former a school teacher and the later a funeral home business manager, were known around Charleston, Mississippi for their brave acts as they first tried to integrate the public schools in the early 1950s. Achieving little success, they moved on to voting rights.
“They had to be very brave women. When anyone showed concern about their safety, my grandmother would say she had reared her own children and her grandchildren were of an age they could move on without her. She knew that she might very well be killed for what she was doing.”
Hamlett’s daughter, Louise McKinley, would often call her mother and beg her to leave Mississippi, fearing her imminent death. But her mother remained firm. “She would tell us, this is my home and my life and I’m not going to leave. I am going to do what I can to make things better.”
Keglar was working to form the first NAACP chapter for Tallahatchie County at the time of her death and was chosen to work with John Doar and the Justice Department on Doar’s first Mississippi voter registration test case — and they won.
It was Doar and U.S. Marshals who escorted James Meredith to class at the University of Mississippi. Doar later contributed to drafting the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
According to Mississippi’s Sovereignty Commission files, the local prosecutor and sheriff were particularly angry with Keglar over her testimony. The Commission was a state agency funded to keep Mississippi segregated and was know to have close ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Later, it would be found that some deputy sheriff’s in Tallahatchie County also belonged to the Klan.
When the two women decided to work on voter rights, “…that’s when my grandmother was hanged in effigy.”
Despite the dangerous environment, Zachery-Black was allowed to spend summers in Charleston with her grandmother, with whom she had a close relationship. She recalls that her grandmother “…always marched up to the courthouse to vote in every national election. She was called ‘nigger Adlena’ and people would say ‘Here comes nigger Adlena to vote.’ They would tear up her ballot and put it in the garbage can.”
On one trip to the courthouse when she accompanied her grandmother,” They were poking fun at her and calling her names. I asked her why were they so mean and she said it was okay because one day her vote would be counted. She reminded me it was her constitutional right to vote.”
After the death of his mother, Birdia Keglar’s son James Keglar returned home from the military on early leave to investigate. Keglar told others he spoke with FBI agents in Clarksdale and said they gave him a special telephone number to call. Three months later, he was arrested and put into the Clarksdale jail. Keglar was apparently released around midnight and returned to Charleston where he was found dead the next morning when his house burned to the ground.
Where are the FBI records? One Keglar family member says she has repeatedly asked for this information, but to no avail.
As far as Zachery-Black is concerned, it’s going to take something much bigger than the FBI to learn what happened to her grandmother. “I want to know what happened and why before I die. I am nearing her age and I want an answer.”
The retired Minneapolis teacher, who recently taught classes of Somali children who were newly immigrated into the U.S., says she believes this country owes answers to her and all other families of victims, but concedes they may never come if it is up to the FBI to conduct investigations.
“I asked one agent if she knew about Sen. James O. Eastland, a powerful Delta senator who was tied to the Klan and had connections everywhere, including the Sovereignty Commission. She stopped for a moment, and said she thought she’d read something about him.”
Agents she has come in contact with are “too young” and “don’t seem to understand any civil rights history or how bad it was back in those days,” she asserts.
Zachery-Black also admits she sometimes toys with calling Oprah Winfrey. “At least I know she would care.”
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Again, check your spellings when you look for the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files. You will find Keglar and Kegler; Birdia, Birde, Bridie, Elizabeth and perhaps even more. I’ve never found single records on Adlena Hamlett.
Got to http://mdah.state.ms.us/ and choose Archives and Records Services. Select Digital Archives and then Sovereignty Commmission Online.
Here are a few files to get you started: