By Susan Klopfer
Two granddaughters of a killed civil rights activist want to see the FBI take a second look at what really happened to their grandmother back in 1966.
As soon as the agency agrees to take a first look.
To date, the U.S. Justice Dept. has refused to revisit the deaths of Adlena Hamlett and her friend, Birdia Keglar, as part of the FBI’s cold case initiative. A young, white “eye-witness” who admits he was asleep when the accident took place, still told officials the two women were killed on impact.
Recently, a Northeastern University law student investigating the cold case potential for the murder of both women agreed with the witness and concluded the car wreck was an accident and informed members of both families as such. She based her decision on the eye-witness statement.
“We disagree,” says Zachery-Black, Hamlett’s granddaughter who is a teacher in Minneapolis.
“So, I guess it is up to us to just keep trying to find out what happened to our grandmother — even if the FBI doesn’t care.”
Zachary-Black said she recently received a message from the FBI office she contacted in Minneapolis, Minn., to request the deaths be given cold case status. “I was told the families should have called the police when it happened.”
Zachery-Black said she was not going to respond to a comment so ludicrous.
“That’s just simply ridiculous. I thought the FBI was going to work hard on these cold cases. That’s a lame excuse for doing nothing.”
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Burnett Hollis Patton, 77, still recalls the day of her grandmother’s funeral back in January of 1966. Patton and her family made the drive to Charleston, Miss. from Indianapolis. While her parents, Henry and Mabel Hollis, were frightened to return to the Delta, they also believed in showing respect for the relative who taught them the importance of voting.
“My grandmother, Adlena, was very close to my father. She would write to him and remind him to be sure and vote before every election. She was a very bright woman and believed in the power of voting.” Patton says.
Patton was born in Scobey but with her family moved to Arkansas when she was a baby. That didn’t mean family ties were broken, even after the family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana in the 1950s.
There were still family visits and once Patton lived with her grandmother for the school year, attending the one-room country school house for grades 1-8 where her grandmother was the sole teacher.
“She was kind and generous and everyone loved her. She was very well known around Mississippi, from Jackson to Charleston. She was always willing to help someone else.”
When the family heard of Adlena Hamlett’s death, they were hesitant to return to Mississippi, but did so out of love for Hamlett. The grandmother Patton describes as “medium sized” “…and loved to cook” was well-known for her civil rights activities and by the time the word of her death reached Indianapolis, “we all knew something bad happened.”
When the family arrived in Charleston for the services, “…the woman at the funeral home tried to make us think this wasn’t a murder. We knew she was lying. But we were so afraid our father would get out of control because of his anger, we were quiet and didn’t question anything.”
“My dad was a sharecropper. He loved his mother and was very close to her.”
Adlena Hamlett’s first husband, Henry Hollis, had left Mississippi when his children were babies. “My dad never knew him. But he was close to my grandmother’s husband, Berry Hamlett.”
“We were always afraid for my grandmother. She had worked on civil rights issues for many years. My parents told her they feared for her life but she continued to work on what she was trying to achieve and that’s what led to her death.”
Patton describes the funeral as very sad. “I remember it was open casket. They tried to make it seem like it was an accident. But we knew better.”
“At the time it happened, everyone down there in Mississippi was scared. They didn’t want to talk openly about it because they knew they would be beaten up and harassed. Everyone was scared to death and we were scared and nervous on our way down there and all the time we were in Mississippi.
“We knew if my dad found out who was involved, he would have created a big scene. No one would talk to us. They were afraid that he might cause problems and get everyone killed.”
But people who knew Adlena Hamlett did talk to relatives privately. “They talked to my daddy. I don’t know what they said — it was too long ago. But I know they told him it was not an accident.”
Back in those days and times, everything was hush-hush, Patton said.
“If you asked for help from the police, they would have tried to kill you. You didn’t have any rights. If they though we were trying to investigate, we would have paid with our lives.”
If anyone tried to scare her grandmother into passivity, she would like them back in the eye and say, “… if so, so be it.”
“That’s the way she was and it’s why we loved her so much.”
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Forty-four years ago, Adlena Hamlett and Birdia Keglar were killed in the early evening hours of Jan. 12, 1966, outside of Greenwood, Miss. in a suspicious car wreck. Birdia Beatrice Clark Keglar, 58, a voting rights activist, was involved with forming a local NAACP chapter in Tallahatchie County. Keglar was the first black person to vote in Tallahatchie County since the end of Reconstruction. Several months earlier, Hamlett, a long-time voting rights advocate, was earlier hanged in effigy for her activities.
Their car was reportedly forced off the road in Sidon, a small town near Greenwood in Leflore County, as they returned from a civil rights meeting in Jackson, said Robert Keglar, who was first told about his mother’s death by a close friend who claimed to have witnessed the accident.
This was not the first time they had been chased, one of the driver’s relatives said. A friend of Robert Keglar confirmed earlier car chases, too. And so did the wife of Grafton Gray, the driver.
Keglar said the local district attorney visited his Charleston home that night to tell him of the accident. The prosecutor said a drunk driver had hit their car, forcing it from the road and killing both women. The prosecutor also warned Keglar to stay home and not go to the accident scene. But, despite this warning, Keglar immediately went to the site, a small town known quite well for Klan activities.
Keglar said he was interviewed several times in 2009 by the FBI. He said agents told him they would not open his mother’s death as a cold case because she died from injuries received in an auto accident. They had no answers to offer regarding the death of his brother, James “Sonny Boy” Keglar, who died three months later.
Keglar said he is not satisfied with what he was told and believes that is mother and brother were victims of a crime.
Three months after his mother died in the wreck, Birdia Keglar’s youngest son, James or “Sonny Boy” died in a mysterious fire when his home burned down. Reportedly, he was three months into a personal investigation of his mother’s death and, according to Robert Keglar, FBI representatives still claim there are no files on James Keglar.
Relatives of both Keglar and Hamlett believe there was definite evidence of foul play. Both women had been subjected to bullying and harassment because of their civil rights activities.
Nina Zachary-Black asserts the murder of her grandmother, Adlena Hamlett, could have been prompted by her own father’s well-known hatred of the late U.S. Senator James O. Eastland and her father’s political activism, as well.
“When he [James Black, a school principal] heard about Adlena’s murder, my father wept and said that Eastland had finally gotten to him by murdering Adlena. My father often collided with the senator, who was a noted racist.”
Zachery-Black said her father tried hard to get someone to go to the site but by the time her grandfather, Barry Hamlett, got to the scene, everything was cleaned up. Officers used hoses, her grandfather said, adding there was nothing left to see.
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