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A black family confronts a 70-year-old killing and a white man’s exoneration

The gravestone of Rayfield Davis. (Courtesy of Nichole Ulmer)

Nichole Ulmer had never heard the name before — Rayfield Davis. But Davis was her cousin. And she unknowingly had grown up playing in the Alabama ditch where his fatally beaten body had been found years earlier.

Ulmer’s family had never talked about the 1948 killing in her presence. It wasn’t until five years ago that the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project contacted Ulmer about the death of her cousin, who was black, and delivered a particularly unsettling bit of news: That a white man who confessed to killing Davis — according to news reports at the time — was still alive and still free.

“It was a shocker to me to learn about this killing,” Ulmer, 49, told The Washington Post. “I never had a clue.”

The incident is among hundreds of cases of racial violence that occurred between 1930 and 1970 that have been investigated by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law, according to project director Kaylie Simon. Most of these killings went without justice, Simon noted, and they often faded from collective memory because of lost records and passing time.

CRRJ’s mission is to keep these stories alive by creating memorials and alerting communities and families of a past that was lost to them. 

This month, the city of Mobile, Ala., will host an event to dedicate a street to Davis next to the ditch where his body was found. City Council member C.J. Small, who will lead the commemoration, told The Post in an email that “it’s important to [Davis’s] family, the community and for us all to face our past and always be rededicating ourselves to seeking justice.”

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Davis met Horace M. Miller one day in March 1948 after his shift had ended at Brookley Air Force Base, nearly six miles from downtown Mobile. Miller, then 20, told reporters that Davis, 53, invited him home for a drink. Miller, an airplane mechanic, refused, appalled that a “Negro” would suggest such a thing. He claimed that after his refusal, Davis, a janitor at the base, then went on a rant about racial equality and civil rights.

“President Truman is our good friend and he will give us our equal rights,” Davis said, according to Miller’s account to the Associated Press at the time. In 1948, Truman was courting black voters in his bid for reelection.

“This sort of talk kept making me madder,” Miller told the AP, admitting to hitting Davis with his hands. Miller said he intensified the attack after seeing what appeared to be Davis “fumbling” for what he thought was a weapon.

Miller beat Davis to death, though he claimed he didn’t know the beating was fatal until the next morning when he read reports of a black man’s body found in a ditch, according to a report from the Montgomery Advertiser.

Davis’s face and neck sustained extensive swelling, and there was a three-eighths-inch cut above his upper lip, according to the coroner’s report obtained by The Washington Post.

Police charged Miller with murder. And in Mississippi, his home state, a defense fund for the $2,500 bond and legal fees began within days of Miller surrendering to authorities. Alabama prosecutors took the case before a grand jury, with Miller’s signed statement of confession provided by his lawyer, according to the AP. His mother and brother testified to attest to Miller’s character.

Despite Miller’s admission of guilt, the grand jury declined to indict him.

“The grand jury investigation of the case was very thorough,” then-Alabama Solicitor Carl M. Booth told the AP. “Every witness connected with the case was summoned to testify and Miller’s statement was also read and studied by the jury.”

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It wasn’t uncommon at the time for white people to evade prosecution for crimes against black Americans, even after admitting to killing another human being. This was a time when white supremacists lynched black people with no legal repercussions, a time when white men freely raped black women. Seven years after Davis’s death, authorities would find Emmett Till’s mutilated body floating in the Tallahatchie River in Money, Miss.

Davis’s killing had largely faded from Mobile’s memory, and natural disasters had destroyed most of the old records, city officials told The Post, when CRRJ approached them and Davis’s family in 2013 with archived newspaper clippings about the case.

But beyond wanting to know more about Davis’s life and how the national coverage of his killing impacted her now-deceased family members, Ulmer wanted to speak with Miller and his family.

“Racism is a learned behavior,” Ulmer said. “I just want to know where his heart is now after all these years. … And I know he’s suffered throughout the years knowing that he took a man’s life. But I want him to know there’s not a man that God won’t forgive.”

When The Post contacted him by phone, Miller, now 90, declined to comment.

I don’t have anything to say or discuss regarding that,” he said.

The upcoming commemoration in Mobile is part of CRRJ’s restorative justice effort — a type of justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of people directly and indirectly harmed by an incident.

“Whole communities have lived with the reality of injustices that happened,” said Simon. “And almost a century later, people in power recognize that their reality is true.”

Ulmer, a Mobile native, collected hundreds of signatures from neighbors to ensure the street’s renaming. She hopes it will serve as a reminder for future generations of what can happen when hate and systemic racism get in the way of decent humanity.

“We’ve come a long way as a black race,” Ulmer said. “But we haven’t gotten there yet. If one person has a change of heart, my cousin’s death wouldn’t have been in vain.”

One Sunday after church, Ulmer returned to the site of the killing with her father and two of her sons. Like Ulmer, her sons, 10 and 15, played in the same ditch where Davis’s body was found — catching crawfish and throwing rocks into the still water.

The family walked around for a bit. They took pictures and watched as cars passed by. Before long, Ulmer told her children of the killing that took their relative’s life.

“Right there?” the 15-year-old asked his mother, pointing to an abandoned bike with chipping pink paint, realizing his relative 70 years ago was abandoned there, too.

“For someone to be thrown in a ditch like it’s nothing…” he  said, as he started to cry.

“Our blood runs through that ditch,” Ulmer said. “When people pass this street sign, they will know Davis’s story.”