Sonny Boy

by Artress Bethany White

I remember what I wore on the day I almost shot my head off at age three: a navy blue sweater with a red and blue plaid kilt. Some thoughtful soul had arranged my hair into a half-dozen thick braids down to my shoulder blades, each one clipped with a small red plastic barrette—the type little girls still wear and that are often molded into the shape of flowers.

My near-death experience took place when I was playing with an old rifle in the sky-blue concrete storage shed affectionately called “the little house” adjacent to my grandmother’s home in central Florida. The gun was wedged between some old furniture and boxes and, unobserved, I worked quietly to pull the trigger while trying to peer down the barrel. On that fall afternoon, instead of my head being blasted to kingdom come, I walked away with a thick trickle of blood oozing from a skinned finger snagged by a rusty trigger. I also remember the fear in the eyes of the adults in my family as they gathered around me and my wounded finger. What I did not know at that time was the reason behind those fearful looks: decades before, my grandmother had lost her eldest son, Emory, to domestic gun violence. The historical subtext that was part of that moment would haunt me for years to come.

My subsequent encounters with guns were also, thankfully, near misses. There was the time that my father almost picked me off after coming back from a family vacation. My parents used to take me and my three siblings on two-week-long vacations to visit extended family during the summer. Upon our return, my father would go through the house with a handgun to make sure no one had taken up residence during our absence.

It was past midnight after one of these trips when my mother sent me into the house before my father came back out to give us the standard all-clear sign. The only item I was responsible for carrying into the house was my walk-with-me doll, Crystal; she was just my height at age eight, with the same shade of brown skin as me. Clutching her hard plastic body tightly to my chest, I made my way down the carpeted hallway toward my bedroom. Suddenly, the figure of my father loomed in the hallway in front of me. He stood there with his legs spread and his arms outstretched before him, and at the end of his arms was a handgun pointed directly at Crystal’s head. Somehow I knew not to move or say a word. Over the play of seconds, I watched recognition slowly dawn in my father’s eyes as he lowered the handgun before erupting,

“What are you doing in here? You were supposed to wait outside until I came back to get you!”

Realizing that this was now the moment to talk fast, I responded quickly, “Mommy sent us in.”

I found out later that my father, so shaken by the incident, had shared the news with one of his sisters that very night of almost shooting his oldest daughter.

My next gun encounter was a couple of years later. My sister had discovered the very same handgun at the top of my parents’ closet in one of my mother’s old purses. I recall that the inquisitive culprit gathered all four of us kids together with the promise of showing us a gun. The rest of us didn’t believe it of course, but proof was quickly produced when the sibling in question used a chair to reach the top of the closet and pulled down an old beige leather handbag. Reaching inside, she extracted the small black revolver. Remembering this revolver from past experience, I was afraid to touch it, even if only to take it from her and put it back into the purse. I watched another sibling reach out to weigh the gun gingerly between her small hands before I came to enough to snap, “Put it back!” Regaining some authority, I told my sister to return the purse to the shelf where it had come from and not to bother it again or I would tell Mom and Dad. As I recall, it never came down again, because the next find was my mother’s diaphragm in a neat plastic case and, though we tried, we could not figure out what it was on successive tours of examination.

Hanging over all three of these experiences was the specter of my grandmother’s son, Emory, and the sketchy cautionary tale of what can happen when guns and loved ones come together. It was not, however, until the summer of 2015 that I contacted a special archives librarian in Lakeland, Florida, to determine if there was a news trail that might lead me to further details regarding my uncle Emory White’s death from a gunshot wound only a few days after his safe return from active duty in World War II. The only information I had before that phone call was an approximate date of a shooting and a name.

The shooting was a story that family members had referred to obliquely over the years, but never fully recounted. Part of the pact of silence around the event dealt with the fact that Emory had lost his life at the hands of one of his younger brothers. The details had been suppressed to assuage the guilt of the living, although by the time I requested the news article that represented one of the few tangible records of the event, those directly involved had been dead for many years. Still, it was with a feeling of breaking a familial taboo that I held a reproduction of the newspaper article in my hands for the first time and read the scant twelve lines that revealed more of the story surrounding Emory’s death than I had ever heard during my childhood.

The precious details regarding the 1946 event were nestled between the popular comic strips of the day—Donald Duck, Red Ryder, and Vic Flint—and the radio station program listings (television was still not a regular household item), which included Louella Parsons, the popular Hollywood gossip columnist, and The Lone Ranger. The headline alone was a history lesson: “Mulberry Negro Held After Brother’s Death.” Along with all of the historical matter I had ever read, here was proof: yes, members of my family had been called Negro, too. The name of the deceased, my uncle Emory, was not mentioned, but the names of another uncle, Edgar Lee White, and my grandfather, Dan White, were in print.

My uncle was not called Emory by his family, but was instead known as Sonny Boy to those who loved him. Over the years I had mulled over the list of three brothers who might have been responsible for Sonny Boy’s accidental death, because being killed by his brother was one of the few details I knew. I imagined myself as somewhat of a child detective attempting to outsmart the adults around me by proving I could figure out what they had wanted to keep secret. First, I had considered my own father, the youngest of the brothers, though I ultimately ruled him out because I reasoned that he didn’t really have the years on him necessary to wield the weapon that had administered the fatal shot. Next, I wondered about another uncle, a middle child, who had committed suicide when I was in college. Was it possible that carrying the guilt of fratricide for so many years had catapulted him into depression and, subsequently, the act of taking his own life in the 1980s? The psychological evidence weighed high in favor of this possibility, but there was someone else who kept me from committing to that particular hypothesis as well. This someone else was an uncle I could only recall meeting once in my life.

Near the end of his life at age forty-five, Edgar, also known as Brother, had largely removed himself from active involvement in the lives of other family members. I was eight at the time of his death and could only recall him as a recluse and a rumored alcoholic, but even these details are the stuff of family lore: half-remembered statements perhaps made by an older cousin. Yet, somehow I felt that it was his story that was intricately tied to Sonny Boy’s demise, and I was right. The newspaper article confirmed it.

Excavating family history is rarely a solitary act. As I worked to reconstruct historical events, I realized I could not depend on a brief news article and snippets of a tale gleaned from childhood memory to tell the complete story; I still needed to hear with my adult ears a firsthand account of the events surrounding my uncle’s life and sudden death, and I believed I knew just where to look.

My Aunt L. is known as the family record keeper. At age eighty-six, her mind is sharper than that of most people only a fraction of her age. Her answers to my questions were thoughtful, deliberate, and full of anecdotes that I would never have known if I had not raised such specific questions about Sonny Boy’s life. Like the story about my grandmother Virginia sending Sonny Boy a care package all the way to Europe full of apples, Florida oranges, and pecans, and packing the nuts loosely enough so that they would give a hint of a rattle when he held it up to his face to shake expectantly.

It took some time to piece together the series of events that brought Sonny Boy and Edgar together that fateful night during the celebration of Sonny Boy’s twenty-first birthday. In reality, the story had begun three years earlier when on July 23, 1943, Sonny Boy enlisted into the United States Army at the age of eighteen. It was the middle of World War II, and the draft was in effect. As he neared the age of military maturity, he knew what his country expected of him. He enlisted and was trained at Camp Blanding, Florida, a military base still active today. Edgar had enlisted two years later in 1945, also at the age of eighteen. Neither had known much of the world beyond the rural central Florida town of their birth, Mulberry.

Mulberry is a little over an hour’s drive from Eatonville, Florida; the region where writer Zora Neale Hurston grew up and later returned in order to document rural African American culture and dialect. The biographical documentary on Hurston, Jump at the Sun (2008), contains scenes of black-and-white archival footage of African-American children playing ring games outdoors in a sandy yard and men fishing alongside a lake. These images are similar to those that would have comprised the lives of blacks around the time of World War II, when Sonny Boy was growing up in a small Florida town with his mother, father, three sisters, and three brothers. I know that the filmic images mirrored the day-to-day life of the period from flipping through old family photos of my own family full of young black boys with hair cut into tight fades and girls in white pinafores. These photographic images merged in my mind with the traditions that had remained largely unchanged that I witnessed during family trips taken from our house in Massachusetts to Florida during the late 1970s and 1980s. I knew well the long, lacquered bamboo fishing poles my grandmother and cousins favored for their regular fishing voyages. These poles were ideal for avoiding the presence of shoreline alligators that were the unwanted guests of any fishing trip. In Florida, we learned early that any natural or manmade body of water was gator territory. As a child I remember begging to go along on these fishing trips, but being told that I was too little and might get eaten by an alligator. In Florida, this was not just a tall tale used to scare children, it was a reality. While I was not allowed to tag along, I did learn the valuable lesson that food could still be caught in the wild and used to grace a table at mealtimes.

On these regional visits, I also became familiar with the history of all-black towns and black communities separated from white communities by railroad tracks. These were the years of segregation and real-estate redlining that maintained the rules of segregation. Mulberry schools were still segregated in the 1940s; black students attended the J. R. E. Lee School for elementary education, named after the one-time president of the historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. If black students were interested in attending high school, however, they would have to travel to nearby Bartow to attend the black high school there. Perusing an old enlistment record, I discovered that Sonny Boy could boast of having one year of high school under his belt at the time of his military enlistment, as opposed to his younger brother Edgar who entered the war with only a grammar school education.

I can imagine that both Emory and Edgar were excited about heading home on furlough together during that late fall of 1946. I am sure that they could not wait to taste the sweet meat of freshwater Florida fish fried to perfection and their mother’s homemade pound cake—a blesséd departure from war rations. Perhaps as veterans of active duty, they conspired about what parts of their war experiences they would share with eager family members and what they would keep to themselves. The moment I was homing in on, however, had little to do with warm nostalgia.

It is not easy to ask witnesses to a fatal shooting what they remember about the traumatic event, even if it took place almost seventy years ago. In my aunt’s version of events, she was in the backyard when she heard the gunshot and asked aloud, to no one in particular, “What was that?” before everyone outside, including her, began to run toward the house en masse. As far as the how of the shooting, she said that Edgar was just playing around when Sonny Boy came to the front door. He picked up the rifle and pointed it at the door and said jokingly, “Who is that out there?” Sonny Boy started laughing on the other side. Maybe saying, “Come on, man, stop playing.” Then, within the innocent interplay between two brothers, a trigger was pulled and a bullet released. Her final shared detail was that it had been a head wound.

The newspaper article, my touchstone, also told me that Sonny Boy had immediately been taken to the hospital after being shot, where he died soon after arriving. The hospital he had been taken to was Polk General Hospital, also known by locals as the county hospital. The facility was originally opened in 1926 to service blacks and poor whites and officially closed in the 1970s. When it opened, the staff consisted of one doctor and five nurses, one of which was African American.

The county hospital was just under ten miles from my grandmother’s home. For the person driving that night after the shooting, those miles must have felt interminable. The staffing during the war years, almost two decades after opening, was still slim because of the draft, with only one full-time and one part-time doctor. Oddly enough, a colored hospital was constructed on the same site in 1929. I wondered if the second hospital indicated that the original vision of a fully-integrated Polk General Hospital had fallen by the wayside only three years after construction. Was this an important detail or just a distraction from the reality that Sonny Boy had suffered a mortal head wound, and no building or available hands could have saved him—neither in the now-white county hospital nor the colored annex that might still have been in use?

After organizing the particulars of Sonny’s death, I decided to share my information with my father. The pause after I finished recounting the events—as I believed they unfolded—was long and full, but full of what I did not initially know. Finally, on an expelled breath, he said, “Wow. Thank you so much for bringing out something that had been in the dark for so long.” By “in the dark” he was referring to the fact that growing up he was told that he had been a baby when Sonny Boy died. Interpreting this as the literal truth, my father always believed he was two or three years old when his brother Sonny Boy had been killed. The news article, however, confirmed that my father had actually been eight years old. Yet, because the story was always retold as oral history like events in a play, his role was always that of the baby: the ignorant child figure without knowledge of details surrounding the actual event. Family roles have a way of stretching into adulthood. The baby of the family had never learned the full story, even after raising children of his own. On this day, however, I came bearing details.

My father and I must have talked for an hour about his brother and the night he was killed. At some point he even remembered standing in front of the radio in my grandmother’s living room that night listening to music. He was just dancing in the corner by himself because he was too young to drink or play cards with the older crowd. I could hear the joy in his voice as he reclaimed this private memory from his childhood, a memory lost to him for so many years. Quickly, though, he realized that he recalled the moment so vividly because it was followed by screaming and the silencing of the music by frenzied adults swarming around him after the fatal shot was fired.

Often tragic stories are put on a shelf, ostensibly to protect the psyches of the young and the living. I carried the compulsion to know this story for decades. Somewhere along the line the compulsion morphed into a desire to tell a story bigger than bits of childhood memory and the November 17, 1946 page 7 section B headline in the Lakeland Ledger that read “Mulberry Negro Held After Brother’s Death.”

They were just boys, Sonny Boy and Edgar. Sonny Boy was 21 when he died. Edgar was only 19 when he pulled the trigger. Though he was arrested immediately after the shooting, Edgar was not charged for what was, essentially, a horrific accident. Sonny Boy and Edgar had both been soldiers in a war that took them across an ocean far from Polk County, Florida, and the rural hamlet that they called home. Sadly, only one brother, Edgar, would return to Europe to safely finish out his postwar tour of duty. Unlike many soldiers who fought in World War II, they made it back home before their lives were changed forever.