Mobile’s Tennessee Street can be hard to find. It starts near the waterfront, stops, then resumes, appearing and disappearing like justice under Jim Crow.
On Aug. 15 at 10 a.m., the street will be rechristened in honor of Rayfield Davis, a 53-year-old black Brookley Field worker murdered in 1948. His admitted killer, a young white man, was never prosecuted.
“We’re happy something is being done. When you think about what happened back then, we didn’t have very many rights and to have this being publicized now makes everyone happy,” Davis’ cousin Nichole Ulmer said.
Ulmer noted numerous local officials should be present for the street dedication. Following the ceremony, events move to the History Museum of Mobile (111 S. Royal St.), where Davis is one of six victims of racially motivated killings in Mobile featured in a new exhibit created in conjunction with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law.
The exhibit will be in place through Aug. 30.
A financial analyst for Foley’s UTC Aerospace Systems, Ulmer said their family is rooted in the area where the ceremony will take place. Her father still resides a block away, on the lot next to Davis’ address; her sister lives close by, on Marine Street. The ditch where a dying Davis was discovered runs between them.
Davis is buried a few blocks west and north of the tracks in Magnolia Cemetery. His headstone is as broken as his body was, his name resurrected on the damaged marker.
“It was like somebody carved with a sharp instrument on a big piece of rock,” Ulmer said.
In the late evening of March 7, 1948, Davis exited a city bus where the train tracks paralleling Tennessee Street cross Broad. He was in conversation with 20-year-old Horace M. Miller, a mechanic at the Coast Guard facility where Davis was a janitor.
In his signed confession, Miller said he had “a few beers” beforehand, that Davis was drinking as well and invited Miller to his home at 961 Tennessee St. He said Davis insisted “their friend President Truman would soon make the negro more important than the white man,” so Miller bludgeoned Davis to death with his fists and feet.
Miller surrendered to police days later. A grand jury found his reasoning excusable.
“[Miller’s] family got him out of town due to his ‘ordeal.’ He’s killed a man and he’s scot-free and his family’s going to throw him a party and get him out of town and that’s where it died,” Ulmer said of Miller’s departure for Mississippi.
When CRRJ contacted the family roughly five years ago, the sole oral history was a snippet from Ulmer’s mother, who only knew a cousin was killed at Broad and Tennessee. The case facts were shocking.
“[CRRJ] kept bringing up that normally old cases like that, the perpetrator has died, and lo and behold, this guy was still in Florida,” Ulmer said.
Both Ulmer and a CRRJ representative told Artifice of tracking down an age-appropriate Horace M. Miller in Pensacola. When they phoned him, he hung up without answering questions.
Artifice contacted a Horace M. Miller in Pensacola. Information placed him in his early 90s.
When asked if he worked as a mechanic at Brookley in the 1940s, he said he did. As to the deadly altercation with Davis, he claimed to know nothing of it.
“I just wanted to sit down with him to see if he’s remorseful about what happened, to see if he feels any different. To me, racism is a learned behavior and I wanted to know, to sit and talk to him and see if he sowed that bad seed with his children,” Ulmer said.
Never indicted or adjudicated, Davis’ killer could have been prosecuted under state law. Federal action was unlikely since Miller acted alone.
“The federal government would have to proceed under either 18 USC section 241 or 18 USC section 242 and they were unlikely to do so because he didn’t appear to act under color of law nor was he part of a conspiracy,” CRRJ Restorative Justice Project Director Kaylie Simon wrote.
Simon noted prosecution isn’t the only avenue for justice and to “imagine other forms of repair. The street sign and public knowledge can serve wider goals.”
“This action … would ensure [Davis’] name is not forgotten. Furthermore, this achievement would bring comfort to the family who would feel their relative had not died in vain,” CRRJ’s Chelsea Schmitz wrote in 2012.