In October 1938, when Harper Lee was 12 years old, something extraordinary occurred in her small town.
According to a published Alabama Supreme Court case and records at the Alabama Department of Archives, a respected white businessman named Ben Watts walked into the Monroe County Bank in a hurry. He needed a “last will and testament” leaving his land and five-bedroom home to a black woman he was in love with. Her name was Nazarine Parker.
“I want you to draw up a will and I want to fix it up this morning,” Watts told his banker. “I want to leave what I have for this Negro woman that has been taking care of me all the time. You know how white people are about Negroes, and I want to be sure this thing is handled right because I want her to have what I’ve got. All my own people have ever done for me was to borrow money and never pay it back. I want to see that she gets it, and I want to see that some white man sees that she does get it.”
“Mr. Ben,” the banker said, “you have been doing business with us a long time here and if there is any way I can help you, I want to do it.”
The will was signed in the bank board room. Two bank employees signed as witnesses.
Watts was the town drayman, the equivalent of the UPS package and heavy-freight delivery service, but using horse wagons. He and his helpers also delivered the mail. He was all over town, all day, all the time. He even delivered bulk cash bags to and from the bank.
In the next year, 1939, Watts worried. He knew about will contests from working the courthouse square every day.
Then as now, under Alabama law, if a person dies without a will, the spouse and the bloodline inherit. Who gets what depends on who is alive when the person dies, but the money stays in the family if a person dies without a will.
So when a will leaves land or money to a non-family member, watch out for a lawsuit. The relatives who feel cheated wish there had never been a will. Beat the will, and they keep the money in the family.
Watts’ premonition haunted him. An all-white jury of men would strike down his will naming Parker as his heir. One day a deputy sheriff would knock on her door with a court order to evict her.
Watts went to see his lawyer, A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father.
Lee later testified: “He consulted with me professionally about his will. It was in my office. He came in one day and told me that he had made a will and that he wanted me to look at it and tell him whether or not it would accomplish what he wanted it to accomplish.”
Lee first told Watts to “tell me what he wanted to do with his property.” Watts told him he wanted to leave everything he owned to Parker.
“I read it over,” Lee testified, and advised him the will “would accomplish what he wanted.” Lee recalled Watts “stated if there was any doubt in my mind about it, he wanted me to make another one, but I advised him that [the will] was quite sufficient to carry out his wishes.”
Watts’ mind was put at ease, and he left Lee’s office. Why second-guess the advice of his own counsel? Lee was an experienced lawyer, editor of the town newspaper and elected to the state legislature again and again by the people.
But worry returned, and would not let go. Watts met with Lee again on March 21, 1940. He wanted a deed in Nazarine Parker’s name. He would sign it that day, but with a condition. Could it hold back a “life estate” in the land to Watts? He wanted to control the land until the moment of his death. Parker would own the land the first second after he died.
Lee would later testify, “I think it was a few months before he died” that “he came in again and asked me if he could legally convey his lands to this Negro woman and reserve the use of the lands during his lifetime, and in that conversation he referred again to his will and stated that he anticipated that his people might try to break his will and that he wanted to do everything possible to make sure that his will would be carried out.
“And I explained to him that he could make a conveyance of his land and reserve for himself the right to use during his lifetime, and he asked me to prepare a deed of that character for him, and I did so,” Lee testified.
Lee signed the deed as a witness and the document was filed in the county courthouse the same day.
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