On Tuesday night, Channel 5 had one of the weirdest stories I've heard in a while. Shun Mullins is alleging that his mother died after the Algood, TN deputy fire chief refused to peform CPR on her because of her race. He also alleges that the deputy fire chief forged documents after the fact to cover up his behavior. William Sewell, from the Health Department, was called in to investigate. And here's where it gets weird — in a room with Mullins, who is black, and a representative from the NAACP, as well as a third witness, Sewell proceeded to tell Mullins about a lynching in Sewell's hometown.
Affidavits from all inside the meeting alleged that Sewell went into disturbing details about a lynching — and the mutilation of a black man's body — in Sewell's hometown of Baxter many years ago.
"They hung him, and they started carving his skin out of his back. It was like he got excited telling this story," Allen remembered.
Judy Mainord said Sewell continued the story by saying, "They lowered the body, and all the white men standing around took turns removing the skin from the black man's back."
The three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a "strap" of the lynched man's skin, passed down from his grandfather.
"They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener," Allen remembered.
"It was like a trophy to him, and that concerns me," Mainord said.
Shun Mullins said, "It was my impression he still had it at his house. The way he enjoyed telling the story, I thought perhaps he was still using it."
So, you'll be unsurprised to learn that Sewell lost his job. But you'll never guess who the real victim here is: "'I am the victim because I made a mistake,' Sewell said.'"
That's right. In a story where some poor dude was murdered and his skin used to make a belt which became a family heirloom for his murderer and some other dude is sure his mom was allowed to die because she needed help and the only person who could give it to her refused and then lied about it, and then the second dude had to hear the very distressing story of the first dude, the victim is the guy who decided to tell the story.
Algood, Tenn., is a tiny town that borders my hometown of Cookeville. I went to elementary school there for a few years. As of the year 2000, the population was not even 3,000 people. Much like Cookeville where I grew up, it is about 95% white. I can't speak for an experience that is not my own, but I personally heard constant, unceasing racist attitudes there from some of the best folks around, the kind that's hard to explain to people who did not grow up in towns like this, especially because the people are racists there are also often local leaders and respected people and whatnot. People used the 'n' word pretty freely and arbitrarily refused things to black people because they felt like it and because they could. (I still have a vivid memory from 1st grade of an elderly teacher separating the two black kids in our class and denying them a snack because they "were colored." Confused, I tried to tell a babysitter about it, whose husband was a cop, and they grilled me for what seemed like hours about it, insisting that if I let the story get out, the teacher would lose her job and many many people would suffer. By the end, they convinced me I'd made it up.)
Moore goes on to explain that she thinks part of why Sewell thinks he's the victim here is that, "William Sewell still thought he lived in a world where he got to tell his terrible little anecdote with no repercussions." I think she's right. The world went and changed on Sewell, maybe not as much as we might like most days, but more than Sewell had realized.