The 4th entry in the 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Black Life in Ripley series told the story of Eleanor Roosevelt being thrown into the conversation regarding African American soldiers being killed in Ripley.
Let me refresh your memory…
#4 Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Roosevelt 32nd President of the United States, spoke out against the killing of an African American soldier in Ripley, TN.
You can read the original posting here: https://blackripley.com/2013/09/17/10-things-you-didnt-know-about-black-life-in-ripley-tn-2/
If you recall the missing information such as the soldier’s identity lay in old issues of The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper of Memphis, TN, particularly the January 27, 1944 and January 29, 1944 issues. Further research also revealed that the January 1, 2013 issue held clues as well.
Here are the missing pieces.
The soldier was killed December 29, 1943 in Ripley, TN. He had come into Ripley from the Dyersburg Air Force Base. According to reports, he was drunk when he was fatally wounded by the Lauderdale County Sheriff, only after he had shot the sheriff. His name was Private Joseph L. Burrell of Co A of the 449th Signal Construction Battalion. Apparently a group of African American soldiers, estimated to be about 50 or 60 left Dyersburg and in the words of the sheriff “descended upon Ripley with the apparent intention of taking the town apart” (Jan 27, 1944 issue). This incident occured in what was described as the “negro quarters” in Ripley. The result of this skirmish is that soldiers from the Dyersburg Air Force Base were banned temporarily from entering Ripley.
Private Joseph L. Burrell was born July 11, 1913 in Denbigh, Warrick County, Virginia. He enlisted in the military in Richmond, VA on August 12, 1942. At the time of his death he was 30 years old and was married, but seperated, to Lucille Burrell. According to his death certificate he died due to gunshot wounds of the liver, stomach, pancreas, intestines, lungs, and heart. His death was listed as an accident. Prior to his death and army enlistment he had been employed as a laborer at the Navy Yard in Yorktown. Virginia.
He was buried at the Colossian Baptist Church Cemetery in Denbigh, VA in an unmarked grave. His mother, Florence Burrell, was granted a military headstone for his grave on July 14, 1944.
On US Census records for 1920 and 1940 Joseph is listed as Lawrence. He is living with his mother Florence (b. 1896 Virginia), his father Joseph (b. 1890 VIrginia) and his siblings Claris (b. 1916), Noretha (b. 1918), James (b. 1920), and Mary (b. 1922).
At this point I am not sure that the true story behind his murder will ever be revealed. What troubles me is the reason why the Sheriff was called to what was described as the “Negro” side of town in the first place. Were the soldiers being drunk and disorderly? At this point of time in America soldiers were returning from overseas. Overseas African American soldiers had been treated considerably better than they were treated in the US. When they returned to the US they were basically told to go back to their subserviant roles. Historical accounts from across the United States discuss the murder of African American soldiers, some even lynched in their uniforms. White supremacists did not like the fact that African Americans returned to the US in uniform believing that they were equals and this spawned a surge of racial violence. Could this be what happened to Joseph Burrell? What caused him to pull his gun and shoot the Sheriff? Whatever the case may be Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was right in her assessment that the South was responsible for instances such as this due to its treatment of African Americans.
– Image Source: Joseph L. Burrell headstone (FindAGrave.com)
– Sources: Tennessee Deaths and Burial Index 1874 – 1955, Tennessee Death Records 1908 – 1958, US Headstone Applications for Military Veterans 1925 – 1963, FindAGrave.com Newport News, VA Colossian Baptist Church Cemetery Listing, US WW2 Army Enlistment Records, 1938 – 1946, The Commercial Appeal January 1, 1944 issue, The Commercial Appeal January 27, 1944 issue, The Commercial Appeal January 29, 1944 issue, US Census Records 1920 and 1940 for Denbigh, VA,