Della McDuffie

Background

On Saturday, April 25, 1953, Della McDuffie, a paralyzed 63-year-old woman, was beaten to death by Sheriff “Lummie” Jenkins. Sheriff Jenkins led a midnight raid on “Della’s Place,” the café she operated with her husband, Willie “Snowball” McDuffie.

On the night she was killed, Mrs. McDuffie was seated in her wheelchair in the café, which was annexed to the McDuffies’ home in Alberta, Alabama. Around midnight, Sheriff Jenkins led a raid on the establishment. Jenkins wielded a black weapon resembling a rubber hose, and swung it left and right at the patrons, hitting a number of them.  In the midst of the melee, he shot his gun into the floor and ceiling.

Patrons scattered in all directions but Mrs. McDuffie could not get out of her wheelchair. Jenkins struck her repeatedly with the hose. One Dr. Robert E. Dixon, summoned by the victim’s husband, tended to Mrs. McDuffie, but in vain; shortly after he arrived Mrs. McDuffie succumbed to the trauma.

Dr. Dixon attested to the cause of death on Della McDuffie’s death certificate, stating, falsely, that she died from a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by a preceding condition of arteriosclerosis. No autopsy was ever conducted.

A year after Mrs. McDuffie’s death, her husband, Willie McDuffie, who had insisted on an official investigation into his wife’s killing, was found dead under suspicious circumstances.  In the following year, the remaining members of the McDuffie family fled Alabama under threat of death.

Legal Status

In the matter of his wife’s death, Mr. McDuffie sought assistance from John L. LeFlore, then head of the Mobile, Alabama branch of the NAACP. He and many others supplied affidavits about what happened in the café. The Mobile NAACP branch contacted Thurgood Marshall who persuaded the Justice Department to open an investigation in July 1953.

The Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to formally investigate Mrs. McDuffie’s killing.

In September 1953, the Department informed Thurgood Marshall that it would take no action in the matter.

No investigation was ever conducted into the death of Della McDuffie’s husband, Willie McDuffie.