A Nashville historian digs into a series of unsolved bombings from the era of integration and discovers a trove of suspects, an oddly recalcitrant law enforcement agency, and a wall of silence.
Nashville, Tennessee, had three integration-era bombings that remain unsolved: Hattie Cotton Elementary School on September 10, 1957, the Jewish Community Center on March 16, 1958, and the home of Nashville city councilman and famed Civil Rights lawyer Z. Alexander Looby on April 19, 1960.
I assumed these were “unsolved,” in the sense of most Southern bombings of that era—everyone knew who did it; nobody bothered to prosecute them. So I thought my task would be easy. I’d just need to find the right circle of gossip, and I could write a little something up for the Nashville Scene about what had actually happened in time for the 60th Anniversary of the Hattie Cotton bombing.
That didn’t happen.
The Weird Wall of Silence
It turned out, no one did seem to know who did it. Worse than that, the police files are missing. Not just these bombing files, but everything from before 1963, with the exception of a few murder cases, is gone. And, let me be clear, this includes the Looby bombing file—an unsolved assassination attempt on a sitting U.S. politician. Not normally the kind of thing you’d expect to ever get chucked in the trash.
Tennessee had an overarching law enforcement unit at the time, the Tennessee Bureau of Criminal Inquiry (TBCI), which was part of the Department of Safety. If you look on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s website, the TBI clearly views the TBCI as an early iteration of the TBI. But I couldn’t find anyone who knew where the TBCI’s files were—or, if they even still existed, if I would be able to request them. If they exist and someone knows where they are and they’re considered Department of Safety documents, maybe I could make an argument that they should be available to me. But if the TBI insists those files (should I ever find out they exist) are theirs, then, because of Tennessee law, they wouldn’t be available to the public.
Where do you start investigating unsolved crimes when you can’t find any useful witnesses, gossip fails you, and there aren’t any police files?
So, where do you start investigating unsolved crimes when you can’t find any useful witnesses, gossip fails you, and there aren’t any police files?
I did two things: I flooded the FBI with as many FOIA requests as I could think to make, and I started going through old newspapers looking for patterns.
My assumption was, and is, that it’s very, very unlikely that one person or one group of people bombed one building in Nashville and then went back to their ordinary lives. Either these bombings were connected to each other, or they were connected to other acts of racial terrorism, or both. If I could figure out the pattern, it might point me to a perpetrator or perpetrators.
The first question I asked was “Did Nashville have any known bombers at the time?” It turns out we had one bomber who was known to local police: Jesse Wilson. Wilson, the head of a local trucking company, had blown up two sets of truck scales and his own warehouse. He hired thugs to beat up a couple of his employees and then tried to bomb the home of those employees’ attorney, former Nashville mayor Thomas L. Cummings. He also was plotting to bomb the home of Silliman Evans, the publisher of the Tennessean, because he didn’t appreciate the paper’s coverage of his earlier bombings.
Okay, well, truck scales are government property. A school is government property. A mayor is a political figure. A city councilman is a political figure. Maybe? Except that Wilson went to jail in 1956, which rules him out of the Hattie Cotton bombing, which means the patterns don’t fit.
I found two people who were living in Nashville in the 1950s who went on to become racist bombers—Robert Pittman Gentry and Gladys Girgenti. Could our bombings have been heretofore unknown early works of one or both of them?
When the JCC was bombed in 1958, a man called Rabbi Silverman’s home and said, “I am a member of the Confederate Union. We have just dynamited the Jewish Community Center. Next will be The Temple, and next will be any other nigger-loving place or nigger-loving person in Nashville. And we’re going to shoot down Judge Miller in cold blood.” In phone calls he placed to the media, he identified himself as a member of the Confederate Underground. Judge Miller, as a side note, was the judge overseeing Nashville’s school integration. Councilman Looby was the lawyer for the family who had sued the city to desegregate Nashville schools.
In 1981, Gladys Girgenti led a group she named the Confederate Vigilantes in an attempt to bomb The Temple, the next target on the Confederate Underground’s list. She failed only because her bomb maker was an ATF informant.
The FBI rejected my FOIA request on her because she was still alive (which was a nice bit of information to have). When I went to talk to her, she denied any involvement in the earlier bombings, but she told me she was old friends with J.B. Stoner, an attorney from Chattanooga, who had been kicked out of the Klan in Chattanooga for being too anti-Semitic. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was James Earl Ray’s attorney.
I do think it’s unlikely that Girgenti was involved in these earlier bombings. By the end of the ‘50s, she had moved to Detroit and had young children. But I do think it was a missed opportunity in ’81, when the Klan was disavowing her and her feelings were hurt, to not see if she had any Klan knowledge she wanted to share.
Robert Pittman Gentry is a different story, though. He grew up in the Nashville area and moved to Florida in 1961, after all our bombings. He claimed he didn’t get involved in Klan activities until he moved to Florida, but his Florida Klan years put him in the middle of some really bad stuff. In 1966 he told the House Unamerican Activities Committee that he had been in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, during the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, but he never would say why. In 1964, he was arrested for bombing the home of Donald Godfrey, the first grader integrating Lackawanna Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida.
The lawyer who beat that charge for him? J.B. Stoner. The lawyer who advised him and sat next to him in front of the HUAC? J.B. Stoner.
The Disappeared Files
My FOIA request for Gentry’s file was denied because the FBI claims they destroyed his file in 2005.
Which is the same reason they gave me for denying my FOIA request for the FBI file on the Looby bombing, which they told me they’d destroyed in 1996.
I don’t know enough about Gentry to say if it’s really that weird that his file was destroyed, but someone tried to kill a sitting U.S. politician and that case was never resolved, and the FBI destroyed the file? That seemed really, really weird to me. But, perhaps naively, I believed it.
But then, I ran into Keel Hunt, who had worked for Lamar Alexander back when Alexander was Tennessee’s governor and had remained friends with Senator Alexander. I thought, if anyone could give me some insight into why the FBI would have destroyed those files, either Hunt could do it, or he could tell me who could.
He was taken aback. I might even call him alarmed.
He told me to immediately call Hal Hardin, who had been a U.S. Attorney (and, in fact, prosecuted Girgenti). He, Hunt told me, would have some insight into why the FBI would have destroyed those files.
“I don’t believe it,” Hardin said. I wasn’t sure if he meant that he didn’t believe what I was telling him or if he didn’t believe the files had been destroyed. He meant the latter. They simply would not have been destroyed.
He told me to call John Lewis. Yes, THE John Lewis. Civil Rights icon and U.S. Representative John Lewis. Lewis’s civil rights person apologized to me because they could not open an inquiry with the FBI on my behalf because I wasn’t Lewis’s constituent. I attempted to explain that I didn’t need an inquiry, I just needed insight, and she apologized again and explained again that they could not open an inquiry.
Oh, okay, got it.
The National Archives: TMI
I contacted my Representative, Jim Cooper, and his chief of staff got back to me in about ten minutes. They were in.
Long story short, after he and his staff spent months investigating and asking questions, Cooper wrote the nerdiest and most badass letter I have ever read to the head of the FBI demanding an explanation for why the file was destroyed.
Within weeks the FBI admitted that the file still existed and was at the National Archives.
I had already searched the National Archives website numerous times for files that might be pertinent, and I can tell you, I never once saw the Looby bombing file in the search results.
But, okay, fine. They had it now. I FOIA-requested it. I also took the opportunity to FOIA-request everything else I could think of, whether or not I’d seen it in the search results on their site. I was especially interested in getting my hands on J.B. Stoner’s file, because I had discovered he was the mastermind behind the Confederate Underground bombings—which meant he was ultimately behind the JCC bombing here in Nashville—and I had learned that he was in Nashville in the days before the Hattie Cotton bombing.
I also wanted to get my hands on the FBI’s Dixie Knights file. The Dixie Knights were a rogue Klan group, made up of the old Klavern No. 317 in Chattanooga (J.B. Stoner’s old Klavern), the Middle Tennessee Klaverns, which had left the KKK when 317 got kicked out of the Klan in 1957, and perhaps Kenneth Adams and his crowd down in Anniston, Alabama (which, if you know your Civil Rights history, is the group that assaulted the Freedom Riders). The Dixie Knights in Chattanooga had bombed a school, a desegregated religiously-affiliated community center (the YWCA), and the home of a black civil rights attorney. Chattanooga’s pattern was Nashville’s pattern, and J.B. Stoner seems like a link between the two.
Ah, but here’s where we go from too little information to too much. When you FOIA-request old FBI files from the National Archives, they have to be reviewed before you get them. Anything you’re legally not allowed to see needs to be redacted. If you’re asking for fewer than 500 pages, this process takes roughly two years. If you need to see more than 500 pages, your wait time is over a decade.
J.B. Stoner’s file is 3,000 pages. The Dixie Knights file is more than 30,000 pages. With Stoner’s file, in order to get something I could see relatively soon, I narrowed my request to just the time of these bombings. With the Dixie Knights file, I asked for the first five hundred pages. That, apparently, covers roughly the first four or five months of their existence. I’m in the process of waiting on those.
This would be frustrating in any circumstance, but especially in this case, where this is the only source of information on the investigations into these bombings. It’s not just that the wait time (and then the cost of getting the copies) is onerous; it’s that there’s no good index of what FBI files are in the National Archives. They might have files even more pertinent to my project, but since I don’t know they’re there, I don’t know to ask for them. This is certainly frustrating for me as a researcher.
While I wait, I keep thinking of what I found down in the Birmingham police files: comment after comment about how terrified other Klansmen were of Jack Brown, the head of the Dixie Knights. They warned each other not to cross him, because he killed people.
How many families, who are missing loved ones, might find answers in those old FBI files—but because of the time and cost, those files are basically unavailable? Or what if they’ve been told those files were destroyed, but they don’t have a congressman willing to take on their cause?
Still, I wait to learn the truth. And so do those grieving families.
About the Author:
Betsy Phillips lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s written for the Nashville Scene and the Washington Post. Her book on these bombings, Dynamite Nashville, will be out from Third Man Books as soon as she gets that Looby bombing file and can finish it up.