Chapter 1: Black Diamond CHAPTER 1 Black Diamond
Asbury Park, New Jersey
For Thomas Williams, it was better to be no one than someone in Asbury Park.
Williams lived in a city that was not meant for him. It was designed as a haven for godly and wealthy white people. The purest air in the bluest sky, the gentlest spray from a perfect ocean, wide boulevards and candy-colored homes—the very best America. Williams lived there, but only in the shadows of other people’s lives, a peripheral figure, a black man for hire, no one of note. This was how both he and the city wanted it. Williams took all kinds of jobs—chopping wood, painting houses, corralling hogs and cows for widows. He did these jobs and then he was gone, to somewhere on the edges of town. He was forty years old and complained of lumbago—chronic back pain—but there wasn’t any kind of work Tom Williams wouldn’t do, if it meant a few dollars for him.
He was not from Asbury Park, or even New Jersey. He came from Lynchburg, Virginia, where he’d been an amateur prizefighter and went by his ring nickname, Black Diamond. He had a boxer’s build—six feet tall, broad shoulders, hard hands—and he wore a sweater coat that was dark with grime and pants held up by suspenders. He liked his liquor—gin and whiskey—and many mornings he could be found in the barroom at Griffin’s Wanamassa Hotel, out past Wickapecko Drive, eating his breakfast and taking his drinks as early as 8:00 a.m.
In New Jersey, the record of Williams’s life was a crime sheet, though not a violent one. In 1907, a state prison supervisor riding a train spotted a six-shooter sticking out of Williams’s coat. He had him searched and turned up several gold watches and $375 in cash. Williams confessed to larceny and served eighteen months in state prison. He served a separate, shorter stretch for being drunk and disorderly.
For the fourteen months he’d been in Asbury Park, though, he’d had no trouble with the law.
That is, until an unspeakable crime happened in the fall of 1910, and Tom Williams became someone in Asbury Park.
Wherever he went, Williams carried with him the long, heavy history of racism in America, and in 1910 no part of his life would have been unaffected by it.
Education, land ownership, voting rights, due process, equality, self-determination—Williams would have been guaranteed none of these. By 1910, black people had been free from bondage for forty-five years, but the dark-hearted mentality behind slavery remained in place, not in the corners and fringes of the country but on its main streets and in its town halls and courtrooms. One race fought steadily and openly to keep another race as near to a state of subjugation as possible. The weapons used—black codes, Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, segregation, lynching—were insidious, suppressive, and terrorizing.
Williams lived in a time the historian Rayford Logan called “the nadir of American race relations”—a period from the late 1800s to the early 1900s that saw a violent, bloody backlash against any gains made by black Americans after the Civil War. During this half century some states identified crimes and passed laws “specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity, or loud talk, with white women,” wrote Douglas A. Blackmon in his Pulitzer Prize–winning study of the era, Slavery by Another Name. Black landowners lost billions in wealth as white mobs drove them from their homes and stole their land from beneath them. Many thousands of black men were lynched, many tens of thousands of families displaced, black neighborhoods purged or burned down, death sentences passed for stealing bread or “acting too white.”
A voice in the world, dominion over his body, the barest of dignities—people like Tom Williams were denied these things, and had to fight for them every day.
They were often alone in this fight, but not always.
The story of Tom Williams is also the story of two individuals, a man and a woman, one white, one black, born at different times in different parts of the country, fated never to meet but linked by a passion for justice, and by a single legal case in a town called Asbury Park.
One of them, Raymond C. Schindler, was a cerebral private detective who never once shot a gun or even carried one, the son of a preacher and a prison librarian, a believer in redemption but relentless in pursuit of the criminals who needed it—a gentleman bloodhound.
The other was Ida B. Wells, a black woman born a slave and driven by personal tragedy, a crusader against racism and a champion of her race, barely five feet tall but towering in her righteousness and influence—the most famous black woman of her time.
Schindler was a raw-boned rookie only a few years out of high school when he crossed paths with Tom Williams; by then, Wells had been an activist and reformer for decades. Schindler came to know the dark corners of Asbury Park; Wells never set foot there. They were unaware of each other’s efforts, and neither foresaw the full impact of the case that united them. Today, they are not linked in any textbooks, or in any telling of the crime and its aftermath.
Yet both Ray Schindler and Ida B. Wells, in their resolute pursuit of equal justice for all, emphatically answered the question posed to every citizen, every day—what kind of America do we wish to live in?
Their efforts demonstrated the power of an individual—a single, steadfast warrior—to collide with history and meaningfully shift its course. Their separate heroism, in the form of small, principled decisions and actions, day after day, against all odds and resistance, in service to the unheralded and the vulnerable, had a clear impact on one specific case, but also helped give shape to an ongoing struggle that was bigger than any one man or crime. They were part of a chain of unlikely events in 1910 and 1911 that galvanized the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and set it on its way to becoming the most powerful force in America’s long battle for civil rights.
Those events—and the moral audacity and persistence of Raymond Schindler and Ida B. Wells—are the story of this book.
“In small towns, such crimes are not soon forgotten,” declared the sheriff of Asbury Park, in the days after the terrible crime. “There must be punishment. The man must be made to pay.”
So it was that they came looking for Black Diamond.
When they found him and brought him in, some people had bad things to say about him. One woman told a reporter she always locked her doors when Williams was around; she didn’t like him because “he was so black and dirty.” Others said he was shifty, lazy, a drunk. The Asbury Park Press called him “a bad man generally.”
Most people had no opinion of him at all.
Emma Davison, a key witness in the sensational case that was to come, could recall only a single prior incident involving Tom Williams—an innocuous encounter relayed to her by her young son.
According to the boy, he was playing with a little hop toad on a dirt path in the Wanamassa woods, on the northern edge of Asbury Park, when Williams walked by. The boy announced he planned to kill the toad.
“Don’t do it,” Williams told him.
“Because it would be cruel.”
The boy considered his choice, and opened his hand and let the toad go, and watched it spring and scoot away, into the indifferent woods.