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Hometown murder becomes backbone for novel

Staff Photo: Karen Rohr. Covington resident Javon Brothers will sign copies of his novel, "A Deadly Night in the Harbor of Hospitality," on Aug. 27 at the Olde Town Gallery & Studio.

Staff Photo: Karen Rohr. Covington resident Javon Brothers will sign copies of his novel, "A Deadly Night in the Harbor of Hospitality," on Aug. 27 at the Olde Town Gallery & Studio.

As a child in the 1940s and '50s, Javon Brothers listened to his family elders speak in hushed voices about how William Poole "killed those two sailors." When Brothers made inquiries about the identity of Poole, the family fell silent.

"They would stop, as if they were afraid," said Brothers.

About five years ago, Brothers, now 66, made it a priority to find out just exactly who Poole was and why he had such an effect on the family. The result is his latest novel, "A Deadly Night in the Harbor of Hospitality."

A novel based on a true story, the book is about a black man in Elizabeth City, N.C., who is beaten by two white sailors and retaliates by shooting them, killing one. The man is put on trial, found guilty and executed in 1943. William Poole -- the gunman -- is Brothers' cousin.

"I was very surprised," said Brothers of learning that Poole was his cousin. "But I was also glad to know that he stood up for himself. He was a family man who stood up for himself."

Brothers started his research about Poole by asking his family members what they remembered. His sister recalled that she couldn't go ice skating because military reinforcements had been brought into town to quell racial tensions in the days after the shooting.

Spurred on by relatives' recollections, Brothers visited the library and searched for days -- from opening to closing time -- for

newspaper articles about the event. Just as he began to doubt the crime ever happened, on the fourth day he found a story.

"It was almost like I a discovered a pot of gold," recalled Brothers.

Brothers' interest peaked even more when his then 95-year-old mother gave him a letter Poole had written to her from death row.

Wanting to know more about the details of the story, Brothers delved into court records, read more newspaper articles and interviewed more relatives.

Brothers eventually learned that racism played a key role in Poole's crime.

On Dec. 31, 1942, Poole had stopped by a restaurant for some ice cream. As he stood at the counter waiting for his order to be filled, two drunk white sailors began harassing him, physically assaulting him and accusing him of raping a local woman.

Poole took the beating, which was eventually stopped by white bystanders, but went home infuriated and intent on retaliation. That night, he hid in a ditch with a gun and waited for the sailors.

As the two men entered the home of a relative, Poole fired, spraying the two sailors and one other man, who was letting the sailors into the house, with buck shot.

One sailor died, the other two men were wounded in the attack.

Authorities searched for nine days for the killer.

"It was a very tense time. Everybody was afraid, white people and black people," said Brothers, who said that government authorities were enlisted to keep the Ku Klux Klan from harming the black community.

Several days after the murder, Poole inadvertently confessed to a friend that he had shot the men. The friend told his boss, who alerted the authorities.

Police arrested Poole and he confessed to the shooting after about two days in custody.

After a trial that lasted two days in February 1943, a jury found Poole guilty and a judge sentenced him to death. Poole's efforts to appeal the sentence failed and he died in the gas chamber on Oct. 8, 1943.

Brothers' book begins with a nonfiction, first-person account of his efforts to find the identity of William Poole. The novel then moves on to become a fictional narrative, based on fact, about events leading up to the shooting, the crime itself, the aftermath and the trial.

"The main thing that really piqued my interest was when they announced the death sentence, he didn't cry or plead or beg and ask how he could appeal it. They put the cuffs on him and he put his hat on and as he started down the hallway, he stopped and said to his wife Ethel, 'Take care of yourself and kiss the baby for me,'" said Brothers.

A resident of the Atlanta area since 1976, Brothers lives in Covington and is retired after serving three years in the Army during the Vietnam War and working over 30 years for the social security administration. In addition to writing, he also enjoys painting and photography.

One day Brothers hopes to be able to live again in his hometown of Elizabeth City. He said today race relations in the city are good.

"In spite of all this, Elizabeth City is now a wonderful place to live," said Brothers.

Brothers will have a book signing on Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Olde Town Gallery & Studio, 909 Commercial St. in Conyers. For more information or to purchase a copy of the book, call Brothers at 770-883-6293 or visit www.tatepublishing.com or www.javonbrothers.tateauthor.com.