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‘When Atticus Came To Hopkinsville’

Principled lawyer William Oglesby Soyars, Class of 1914, started a family legacy that continues a century later

If William Oglesby "W.O." Soyars, Class of 1914, is looking down from heaven, he is undoubtedly smiling with great satisfaction to know that 100 years after his own graduation his great-granddaughter, Abigail Soyars Henderson ’15, will finish her last semester at Swarthmore in December. Abigail has 13 relatives on both sides of her family who graduated from Swarthmore, including three Quaker matchbox marriages.

The most recent matchbox marriage that cemented Abigail’s Swarthmore legacy status occurred when her parents, Margaret Douglas Smith ’84 and Keith David Henderson ’84, were married just after graduation. Keith’s parents are David Wilson Henderson ’61 and Beverly Burt Henderson West ’61, who were married their senior year. Continuing to observe the matchbox tradition on the Henderson side of the family, Keith’s younger sister, Rebecca Louise Henderson ’86, married Thomas Donald Wynne ’86. (See second photo slide above for a family tree.)

Abigail’s amazing Swarthmore heritage traces back to 1914 graduate W.O. Soyars of Hopkinsville, a small town in western Kentucky. He was a small-town country lawyer who was recently likened to Atticus Finch, hero of the Harper Lee classic To Kill a Mockingbird, for his defense of disenfranchised people in two important cases. Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of his graduation, most of this article will be devoted to him.

Abigail is honored and excited to be finishing her Swarthmore career a century after her great-grandfather. However, she believes that any article celebrating the virtues and accomplishments of privileged people during the last century should note that these people (her family included) benefited from systems of oppression—including white supremacy, immigration policies, and the College’s legacy practices—that helped them accomplish all that they did.

But before we take up Soyars’ memorable cases, it’s important to note that the Soyars Swarthmore dynasty actually began with W.O.’s older sister, Martha Ellis Soyars, Class of 1910. The Soyars siblings came from a modest family in Hopkinsville. They were the youngest of eight children, four of whom died in infancy. (In later life, W.O. explained that in the late 1800s it was not uncommon that half the infants in a family, after surviving their first summer on their mother’s breast milk, would die of “second summer sickness,” which he attributed to lack of refrigeration and improper food-handling techniques.)

Their father, James Thomas Soyars, was a country doctor in the small town of Slaughters, Ky. He lived modestly and rode horseback to visit the homes of his patients. One evening in 1896, Dr. Soyars came home from his daily rounds, stabled his horse, went inside, and sat down by the fireplace, complaining of feeling cold and tired. Within a few hours he was dead, probably from a heart attack. W.O., 4, was then raised by his widowed mother and three older sisters. A few years later, the family moved to Hopkinsville, because his mother heard the town had good schools. (She was right.) Education was always a high priority in the Soyars family.

It is a mystery where “Widow Soyars” got the money to send her two youngest children to Swarthmore. Martha Ellis Soyars lived at home for her first two years of college while attending Bethel Female College (a small Southern Baptist junior college in Hopkinsville), where she majored in Latin. She transferred to Swarthmore because the author of her Latin textbook at Bethel was a Swarthmore professor. Soon after her graduation, Martha married a Lehigh engineering graduate, William C. Peterman, who worked for Bell Telephone Co. in New York City. Martha died in 1929, leaving no children.

W.O. Soyars graduated from Hopkinsville High School in 1910 and followed his beloved older sister to Swarthmore. (She may have helped pay his way.) At Swarthmore, he joined the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity and was chosen for the honorary society Book and Key.

During the summers, he was a “tent man” for the Chautauqua lecture circuit, helping to set up big tops in small towns in the East for a week of culture and entertainment. On the Chautauqua circuit, Soyars heard William Jennings Bryan give his famous “Cross of Gold” speech so often that, years later, he could quote long excerpts, even mimicking Bryan’s voice inflections. (Later, when Soyars enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War I, his fellow recruits found during boot camp that he could set up the required pup tents practically blindfolded. He responded to their questions with an ambiguously muttered, “Setting up these babies is a piece of cake after setting up circus big tops.” He didn’t want to disclose his experience with the erudite Chautauqua circuit.)

Following his Swarthmore graduation, Soyars returned home to “read law” in the office of Trimble and Bell and was admitted to the bar in 1915. Military service in World War I briefly interrupted his legal career, after which he returned to his fledgling law practice in Hopkinsville. He also served as city prosecutor of Hopkinsville, Christian County attorney (1922–1926), and Christian County judge for two terms (1934–1942). He practiced law in Christian County until his death March 4, 1964.

The Soyars family’s legal tradition continued in Hopkinsville. W.O. Soyars’ son, James Thomas “Tom” Soyars ’53, joined his father’s firm. He was serving as circuit judge for Christian County when he died prematurely in 1987. Tom’s son, John Thomas Soyars, practices law in Hopkinsville and is assistant county attorney for Christian County. He helped with the writing of this account, whose primary author is Elizabeth “Libba” Soyars Smith ’54 of Norman Okla., daughter of W.O. Soyars.

This May, 50 years after W.O. Soyars’ death, Wynn Radford, a Hopkinsville businessman, presented a paper that he had authored at the monthly meeting of the Athenaeum Society, a men’s literary society. Radford, a great admirer of Harper Lee’s epic novel, wondered if Hopkinsville ever had a case like the one depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, involving a black man accused of rape, Tom Robinson, or a character like Attorney Atticus Finch, who defended Robinson. In the meticulously researched and thoughtfully written paper, “When Atticus Came to Hopkinsville,” Radford discussed a 1954 capital case, one of two argued by Soyars that bears comparison to the case depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird. But before Soyars served as a court-appointed attorney for that 1954 case, he handled another case that Atticus Finch would have championed. An account of that case follows:

In 1916, less than a year after Soyars had been admitted to the bar, the court asked him to represent an African-American man accused of murdering a white man. (Before the days of paid public defenders it was customary for the court to appoint young lawyers to represent indigent defendants.) In 1916, in the sleepy little Southern town of Hopkinsville, it was not popular for a lawyer to defend a black man accused of murdering a white man. But even in the infancy of his professional career, and at significant danger to his yet-to-be established reputation, Soyars took the controversial case, Commonwealth Of Kentucky v. Frank Postell, and fought hard for his client.

According to the court review of the case, Postell allegedly lured the murdered man, J.J. Robertson, into the rural countryside with the promise of showing him some property for sale, then “striking, beating, and wounding the deceased with a stick, stone, or other blunt, deadly instrument, from which he died within a few days thereafter.” The strongest evidence came from a Mr. Duncan who had shared a hospital room with the victim for several days before he died. Duncan testified that he had heard Robertson’s “dying declaration” claiming that Postell had beaten him to death. Although hearsay evidence is normally excluded from a trial, it is a longstanding legal tradition that a dying declaration (one made when the speaker believes that he is dying) is admissible as evidence. Over the objections of defense attorneys Soyars and co-counsel L.K. Wood, the court ruled that Duncan’s testimony fell within the guidelines of a dying declaration and allowed the testimony to be admitted as evidence.

Although the jury found Frank Postell guilty, Soyars and Wood appealed the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals (now the Kentucky Supreme Court) and won a new trial for Postell. The court ruled that although the trial judge was correct in considering Duncan’s testimony as a dying declaration and therefore admissible as evidence, he had erred when he went further and (1), instructed the jury to accept Duncan’s testimony as true beyond a reasonable doubt, and (2), directed the jury’s attention specifically to certain parts of Duncan’s testimony. Both of these instructions invade the province of the jury to make those determinations, the Court of Appeals stated. On these grounds, the court reversed the guilty judgment against Frank Postell and granted him a new trial.

And there, abruptly, the record ends. There seems to be no written record as to whether Frank Postell was ever tried again as per the Court of Appeal’s instruction. Perhaps he had died in the meantime; at the very least, he seems to have simply disappeared from public view.

The Court of Appeals’ decision was handed down Feb. 27, 1917. The United States entered World War I less than six weeks later, on April 6, and Soyars enlisted in May. He had given the Postell case his best time and energy, and he had won in the appellate court. Now the Christian County Courthouse had been replaced by another, larger arena in which his efforts were needed.

But Soyars’ determination to see that justice was done got another test 38 years later, as he made his second Atticus Finch­–like appearance in Hopkinsville. He strived again to protect the constitutional rights of a penniless, uneducated black man as a defense attorney in Commonwealth Of Kentucky v. Ed Milam. Soyars, like Finch, knew from the start that he was fighting for an unpopular cause that he could not win.

When the Milam trial began in October 1954, Brown v. Board of Education had been decided only five months earlier. It predated December 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and the 1957 incident when the 101st Airborne Division protected students in Little Rock, Ark. Equally important, as television news was in its infancy, most citizens had never witnessed the drama of a Southern murder trial in which a black man was accused of killing a white man.

July 15, 1954, undoubtedly was a day that Ed Milam wished had never dawned. He and several friends had been drinking beer and wine all afternoon at Mr. Babo’s place in New Providence, Tenn., in 100-degree heat to celebrate one friend’s recent discharge from the U.S. Air Force. Earlier that afternoon the group had purchased wine at a liquor store called The Hut in Oak Grove, Ky., (near Fort Campbell and the Kentucky­–Tennessee state line). They returned at 5:30 p.m. for more liquor.

According to the court transcript, at 5:30 p.m. a robbery and murder occurred at The Hut. Three black men drove up to The Hut, and two entered the store. Ed Milam, 25, told the clerk, Stephen Farmer, 61, “This is a stickup” and demanded a bottle of wine. Farmer shot Milam in the ear, Milam fired at least three shots, and Farmer was killed. One man got back into the vehicle, but Milam was not allowed to re-enter the vehicle and walked home to New Providence.

The next day, Milam was arrested and incarcerated in the Clarksville, Tenn., jail. After he had been questioned for several hours by the Clarksville Police Department, Milam met with Russell Greenwell, chief of the Hopkinsville Police Department, alone in the Clarksville jail between 8:30 and 9 p.m. He voluntarily signed a written confession confirming that he had been read his rights, that his statement was made freely and voluntarily, that he realized his statement could be used against him, that no promise had been made to him that would benefit him in any way, that his confession would not make life easier for him, and that he had not been granted any type of immunity. Chief Greenwell later confirmed that he was unaware of what Milam and the Clarksville Police Department had discussed before his own meeting with Milam.

To its credit, Hopkinsville’s daily newspaper, the Kentucky New Era, did not sensationalize the shooting or the subsequent trial. However, the trial generated significant local interest, as more than 100 citizens packed the Christian County Courthouse for the arraignment, and seven local law enforcement officers accompanied the suspect. The New Era reported that no trouble arose at the courthouse.

Pollard White and Judge W.O. Soyars replaced Milam’s initial court-appointed attorneys, Edward T. Breathitt and James P. Hanratty, at Milam’s arraignment Sept 30. The trial began less than a month later, Oct. 27, and only lasted one day. After a lengthy jury selection, the evidence and testimony were finalized by 4:45 p.m. that day. The defendant did not take the stand. In an unusual night-court session, the jury reconvened at 7 p.m. Closing arguments, including Soyars’ for the defense, took an hour and 10 minutes. After only 18 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict of willful murder and recommended the death penalty. The next day the New Era’s headline read, “Milam’s Sentence 7th to [Electric] Chair in County’s History.”        

Following Milam’s conviction, White and Soyars appealed the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals and to the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that Milam should be granted a new trial because photographs introduced as evidence were inflammatory, neither the grand nor the petit jury included any African-American jurors, and Milam could have been “sweated” into making a confession.

The defense attorneys wrote in their appeal: “… We urge the members of this Court to examine this case subjectively, and to apply the rules of evidence governing the two points made herein, in the light of the fact that appellant is a Negro, 25 years of age; that therefore it is doubtful he could, under arrest, charged with murder, and in the custody of five or six white peace officers, voluntarily give a confession or do anything else. He would almost certainly experience great fear and pressure, sufficient to render his statement involuntary. No one knows what transpired in Clarksville, Tenn., during the three and a half hours before appellant made a ‘confession’ to [Hopkinsville Police Chief] Russell Greenwell. Greenwell said he didn’t know. The Commonwealth failed to show, as it easily could have done, by any of the Tennessee officers, how the appellant was handled—whether he was abused, threatened, promised immunity, or plied with questions.”

Both appellate courts denied the appeals, and Milam was executed in Kentucky’s electric chair Sept. 16, 1955. The time span from the murder to the electric chair was 14 months and one day. Although other defendants from Christian County have since been sentenced to death row in Kentucky, no one has been executed.

Wynn Radford, who talked at the Athenaeum about the Milam case, believes that the trio, and specifically Milam, never intended to kill Farmer. Evidence existed that Milam was inebriated when he walked into The Hut. Although the events at the Clarksville police station will most likely remain unknown, Radford thinks that Milam voluntarily signed his confession with the belief that he would receive life imprisonment and not the death penalty. Radford believes that, unlike the case in To Kill A Mockingbird, sufficient evidence existed for a reasonable jury to conclude that Milam had killed Farmer.

“In retrospect,” Radford points out, “there is at least one other local attorney who was influenced by the Milam case, Edward T. ‘Ned’ Breathitt.” [He and Jim Hanratty had been Milam’s original court-appointed lawyers]. In 1954, Breathitt was preparing to run for governor of Kentucky, and Hanratty was running for commonwealth attorney. A contemporary of the men remembers that it could have been political suicide for them to serve as Milam’s court-appointed attorneys.

Breathitt was subsequently elected governor and became one of the first Southern governors to aggressively support civil-rights legislation. During his inauguration speech on Dec. 10, 1963, Breathitt called on Kentuckians “ ... to be first in nobility of spirit, first in their determination to cast away hate, bigotry, and prejudice.” When Breathitt’s “Kentucky’s Civil Rights” law passed in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to pass any type of significant civil-rights legislation that went beyond existing federal law toward prohibiting racial discrimination. Breathitt called the law “... a moral commitment kept after a hundred years of hope deferred,” and added, “This is only a beginning. Only in the human heart can justice win the final victory.”

Perhaps when W.O. Soyars and Pollard White replaced Breathitt and Hanratty as Milam’s defense attorneys, all four men had some dim, unarticulated hope that Breathitt’s election as governor might indeed enable “justice [to] win the final victory”—that what he could achieve for the cause of civil rights as governor was far greater than what he could have achieved as defense counsel for Ed Milam. Subsequent events proved that to be true.

Concluding his Athenaeum speech, Radford stated his belief that both White and Soyars would have fully appreciated this insightful exchange between Atticus Finch and his son, Jem:  

“... I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

Radford reminded his audience “that inspirational heroes are not limited to literary works. Many are found in Hopkinsville, stepping forward on a daily basis to make our community a better place to live and raise our families.” This article serves as a reminder that one such inspirational hero graduated from Swarthmore a century ago.

—This article was written by Libba Soyars Smith ’54, daughter of W.O. Soyars, Class of 1914, and grandmother of Abigail Soyars Henderson ’15, with input from Wynn Radford and her nephew, John Thomas Soyars.