Emma Willie Johnekin: 1949
Place can vanish, which makes me wonder how memory works through time. If place can vanish and a people’s physical space can vanish, then did a people exist? If the record of existence vanishes, what is existence? Existence remains until it’s forgotten. Existence hangs to the cusp when memory exists or exists no longer, and, when memory no longer exists, a people may have never existed, at all, unless they’re remembered.
7 March 1949. What remains of Emma? On what was probably a cool evening in Georgia in early March, Emma Willie Johnekin did exist. She was eighteen years old. The court record of The State vs. Marion Stembridge from ’49 gives the last name Johnekin, but I can find no cross-reference. I can find no grave or death certificate.
Emma began as, and remains, the center of this research. Other concerns exist, but Emma is primary. Few avenues lead anywhere than to dead end roads. In all of the intrigue and inconsistencies of the stories and conjecture of tales of Marion Wesley Stembridge, he’s a metaphor—an unfortunate consistency of the human imagination as anti-hero (ie: villain). What about a life named Emma?
Emma is consistently forgotten, or ignored—locally and nationally. Unlike 2 May 1953, Emma’s 1949 death doesn’t seem to matter because she was an 18-year-old black female named Emma in Georgia in 1949. I fault Milledgeville just as Milledgeville has long known the specifics of its guilt, but only behind closed doors. The first response to this serial post is all the evidence needed, and we’re living in 2016. Imagine it’s still 1953. Imagine it’s still 1949, to some. Much of Milledgeville remains Marion’s accomplice because it has helped Marion conceal a murder for over sixty years. However, in 1953 there were heroes in Georgia, and two of them died with .45 caliber bullets in their bodies, but in the July 1949 term of Baldwin Superior Court, one who will turn hero, Marion Ennis, remained one of Marion Wesley Stembridge’s three defense attorneys while Shep Baldwin was the prosecuting attorney in The State vs. Marion W. Stembridge.
JOHNNY COOPER, Sworn for the State.
“What did she say?”
“[Emma] said, ‘Lord a mercy, look at this man, got brass knucks and got Johnny in the collar.’ She was standing right next to the door.”
“She saw them and you didn’t—did your mother see them?”
“What happened after [Emma] said that?”
“He asked her what the hell she had to do with it and he broke at her, he was running when he said it, he was running at her.”
“Did he pull the brass knucks out then?”
“I didn’t see the knucks.”
“You watched [Stembridge] run after her?”
“I coulen’t so well be running and watch him. Mr. Sam [Terry] was standing on me, I couldn’t run.”
“I am trying to get you to tell me what you know about this, I want to know if you saw those knucks or not?”
“I didn’t see them.”
“But you did see Mr. Stembridge after this woman, Emma?”
“Yes, I saw him when he caught her.”
Emma was beaten, most likely by brass knuckles, and shot to death in 1949. To this day in 2016, few seem to mention Emma in the tales of Marion, and that’s curious to me. I cannot find Emma in historical records although my access to The University System of Georgia and its collections provides me with privileged resources. I should be able to know, or find indisputable evidence that Emma Willie Johnekin lived and died, but cannot. I don’t take a court record as indisputable law because court recorders can misspell. I will not trust a court reporter’s ear on how to spell Johnekin. It’s as if Emma never existed besides a court record that tells her every step in a house in Milledgeville’s Oconee Heights on 7 March 1949—on one day. Emma is the most of the ghosts. She betters Marion, but I am positive she lived.
Oconee Heights still has houses that remain. Georgia Military College (GMC) is buying the houses up as fast as they come available, and the yellow Caterpillars wait. Toward the Oconee the mostly wooden houses are rotting or have burned. The Oconee Greenway is paved trails and wooden walkways offering Milledgeville inhabitants a rite to the beautiful river to bike, run or walk. When the houses do not exist anymore, Emma will only be a parking lot not unlike Manhattan skyscrapers are built on native grounds with taxis running 24 hours. It’s a classic American legend, you know, that Manhattan was traded for beads. It’s something Americans tell with pride, as if getting the one-over is still what’s right.
THE STATE v. Marion W. Stembridge. No. 3839, Criminal Docket F. Baldwin Superior Court. July Term, 1949. Transcript.