Roman Ducksworth Jr.
A military police officer with five kids and a sixth on the way
April 9, 1962
"What goes through my mind, every time I see police brutality today, I think about my father."
Son of Ducksworth
CD: What goes through my mind, every time I see police brutality today, I think about my father. I feel for the kids, cause they’re left without a parent. And I know what it’s going to be like with them growing up.
How he died? I didn’t really know that until after I got married. Cause every time I asked, my mother would just put us off. She didn’t want to talk about it. So I took it that he got sick, or something.
The day that I found out, my wife had a letter that had came into the mail, and she opened it up. And it was about a memorial that was being held for my father in Montgomery, Alabama. I go, ‘A memorial? Why is my father being memorialized?’ So I called my mom. I go ‘Why do I have this letter about my father telling me something that I never knew anything about?’ So, she said that I need to come home – to her home, that is. And she sat down and told me what happened.
And that’s when I kind of freaked out. Cause here I am thirty-something years old, and finding out that my dad was killed by a police officer trying to come home to see his wife and newborn.
I didn’t understand for a long time, why she didn’t tell us. But then you think about it over time, you realize the reason why, // She was pretty strict in making sure that we didn’t have // hatred in our hearts and we didn’t.
I can’t speak for other families, but I can speak for mine. Just because the person that shot my father is dead, doesn’t mean that the case is dead. Because the only thing I wanted from this whole thing was they acknowledge that it wasn’t a justified killing. That’s what I’m hoping. If they would turn that around I think my family would feel a whole lot better.
Photo by Vashon Jordan Jr.
Corporal Roman Ducksworth Jr. was a 27-year-old military policeman stationed at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, when he received a call to return home to his wife who was experiencing complications with her pregnancy. Ducksworth, a Black man, made the thousand-mile journey home to Mississippi but never made it to his wife. He was shot and killed at the Taylorsville bus station on April 9, 1962.
Ducksworth had fallen asleep on the final leg of his journey. According to a Department of Justice memo on the case, upon arriving at the bus station, the driver tried to rouse Ducksworth. Unable to do so, the driver called local Taylorsville police officer William Kelly for assistance. At least one witness reported that Kelly boarded the bus and woke Ducksworth by slapping him in the face then escorted Ducksworth off the bus.
Accounts of what happened next vary, but according to some witness statements, Ducksworth struck Kelly, who responded by hitting Ducksworth on the head repeatedly with his police club. Other statements said Ducksworth merely defended himself against Kelly. By all accounts, Kelly ultimately fired one shot at the ground and a fatal shot into Ducksworth’s chest. The victim died at the scene. His wife, Melva Ducksworth, gave birth that same day.
Days after the shooting, a local grand jury declined to indict William Kelly, who claimed he acted in self-defense. No charges were filed.
The NAACP, the FBI and the Department of Defense all conducted investigations at the time of the killing, but none of those investigations led to charges against the officer. In the military police report, there are some witness statements that corroborated the officer’s version of events. However other witness statements said that Ducksworth did not attack the officer but rather defended himself.
More than 2,000 people are said to have attended the corporal’s funeral, which included an integrated honor guard. After her husband died, Melva Ducksworth moved with her children to Illinois.
Till Act Status
The FBI revisited the case in 2008, reviewing media coverage, archives from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, and conducting at least one interview. A Taylorsville court clerk told the FBI he had no records of the killing. Likewise, there were no records from the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office or the Taylorsville Police Department. The FBI learned that Kelly had died in 2004. Another former Taylorsville police officer who reportedly witnessed the killing had also since died.
The Justice Department concluded the case could not be prosecuted because Kelly was deceased and the relevant statute of limitations had run out, and closed the file in 2010.
Case Status closed
- Closed All Subjects Deceased
- Closed Cases
- Deaths Involving Law Enforcement
- Storycorps Stories
About the Project
This multiplatform investigation draws upon more than two years of reporting, thousands of documents and dozens of first-hand interviews. FRONTLINE spoke to family and friends of the victims, and witnesses, some of whom had never been interviewed; current and former Justice Department officials and FBI agents, state and local law enforcement; lawmakers, civil-rights leaders and investigative journalists, to explore the Department of Justice’s reopening of civil rights-era cold cases under the 2008 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
In addition to an examination of the federal effort, the project features the first comprehensive, interactive list of all those whose cases were reopened by the Department of Justice. Today, the list stands at 151 names. Among the victims: voting rights advocates, veterans, Louisville’s first female prosecutor, business owners, mothers, fathers, and children.
The project consists of a web-based interactive experience, serialized podcast, a touring augmented-reality exhibit, documentary and companion education curriculum for high schools and universities.
A project like Un(re)solved would not be possible without the historic and contemporary contributions of universities, civil rights groups, and the press, particularly the Black press, who have ensured the ongoing public record of racist violence in the United States. To pay homage to these groups, the web interactive begins with a quote from journalist, activist and researcher Ida B. Wells, one of the first to document with precision the horrors of racial terror in America. “The way to right wrongs,” she wrote, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
At the outset of the project, FRONTLINE forged a relationship with Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), bringing them on as an academic partner. Launched in 2007 by Distinguished Law Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ is a mission-driven program of interdisciplinary teaching, research and policy analysis on race, history, and criminal justice. Their work has expanded beyond the names on the Justice Department’s list, archiving documents in over 1,000 cases of racially motivated homicides.
With support from the CRRJ, FRONTLINE reporters gathered what could be known about the individuals on the list, conducting interviews with family, friends and witnesses, delving into newspaper archives and gathering documentation including headstone applications, draft cards and archival photographs.
At the heart of the project has been a drive to center the voices of the families of those on the list. FRONTLINE partnered with StoryCorps to record nearly two dozen oral histories with victims’ next of kin, which are featured both in the web-based interactive and traveling AR exhibit. These oral histories will also be archived in the National Library of Congress.
To lead the creative vision for the web experience and installation, FRONTLINE partnered with Ado Ato Pictures, a premier mixed reality studio founded by artist, filmmaker, and technologist Tamara Shogaolu.
Shogaolu rooted the visuals in the powerful symbolism of trees. In the United States, trees evoke the ideal of liberty, but also speak to an oppressive history of racially motivated violence. In Persian myth, trees are humanity’s ancestors, while in Toraja, Indonesia, they serve as sacred burial sites.
“I was really inspired by looking at the role of the tree as a symbol in American history” Shogaolu said. “It’s been looked at as a symbol of freedom, we look at it as a connector between generations, and also there’s the association of trees with racial terror.” When designing the creative vision for Un(re)solved Shogaolu wondered whether she might be able to reclaim the symbol of the tree. “As a person of color, we’re often terrified of being in isolated places in the woods. And I thought it was kind of crazy that there are natural environments that instinctually give great fear because of this connection with racial terror and I wanted to reclaim that — to turn these into beautiful spaces.”
Un(re)solved weaves imagery of trees, which also recall family ties, into patterns and textures from the American tradition of quilting. Among enslaved African Americans forbidden to read or write, quilts provided an important space to document family stories. Today, quilting remains a creative outlet rich with story and tradition for many American communities.
We invite you to enter this forest of quilted memories — a testimony to the lives of these individuals, and the multi-generational impact of their untimely, unjust loss.
(Credits to come)