The author at Walden Pond
The author at Walden Pond
The author at Walden Pond (Photo: Philip Keith)

Did My Uncle Drown or Was He Murdered?

For as far back as she can remember, Mardi Fuller grew up in a world of swimming lessons and swim teams, which was unusual for a daughter of Jamaican immigrants. Why the emphasis on water? Because of a mysterious death that haunted her family’s past.

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My palms slice through dark, clear water as I remind myself to swim slowly and evenly. I breathe after every third stroke, and I can feel, like always, that it’s slightly less natural for me to turn my head to the left. Those neck muscles aren’t quite as developed, thanks to years of breathing only to the right, before a coach told me to do both.

I’m at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts—one of the closest public bodies of fresh water to Boston—for a good, long open-water swim. This is the land of the Massa-adchu-es-et, the Nipmuc, and the Pawtucket, a place known in American history as Thoreau’s home, though he moved to Walden after a community of free Black people had already been homesteading there for decades.

Jumping into deep water has been my favorite sensation for as long as I can remember. In tension with this, setting off into a lake or the ocean also gives me a feeling of stress, a bit more than the healthy, natural fear I get in other dangerous situations. This is my reality, even though I was on the swim team for most of my childhood, even though I was a lifeguard and a swim instructor for six years, through high school and college.

As I experience the familiar weightlessness and cooling effect, I’m filled with joy and relief. But when I choose a direction and move farther from the safety of the shoreline, most of my senses dull. Sight, smell, sound, taste offer no consistent stream of information or grounding. Touch provides an overwhelming amount of feedback to the body, as my extremities stretch through the water, as the temperature, current, and any life within caresses, pushes, and pulls.

Relaxing into this mystery, this enveloping ambiguity, is always a challenge for me. Though I can’t quite sort it out, I wonder if my low-level anxiety is generational, in my bones, as old as the Middle Passage. It’s as though I’m somehow linked to my ancestors who jumped off slave ships to drown rather than give in to a captive existence. But perhaps my fear is more recent than that. Perhaps it’s related to what happened to my uncle 15 years before I was born.

My mother, Phyllis, the fourth of six children, grew up in Linstead, Jamaica, a landlocked hamlet 12 miles north of Spanish Town, a large “second city” to Kingston. My uncle Easter Oliver Jones was the second oldest. My grandfather was a skilled tailor and for a time ran his own shop in town. At some point, looking for better opportunities, he left to work abroad for lengthy stretches of time, first in England and then in the United States.

Easter became the man of the house as an early teen. He was a great support to his mother; he watched over the family and property. His older sister, who suffered from mental illness, would often wander off and disappear. Easter would always find her and bring her home. He was strong, athletic, smart, ambitious. In Jamaica in the 1950s, only students who showed academic promise had the opportunity to attend high school, which cost families a substantial amount of money. Easter went to the prestigious Saint Jago high school in Spanish Town and was often featured in the local paper for his talent in track and field, especially the high jump. He was the pride of the family, and he appeared to be his mother’s favorite child.

The Jones family emigrated from Jamaica to the Bronx over a period of several years. My grandfather came first, followed by my mother, in 1960, at age 13. My grandmother, two aunts, a younger uncle, and Easter followed in 1962. He was 20. He attended the City College of New York for one semester and then learned that college grants were available to people serving in the armed forces, including immigrants. Just like that, he enlisted in the Air Force and was off to basic training in Waco, Texas. The day he left home, after the goodbyes and the final hugs, he played a record of the classic hymn “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” And then he was gone. That was the last time my family saw him alive.

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(Film by Evan Grainger & Jackson Buscher)

After basic training, sometime in 1963, Easter joined the 761st Radar Squadron and was stationed in Oregon, at the North Bend Air Force Station, a Cold War–era base equipped with early-warning systems to identify enemy aircraft.

Almost everything I know about what happened next comes from collective memory, snippets of a story shared by my mother over the course of my childhood, and from brief, sad conversations with aunts, uncles, and cousins. On the morning of June 14, 1964, a Sunday, my Aunt Grace was getting dressed for church when she heard a knock. She opened the door and saw two solemn service members, there to deliver the tragic news that Easter had died the night before. They said he was off duty and drowned while swimming in a lake near the base.

That’s all the detail anyone remembers getting. My grandparents neither received nor sought more information. Whenever the incident came up during my youth, the adults would say that the reason we don’t know more is that you can’t ask questions about what happens in the military.

It’s that last part. Growing up, I took it for granted whenever I heard it: You can’t ask questions about the military.

I was well into my twenties—after Black-studies classes in college, after growing in awareness of both my racialized identity and my intrinsic worth as a Black woman—when I finally thought to ask questions about that statement. I realized I hadn’t used my newfound knowledge and self-empowerment to gain a better understanding of the incident and my grandparents’ response to it.

My aunt opened the door and saw two solemn Air Force service members, there to deliver the tragic news that Easter had died the night before. They said he drowned in a lake near the base.

Easter, one of only a few Black airmen at his base, died during Freedom Summer, a critical period in the Civil Rights Movement. He died one week before James Chaney was lynched in Neshoba County, Mississippi, for trying to register Black voters with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white coworkers who were also murdered. He died a month before a 15-year-old boy named James Powell was shot by a white off-duty police officer in Harlem. He died 19 days before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

Though the Air Force had officially desegregated between 1948 and 1952, it neglected to monitor ongoing discrimination and showed no interest in providing equal opportunity for Black airmen. Promotions to supervisory ranks for Black men stagnated between 1949 and 1962. Alan L. Gropman, a veteran and scholar who studies the history of Air Force integration, found that there were more Black master sergeants in 1948 than in 1961. Black servicemen faced racism and discrimination on and off the base, and before 1964, Gropman says, the Air Force generally dismissed complaints of off-base discrimination by saying that controlling such interactions was not its ­responsibility.

My family has often speculated about how Easter may have been treated, but we don’t really know. One of my aunts remembers that he was somehow failing pilot classes, which seems unlikely given his prior academic success. An older cousin says Easter sent my grandmother letters that described abuse. Unfortunately, we don’t have those letters. What we do know is that Easter was a confident man—handsome and self-assured, even a little arrogant. He was from Jamaica, a majority Black country, and in his homeland he was free to be dominant, free to express joy and power, free to live as his full self. He wasn’t bound by white supremacy like he was in the U.S.

I often wonder whether Easter had learned to capitulate to whiteness by 1964. Did he know to make himself small in the presence of white men? Perhaps his confidence, at a time when Black people were expected to be subservient and deferential, exposed him to enemies on the base or in North Bend.

Easter Jones in 1963 at Oregon’s North Bend Air Force Station
Easter Jones in 1963 at Oregon’s North Bend Air Force Station (Photo: Mardi Fuller)
“Throughout my life, the water has been a setting for both emotional and physical recovery.” (Photo: Philip Keith)

Oregon has a history of racism that many people don’t know about. Some of the settler colonists who forcibly removed the Indigenous nations of the region were former southern slaveholders, and many more refused to live alongside Black people. Between 1844 and 1849, the territory’s founders, seeking to build a new whites-only utopia, forbade Black people from living or doing business there. In 1859, Oregon became the only free state admitted to the Union to have Black exclusionary laws in its constitution. Oregon’s legal codes were riddled with discriminatory language, much of it rendered moot, at least in principle, by post–Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These laws were not often enforced, but they discouraged Black settlers from moving to the state. Though the law restricting Black people from living in Oregon was repealed in 1926, the language remained, including a passage that read: “No free negro, or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this State, or hold any real estate.”

This statement remained in the constitution until it was voted out in 2002. Seventy-one percent voted against it—which sounds like a lot until you consider that 28 percent wanted to keep it. To this day, Portland is one of the whitest big cities in the nation, and Oregon is 87 percent white and only 2 percent Black.

The 1960 U.S. census shows only seven Black people living in 7,000-person North Bend. This area, often called Coos Bay–North Bend, was listed by sociologist James Loewen in his 2005 book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. The title phrase refers to places that, roughly between 1890 and 1968, established laws and policies to prevent Black people from living in or visiting them, particularly after dark.

During those times, local vigilantes employed a combination of intimidation and outright violence to enforce the posted ordinances. Coos Bay–North Bend was the site of the lynching of a Black man named Alonzo Tucker, who in 1902 was accused of assaulting a white woman and was shot to death by a party whose members were never identified. A mob tied a rope around Tucker’s neck and hung his body from a bridge—a warning to the region’s handful of Black residents.

How did Easter die, and was foul play involved? I never spoke to my grandparents about this directly before they passed. My mother only told me that he drowned off the base. Aunt Grace talked about a camping trip that Easter went on with civilian friends. Both point to the visit from the service members, the day after Easter’s death, as their only source of information.

Before writing this story, I tried to learn more about what happened. For several years, I’d meant to do this, to find out if any new information might be available, from official records or from contemporaries who are still alive. When I finally dived into the project a few months ago, I learned that there simply isn’t much to be found. My most useful discovery was a front-page story that ran in a local newspaper, which describes the drowning at length, including details that no one in my family had heard before.

The story, headlined “Area Airman Drowns in Dunes Lake,” describes a camping trip involving Easter and four civilian men, all named. Based on the area demographics, I think they were all white, but I don’t know that and the story doesn’t say. I suppose it’s possible that Easter could have met Black men locally—for example, in a church congregation—but it’s highly unlikely that a group of Black men in the 1960s would elect to go camping together at all, especially in such a white region.

The story says the men were swimming in the lake just before 10 P.M. when Easter was “suddenly missed.” His four companions said they searched the shallows by the lake’s edge and couldn’t locate him. They found an abandoned boat and floated out to deeper waters, where they used a pole and a flashlight to probe the lake at a depth of approximately 12 feet. They eventually pulled him up and got his body to shore. They tried mouth-to-mouth but couldn’t revive him. They walked to a nearby house, knocked, and were let inside by the owner, then called for an ambulance. Another attempt was made to revive Easter, using a resuscitator, again to no avail. An autopsy later confirmed death by drowning.

In 1982, almost twenty years after Easter drowned, I took my first swimming lesson. I was three, my brother was ten, and my mother was 36 when we hit the pool together at the Fairview-Greenburgh Community Center in White Plains, New York. She enrolled in adult classes and assisted me in the water-baby class, where instructors guide a parent and child through basic swimming techniques and safety practices. I was a little old for a water baby; usually they were age two or younger. I remember being terrified by the ominous drain at the bottom of the deep end, but a year later I was jumping off the high dive.

The Greenburgh pool had not one but two Black swim instructors, a rarity in the early 1980s. My mother was grateful for this; she was still reeling from how I’d been treated some weeks earlier at a YMCA ­nursery-program swim class. A white instructor had put her hand on my head and pointed at me while gesticulating to other staff, as if to say, What is she doing here? The nursery-class teacher, unwilling to acknowledge that the woman’s act might be racist, told my mother that the instructor and I “didn’t get along” and suggested that I be moved to a different swim section.

I kept taking lessons, and at five or six I joined the Greenburgh pool’s junior swim team. As an adult, I’ve often looked back with gratitude for those years at Greenburgh, for how my parents and teachers gave me a portal to transformative experiences. Throughout my life, swimming has provided a means of play, fitness, and reflection. The water has been a setting for both emotional and physical recovery, and a reminder of the vastness of our natural world.

When I was seven, my family moved to an unincorporated town on the Hudson called Cortlandt Manor. My mom immediately signed me up for more lessons and for the local swim team. Many years of early-­morning practices and weekend swim meets followed. Cortlandt Manor was a much less racially diverse place than White Plains, which is basically a northern suburb of New York City. The racial homogeneity was stifling, and my brother and I struggled with it. Students picked on him, and neither of us had access to the opportunities and support my parents thought we deserved.

To a white person who viewed Black people as inferior, he might have come off as irritatingly confident. I don’t know and will never know. But in my heart I feel that his death wasn’t an accident and may have involved an act of racial violence.

When I reached ninth grade, my folks moved me from the local public school to an intimidating private school several towns away, and I experienced the requisite amount of teenage self-consciousness. I like to joke that I burned out on competitive swimming by 14, but at least half the reason I quit was that I didn’t want my chemically straightened hair to get wet every day. This is one reason some Black people avoid the water; our society has a history of glorifying straight hair and denigrating African curls. As a teenager, straightening my hair felt like the only way to fit in.

Though I didn’t join the swim team, a year later I decided to become a lifeguard and a swim instructor. I was also on my high school’s track team, and one afternoon during practice I told a few teammates about my lifeguarding goal. An assistant coach, a white man, overheard this and turned to me. “You?” he said derisively. “A lifeguard?”

This cruel remark seemed to come out of nowhere, and I don’t know if he said it because I was female, Black, or a mediocre track athlete. Whatever the reason, it burned. I was an artsy, musical kid. I had poor hand-eye coordination and was never good at ball sports. Becoming a lifeguard was important for me, because I was able to prove to myself that I was strong and capable of responding in a crisis situation. This gave me a sense of agency and confidence.

I was a young teenager at the time, and I began to notice that few of my Black friends and family had much swimming experience. This is still widely true among Black people as a whole. A 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation found that 67 percent of Black children had little or no swimming ability, compared to 36 percent of white kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drowning rate in the U.S. from 1999 to 2019 was two times higher among Indigenous people and 1.5 times higher among Blacks than among whites. This disparity decreased between 1999 and 2005, then increased between 2005 and 2019. The most jarring figure: Black youths between the ages of ten and fourteen drown in swimming pools at 7.6 times the rate of white youths in the same age range.

This tragic reality is a direct legacy of segregation. Throughout this country’s history, Black and nonwhite people have faced exclusion, often violent, from swimming pools and public beaches. In the early 20th century, municipal pools were built in countless white neighborhoods but not in Black parts of town. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a sudden pool-building spree. Simultaneously, the genders were integrated and allowed to swim together. This movement dovetailed with Jim Crow in the South and both official and de facto pool segregation in the North, Midwest, and West.

The intimacy of pools and beaches awakened the white mainstream’s most racist fears, including the idea that Black people would spread germs through the water, and that Black men would prey on white women. When pools began desegregating, from the 1940s through the 1960s, many white families fled to private pools, and cities spent less on public pools—a pattern that persists today. Naturally, reduced access to pools and beaches led to diminished water-safety ability in the Black community.

Sometime during my teenage years, I remember talking to my mom about racial disparities in swimming and how few Black people I’d see at the pool. I thanked her for all the years of lessons and the expense. She told me then that she took me to swim lessons because Easter’s death haunted her. She was determined to do anything in her power to ensure that her children would not drown and would feel secure in the water.

The author at a 1984 summer swim session in Greenburgh, New York
The author at a 1984 summer swim session in Greenburgh, New York (Photo: Mardi Fuller)
Mardi and her mom in water-baby class (Photo: Mardi Fuller)

After my recent round of research, I had a lot of new questions about Easter’s death. First, the setting: Beale Lake.

It lies within the southern section of Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area—a vast, temperate expanse extending 40 miles from the town of Florence to Coos Bay. It’s a freshwater lake, just under a mile from the ocean, abutting the majestic dunes that draw tourists to the region. People fish and boat on it, but they don’t generally swim there. It’s cold: in the 1980s—the oldest data I could find—the average water temperature in June was likely in the sixties.

That’s a lot colder than the minimum temperature of 78 recommended for swimming pools. The air temperature the night Easter drowned dropped to 55. Why was he swimming in these conditions? I wonder if a hazing, an initiation, or a dare of some sort was involved, or if Easter had started swimming because he was trying to escape some kind of threat on land. It would have been out of character for him to risk his life for no reason. He was doggedly focused on his success.

Furthermore, how did Easter make four presumably white civilian friends in an area known for racial animus? Would he have had the free time, as a Black airman of low rank, to become buddies with some locals and go on a weekend camping trip? Camping wasn’t part of his background, and he wouldn’t have had the gear for it. What motivated him to go? If these were friends, why didn’t they contact my grandparents with more details about what had happened?

I tried to track down the men named in the account—perhaps they or their relatives were still alive. I called people with similar names, but no one knew about the events of that night. I found the son of the man who owned the house where the four men went to call an ambulance. He said that his father had died years ago, and knew nothing of the incident. And to be clear, I have no reason to believe that the men in this story tried to harm Easter—I don’t have enough information to piece together any particular theory about how he died. It’s possible the newspaper account is true.

I contacted the Coos County Sheriff’s Office and the North Bend Police Department, looking for old records. They didn’t have anything. I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Air Force. It responded quickly and sent me declassified historical records from the 761st Radar Squadron. There was no mention of Easter.

I also tried to locate any of the men he served with, by posting on Air Force message boards. No luck. I learned that many Air Force records had burned in 1973, in a fire at a huge federal archive in Saint Louis. The commanding officer of the 761st Radar Squadron during the early 1960s died in the 1980s. The squadron was dissolved in ­February 1980.

Could Easter swim? Another unknown. My grandparents were islanders, but neither grew up near the water. In Jamaica, some members of coastal communities know how to swim and teach their kids, but most inland dwellers never learn. My grandmother was afraid of water; my grandfather could swim for survival but wasn’t proficient. They didn’t teach any of their children to swim, and most parents of their generation and economic background didn’t carve out time for lessons. My mother speaks of the family’s annual church trips to the beaches on the island’s north coast. Easter may have received some basic pointers while wading in the shallows, but that’s the only swim exposure she recalls. Might he have learned some skills during Air Force basic training? It’s possible. I don’t know.

My mother told me she took me to swim lessons because Easter’s death haunted her. She was determined to do anything in her power to ensure that her children would not drown and would feel secure in the water.

My family has always been suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Easter’s death. They just don’t add up. Easter, an island man accustomed to warm Caribbean waters, would not have risked his life by choosing to swim on a cool night in a dark, cold coastal lake. Given the social climate of the time and Oregon’s pervasive racism, it’s hard for me to believe that his death was accidental. Easter had swagger. I suspect that to a white person who viewed Black people as inferior, he might have come off as irritatingly confident. Of course, I don’t know and will never know. But in my heart I feel that his death wasn’t an accident and may have involved an act of racial violence.

Whatever occurred that night, the pain and grief of Easter’s death drove my grandparents to silence. As was typical of their generation, they wore a tough exterior, suffered quietly. As Black people seeking survival in the racial climate of the 1960s, they had no power. As recent Black immigrants, they were insecure about their status as residents. My grandparents’ sole desire was to make a quiet life for themselves and go to church. They had little ability to advocate for themselves and no evidence that such advocacy would yield results. They knew no community organizers, no lawyers. Perhaps a more empowered family would’ve asked, would’ve challenged, would’ve demanded, but that would have involved great risk.

Four years ago I lost my grandmother, and as I reflected on her life, I went through a period of sadness about Easter. I have many uncles; I know he would have been a great one. As I processed the loss, I thought about all that he would have accomplished, and about the additional cousins I might have had. My family has gone through a lot of pain, and Easter’s presence is missed, his absence felt. My mom speaks of ways he would have been there for family members, how he would have partnered with her during the burden of caring for my grandmother as she succumbed to dementia.

During my swim at Walden Pond, I thought about his final moments, his helplessness; his strong body, lifeless. I felt startled, popped my head up, and treaded water, frightened, pretending I needed to straighten out and course-correct, when what I really needed was a moment of internal orientation. I may never learn the truth, but I find some peace in thanking my uncle for the love he had for my family and for what he gave me. Easter’s legacy is in the backflips and handstands and splashes I took for granted as a kid, the silly participation medals from triathlon events in my twenties, my ability to try any watersport without a second thought. It’s the polar-plunge society of two that I share with a dear friend, the invigorating lap swim for cross-training; it’s me keeping an eye on kids in the ocean, and the whimsical, spontaneous leap into whatever body of water I find.