EP 1: Prologue

What Happened in Alabama Podcast

EP 1: Prologue

When journalist Lee Hawkins was growing up, his father, Leroy, would have nightmares about his childhood in Alabama. When Lee was in his 30s, he started to have his own nightmares about his childhood in Minnesota. These shared nightmares became a clue that set Lee on a decade-long genealogical journey. In this episode we meet Lee and his Dad, and through them, we discover the roots of What Happened in Alabama?, and reveal the stakes of daring to ask the question – and all the questions that followed.


Lee Hawkins (host): We wanted to give a heads up that this episode includes talk of abuse and acts of violence. You can find resources on our website, WhatHappenedInAlabama.org. Listener discretion is advised.

In 2004, when I was 33 years old, my dad called me for the first time in a year. I remember it so well. It was a Saturday. It wasn’t long after his retirement party, which I missed, because we weren’t talking.

[phone ringing]

A year may not sound like that long to some of you, but you have to understand, my dad and I used to talk every day. He was my best friend.

We stopped talking because I asked my parents to go to therapy. I wanted them to confront some things from our past that had started haunting me as an adult, but they refused. And then a year later, Dad called. That one call turned into hundreds over several years. And what he told me, would change my life forever.

Lee Sr.: I really haven't shared any of this shit with anybody, you know. But what it - I'm sorry I'm goin’ back in that shit. But you know everybody's life isn't as peachy as people think.

My name is Lee Hawkins and this is What Happened In Alabama: The Prologue.

[music starts]

Before we go much further, I need to tell you how uncomfortable this makes me. I’m a journalist and a writer; and as journalists, we’re taught to tell other people’s stories — but this story, well, it’s all about me and my family. So that takes me out of my comfort zone, but I’ve learned over the years that sometimes the most powerful story you can tell is your own.

So let’s start at the beginning. Back home in Maplewood, Minnesota, where I grew up.

[game sounds]

Maplewood was that suburban American dream – the white fences, green lawns and ranch-style houses.

It was the 1980s, so my two sisters and I were always either playing outside or in the house listening to music. My favorite was the handheld Mattel Classic Football 2 game. I used to play that thing all day.

[game sounds]

We lived and went to school in a predominantly white neighborhood, but we also spent a lot of time in our Black community in Saint Paul, where our church was, and many family and friends lived. Having that balance was a real blessing.

A lot of the childhood joy I experienced as a kid was fueled by the time I spent with my Dad and my grandfathers. Playing drums and singing at music gigs. Going to the “Brotherhood Breakfast” – which was a pancake and waffles extravaganza that my church organized for Black fathers and their sons. We talked about everything from the Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes fight to Prince’s latest hit.

[barbershop sounds]

Getting lined up at Mr. Harper’s Barbershop – basically one of the few places for a Black man to get a haircut in Saint Paul. And on Sunday we went to Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church.

[church music starts]

Lee Sr.: [singing] Who's on the lord's side?

That’s my dad, Lee Roy Hawkins Senior, singing at our church.

From the time I was a little kid, it was always me and him. Lee Senior and Lee Junior. Lee Roy and Lee Lee.

But there was something bubbling up under our picture perfect surface.

[foreboding music starts]

Sometimes, my dad would have nightmares. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to his screams. He’d wake the whole house. I’d hear my mom shouting, “Lee Roy, you’re having a dream! It’s okay, you’re having a dream!” She’d say it over and over and eventually he’d wake up and calm down.

Like most boys my age, I idolized my dad. I thought he was the most fearless person on Earth, and that he wasn’t afraid of anything. So hearing him scream out like that told me that whatever he was dreaming about had to be pretty fierce.

I knew better than to go in that room during those nightmares, but one morning, I somehow found the courage to finally ask him, “Dad, what were you dreaming about last night?” He hardly spoke. He just looked down at the floor and said, “Alabama, son. Alabama.”

My father was born in 1948 in a small town in Butler County, Alabama, during the height of Jim Crow. He rarely talked about it or what happened while he was there. But Alabama was always with us. It’s like he’d packed it into his suitcase when he moved to Minnesota. In his screams at night and in the things he didn’t say.

I couldn’t explain it back then, but it also showed up in how he punished us. Like this one time back in 1979 I was eight years old, and as usual, playing my video game.

[video game noises]

It was a Sunday. I remember because we’d just come home from church. My dad was in the kitchen putting mayonnaise on a bologna sandwich, and I was in the living room, when suddenly…. TOUCHDOWN!

[video game beeps]

I jumped up man, and I ran over to dad in the kitchen. And I told him, “Dad, dad, I scored a touchdown!”

[dark music starts]

Instead of congratulating me, he snatched the game from my hand. He threw it down on the ground, and then he picked me up and body slammed me to the linoleum floor. Hard.

And then he just started screaming, “Do it on the field! Do it on the field!”

Looking up at him from the floor, I was completely bewildered and confused. As an eight year old kid, I had no idea why he’d done that.

Like many Black kids we knew, we got the belt whenever we did something wrong. If I try to estimate it, I definitely got whipped with a belt over 100 times throughout my childhood and my teenage years. Both of my parents whipped me with inexplicable anger. You didn’t always know when their tempers would be triggered, but when they were, you couldn’t forget it.

There was a sense of fear of the outside world that hung over our household constantly. When we’d get punished, our parents would tell us that it was to protect us, to keep us from being killed, by the police, by white racists, or even someone from our own Black community. I could sense it in my Dad’s nightmares. But I didn’t think about it too much until I started to have my own nightmares as an adult.

The summer of 2003, I was a journalist in my early thirties, and I’d just landed a job at the Wall Street Journal covering General Motors from Detroit.

I had a new apartment, strong friendships and my loving family – my two sisters, my mom, my dad. They all lived in suburbs around the Twin Cities. My parents still lived in Maplewood. Like always, I talked nearly every day to my dad on the phone.

I was, in a lot of ways, fulfilling my dreams. But at night, something was happening. I’d fall asleep, and then, I was eight years old again, getting body slammed by my dad. I started having these dreams like multiple times a week. And each dream focused on that same attack.

I would wake up sweaty and disoriented, still thinking from the vantage point of that eight year old kid looking up at my dad’s face from the floor. Every time it took a few minutes for me to realize that I wasn't still that kid. That I was an adult. I was far away from Minnesota. And I was in my own home.

There was one particular night when I realized that the nightmares were seeping into my daily life. I was at a bar with my friends.

[bar sounds]

The bar was packed. We were standing around tall bar tables, and everyone was talking over everyone. It smelled like Grand Marnier. As my friends talked, all of a sudden their voices became distant.

I was standing next to a table, trying to laugh along with everybody, but my mind's eye was on that 8-year old version of me – that little boy who kept springing up in my dreams. I was admonishing myself. I kept thinking over and over about what I could have done to protect him.

And then, I leaned back, and suddenly, I was on fire. My shirt had caught the flame of a small candle that was burning on the tabletop. My friend Marcus jumped into action. He started putting out the flames on my arm with his hand while everyone else took a step back.

A little later, Marcus made a joke about it and we laughed, but I could tell my friends were baffled, wondering how could I be so out of it that I’d set my arm on a burning candle.

What in the world is going on with me? Why can’t I stop thinking about stuff that happened two decades ago?

That year got harder and harder for me. The endless replay of this past memory, the brain fog, the anxiety, the disorientation, and the anger. The weight of it all became overbearing. So much so that one night I was screaming at my father in the dream. When I woke, I knew I needed to confront my parents. Immediately. I reached for the phone.

[phone ringing]

I tried to catch my breath while it rang. When my mother answered, I shouted, "Put Dad on the phone!" My heart was pumping outside of my chest. My fists were clenched, and I felt like I could punch through the wall.

When he answered, I asked him if he remembered body slamming me to the floor when I was eight years old over a game I was playing. He just sat there listening to me breathing and said, “I don’t know. I did a lot of crazy things.” My mom started screaming into the phone, telling me I was being disrespectful.

I told them I would stop talking to them forever unless they went to therapy first. They refused. So I hung up the phone. And I didn’t talk to my parents for over a year. I was committed, and I was done with them.

[music starts]

And during that time, I tried to confront my nightmares. I went to therapy. I exercised and started meditating. I did all the things I could do to manage the stress on my body and my mind.

And I thought about that conversation with my parents a lot, about how all I had wanted was to know why. Why did they treat me like that as a kid? Intellectually, I knew that in that particular instance, they were trying to teach me a lesson – a lesson that even at eight years old, I had to hurry up and become a man.

That’s what “do it on the field” means – that Black boys need to make real-world accomplishments if they want to be successful in life. I understood this, but I didn’t understand why my dad felt he needed to body slam me. And then my dad called.

He told me he’d missed me at his retirement party, and he’d missed all of our hours-long chats. He apologized, and said that he understood that I had been taken for granted, and that I had every right to be upset about everything that happened to me as a kid. It was our separation that made him realize that. He told me he and my mom were ready to go to counseling. And I was too.

Lee Sr.: Yeah, but see I got a lot of memories down there that I really didn't wanna deal with, you know? They’ve been living in this survival, get what you can bullshit all these years, man, it’s been like that my whole adult years. Been putting out fires, man, my whole life. My whole adult life.

There were so many questions I wanted to ask my parents growing up. Questions about them, about their lives. And about how that affected the choices they made in raising me and my sisters – choices that were imposed on us by our own country, and our country’s perception of our place in it.

I started with my dad. His life in the south was a mystery to us, and I wanted to know what happened to him. What happened in Alabama?

Lee: Tell me about your earliest memory in Greenville and what it was like to grow up there.

Lee Sr.: Lived in a little house…had two or three rooms and a kitchen. My dad built the house.

When I started working on this project in 2014, Dad really opened up about his life in the Jim Crow south. And I was blessed to be able to record some of our interviews.

Some of what he shared were beautiful memories of this little boy we’d never seen pictures of. He shared fond memories of Alabama, especially the baseball field he played on. His team would play during the day. And sometimes Negro League legends like Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige would play there at night.

Other memories were super hard for him to revisit. But he courageously kept opening up. He told me about something he’d always been too pained to talk about: how the loss of his mom in 1961, when he was just 12 years old, changed his whole life.

Lee Sr.: You know, that was a real devastating thing for me when I lost my mommy. I just can't even, you know, shit, I couldn't, I couldn't make it through that man.

And how it felt when, after his mom's death, he moved north to live with one of his older sisters and her husband in Minnesota

Lee Sr.: When I had left Alabama, something came out of me, man. A big ass relief. And I didn't even know where I was going. But it was a big ass, just, man like a breath of fresh air, man.

Later, he expressed the regret, confusion and rage he felt when he returned to Alabama at 27 years old, when I was just a baby, to bury his father – who was killed.

Lee Sr.: I was looking forward for him to see you guys. And I was always thinking I had more time, you know, because he was a healthy guy, man. He was a healthy man.

And how hard that return was, for many reasons.

Lee Sr.: It was horrible because somebody had killed him, and people were looking at us like trying to figure out what we were gonna do about it. And I was saying, fuck, I got to get through this and get out of this motherfucker. You know, I ain't got time to look for no murderer.

As he told me these stories, I realized that my father knew very little about his own upbringing. He had left Alabama at such a young age, and because of that there were so many secrets that were kept from him – and these were the secrets that showed up in his nightmares as an adult. The ones he kept from me.

As a journalist, for me, one of the hardest things is to know there’s a story there, but to not be able to break it open and just tell it. It was nagging at me, and I knew something had happened in my family to make my parents so extremely fearful for themselves and for us. So in 2015, I took a DNA test.

Lee Sr.: And that thing, you know they say, if you don't know where you come from, how the hell you know where you going?

For years, I had believed that the stories of Black families like mine were irretrievable, but with the help of that test, my father and I went to work filling in that family tree.

I embarked on a genealogical journey for myself, but also for – and often with – my dad.

[phone ringing]

Lee Sr.: Hello?

Lee: Hey, Dad.

Lee Sr.: Yeah. Hey, man.

Lee: Can you hear me okay?

Lee Sr.: Yeah. You’re good.

Lee: Okay. Good, man. Good. Thanks a lot.

Lee Sr.: Oh, yeah. Let’s get it.

I dug into archives and sifted through census records. I’d call him up when I found new information.

Lee: I'm looking at this um, hmm. This genealogy shit is crazy.

Lee Sr.: Well, I'll be darned.

Lee: Did you realize that when your mom's father was killed, she was nine?

Lee Sr.: She was nine?

Lee: She was nine.

Lee Sr.: No, I didn't know that.

Lee: But, you know, your dad has, in the census, he had a couple brothers and sisters that were listed as mulatto.

Lee Sr.: Oh, goodness me.

The project became so much bigger than discovering our family. It turned into an exploration of American history that no one really likes to talk about: the aftermath of slavery and Jim Crow, a history that shaped my family's experience in America.

This is a story about some of the more tragic parts of my family and my country’s history. The parts that, amid all the love and the closeness, were buried and rarely if ever discussed. It’s about my journey to uncover and understand those tragedies.

I did hundreds of interviews. Some of them with family members, others with genealogists and academics on everything from the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust on survivors and their descendants, the effects of slavery on Black America, and even the mental health of the children of people who have been incarcerated or murdered. Even when it didn’t seem like it, every interview I did was also a means to understand our family history and in turn myself, so much better.

Brandon Jones: Well, we have a lot of old parenting techniques that were picked up and conditioned from slavery that have continued on. Doctor Joy DeGruy talks about this in her book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

Prof. Christopher Haveman: There was no real justification – moral justification – for it other than whites had the racist premise that they were civilized and the Indians were “savages” and that the whites could make better use of the land than Indians.

Dr. Ruth Thompson-Miller: And for folks who think that, you know, that was like 50, 60, 70 years ago, we've gotten past that – oh, no, no we haven't. The people who lived through it suffered through the violence and everything that went along with being an American living under a system of Jim Crow. They haven't recovered.

The punishments, the belt, and the nightmares that haunted me and my father — I knew they couldn’t be isolated incidents. They had to be echoes of a deeper shared history. A history that is alive in all of us today.


For four years, my dad and I kept calling each other up on the phone to talk through my most recent discoveries. In 2019, he did an epic three-hour interview. It was planned as the last interview that I’d need for him to get it done.

Since Dad and I were both still actively involved in music and had just recorded a Christmas song together, we were both looking forward to doing more. I told him I’d come to Minnesota to produce a song for him. And I thanked him for going so deeply into the past with me – that I was proud of him, and that he’d done an amazing job. He asked me, “Son, is there anything else you need?” I said no, but I’d see him soon.

Lee Sr.: Alright man, thanks for the call, man.

Lee: Okay, talk to you later.

Lee Sr.: Keep on keeping on. Love you.

Lee: K, love you. Bye.

[phone hangs up]

Shortly after that, he and my mom went to celebrate their 50th anniversary at the Buddy Guy/Mavis Staples concert, and he had a massive cardiac arrest, right there in the concert venue. Four days later, on February 28, 2019, he died. It was devastating.

I think about my dad and the dynamic duo we were. And just like the music we made together in our life, this project was largely inspired by him. Even though it was hard for him at times, he did it, yes for himself, but especially for me. It was the greatest gift he could ever give me. And his unexpected death completely changed the story for me. For all of us.

Roberta: He went through so much in his life. Went through so much. He did.

This is my mom, Roberta Hawkins. She met my dad while they were both hanging out at McCarron’s Lake in Roseville, splashing around on the beach with friends. They were just 14 year old kids. And that concert my dad had the cardiac arrest at was one of the many date nights they went on, this time, in honor of their 50-year wedding anniversary. That teenage love just grew stronger and stronger.

On a cold, snowy afternoon in Saint Paul, I sat down with my mom and one of my sisters for a conversation. We’d rescheduled our meeting because of a blizzard earlier that week, so the day we recorded this just happened to be a significant one.

Lee: Today is the fourth anniversary of Dad's death, and it’s just a coincidence that we’re here today talking. Can we reflect on what this means for us?

Roberta: One thing, great memories. Great memories. But it's, it's hard because I miss him so much, and life isn't the same.

When we sat together on the anniversary of his death, the pain of losing him was still very raw for us. We reflected on dad — and how we missed and loved him.

I’ve come to understand that all of the grief, all of the racism and all of the stressful experiences that started when he came into the world as a child of Jim Crow stayed with him until the day he died.

When I think about my dad in the context of American history, I recognize that the country that we all loved – and he defended as part of the Air Force – refused to love him back. Our country, which I also love so deeply, sought to destroy my family by forcing them to live under this brutal caste system for five generations following Emancipation.

That’s one of the reasons I’m here. I continue with this project, day after day, because I know that without intervention and education, history can repeat itself.

I’m doing this for my father, and for my ancestors and elders. But especially for our Black children, and their families. Because the process of breaking the cycles born out of slavery and Jim Crow that many of us inherited and internalized has to start inside of our families.

The beauty and the power of our people, and our true, authentic Black identity of unwavering excellence and dignity that comes from those family members who came before us, that’s the part we need to celebrate and to keep.

Lee: What does family mean to you, and what do you want people to know about you and the family, our listeners?

Roberta: I think family means everything, because that's one of the reasons that we can survive, with family. And we all go through a lot. And this has been the hardest part of my life, is – even with my husband gone, and knowing how much he went through in his life. And he was a wonderful, wonderful husband and father. And I just don't know. It's very difficult even to go day to day without him, because he was my best friend, too.

When my dad died, I lost my best buddy, a father and a mentor. And in many ways, he was a partner in all of this. He needed to do this work. We needed to do this work. And I believe it’s necessary for any cycle breaker, not just for my family but for many other American families.

I hope that this podcast can serve as an inspirational blueprint for others looking to discover, investigate and understand their own family history. We can no longer bury the dark parts of American history because it makes people feel uncomfortable. For none of us are responsible for the sins of our forefathers, and we can’t rewrite the past. But we certainly can shape the present, and most importantly, the future.

This story is mine, yes, but it also belongs to you.



What Happened in Alabama is a production of American Public Media. It’s written, produced, and hosted by me, Lee Hawkins.

Our executive producer is Erica Kraus.

Our senior producer is Kyana Moghadam.

Our story editor is Martina Abrahams Ilunga.

Our producers are Marcel Malekebu and Jessica Kariisa.

This episode was sound designed and mixed by Marcel Malekebu. Our technical director is Derek Ramirez. Our soundtrack was composed by Ronen Landa.

Our fact checker is Erika Janik.

And Nick Ryan is our director of operations.

Special thanks to the O’Brien Fellowship for Public Service Journalism at Marquette University; Dave Umhoefer, John Leuzzi, Andrew Amouzou, and Ziyang Fu; and also thank you to our producer in Alabama, Cody Short.

The executives in charge at APM are Joanne Griffith and Chandra Kavati.

You can follow us on our website, whathappenedinalabama.org or on Instagram at APM Studios.

Thank you for listening.