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The ‘forgotten little girl:’ Family reconciles memory of the Midlands’ oldest cold case

Margaret and Lucille Williams, ages 14 and 15, followed a man along the railroad tracks at the edge of Columbia’s Booker Washington Heights neighborhood. It was April 1964, and they were looking for their younger sister, Virginia, who was missing for three days.

The sisters said the man, Mr. Johnson, had told them he knew where to find 13-year-old Virginia. Thinking Virginia would be thirsty after three days, Margaret carried a jar of ice water.

Johnson led the girls to the woods that lined the railroad tracks. But when they found Virginia, Margaret threw the jar into the woods and ran back down the tracks.

Virginia’s body was in a shallow grave.

Today, Virginia Williams’ murder remains unsolved. It’s officially Richland County’s oldest cold case.

More than 54 years later, Virginia’s sisters and one of the girl’s childhood friends say they still grieve and struggle to cope. The challenge is more difficult, they say, because they couldn’t properly mourn a half century ago.

Last year, they gathered on Mother’s Day to talk about their shared pain. They met again in December, this time with journalists from The State.

They’re planning a vigil in Virginia’s memory, possibly in January, when Virginia would have celebrated her 68th birthday. And the Richland County Sheriff’s Department said it has been more actively investigating the case in recent years.

“I tried to forget it,” Lucille said. “There’s so much pain. ... It’s hard to get rid of something like that. It was a terrible death.”

An April 20, 1964, story in The State reported details of that terrible death. The story said the little girl had been stabbed and strangled with a piece of her own clothing, which was embedded in her neck. While it wasn’t reported at the time, Virginia’s family knows she was raped.

The article said a man, E. D. Johnson, told police he saw Virginia walking near the railroad tracks the previous Thursday, which was the day the girl was last seen by her family. “He later heard her scream but didn’t see her and thought nothing of it...”

When he learned that a girl was missing, he led family members to the area where he heard the scream, the article said.

“Officers theorized the victim was walking along the tracks on the way to work when she was grabbed, dragged into the woods and killed,” The State’s story said. “They said there were no suspects in the case and no arrests have been made.”

Now, the relatives of Virginia hope to redefine their family story from one of loss to one of commemoration.

“Braver than the rest of us”

Virginia was born in New York City on New Year’s Day of 1951. Named after her mother, she spent her youngest days in the Bronx before the family moved to Booker Washington Heights, a historically black neighborhood roughly bordered to the north by West Beltline Boulevard and what’s now Farrow Road to the west. Growing up in a house of eight sisters and one brother, Virginia was smart and popular amongst their classmates and neighborhood boys because she was tall and skinny.

She had a distinct beauty mark on her face. Virginia was the sister that had boyfriends, Margaret said. She could also beat boys in a footrace.

Lucille, Margaret and Virginia were close, the two sisters said. Virginia was her siblings’ shield even though she was younger. To her sisters, Virginia was “G boo,” and though she defended them, they also fought like sisters at times.

“She was braver than the rest of us,” Margaret said.

The only believed photo known of Virginia Williams
A 1959 photo believed to be the only of Virginia Williams while she lived. Virginia is on the second row of pews in the white sweater furthest to the left, her family believes. Joseph Winter Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

When Margaret Williams was about 11 years-old, she was walking on the railroad tracks to school. She wore a new blue dress for the first time that her father bought. Another girl, a bully, stepped on the new dress, getting mud on it. So Margaret took a pin that helped hold the dress in form and stuck the classmate.

After school she reaped the consequences of poking the girl. Margaret got jumped by the girl and a gang of her friends, she remembered. While they got a few blows in, Virginia came to her sister’s side and ran the other kids off.

“She’d whooped their behinds,” Margaret said. “She was the only one to do something for me.”

Virginia also stood up for her friend Freddie Johnson and other kids. She was “my protector,” Johnson said.

Sabrina Williams, Margaret’s daughter, learned about her aunt even though Sabrina was born years after Virginia was killed. She said her late aunt possessed a “defiant spirit.”

The home where Virignia Williams and her family lived
A photo from 1967 of the home where Virginia Williams and her family lived on West Beltline Boulevard. Joseph Winter Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

It was with that strong will that Virginia went on a walk along the Booker Washington Heights railroad tracks on April 16, 1964.

At 13, Virginia was cleaning people’s homes to earn her own money and help her mother. She was determined to get money that was owed to her by a neighborhood family whose house she’d worked in.

Her mother told Virginia not to go, to let the money be. But Virginia was resolved. On that Thursday morning, Virginia left her home at 3436 West Beltline Blvd. around 8:15 a.m. Lucille remembered seeing her sister go down the street and wave back.

“She never came back,” Margaret said.

Silent effects

Margaret and Lucille said they were prohibited from talking about Virginia’s death. They remember the silence in part because it seemed like no one cared for Virginia.

Johnson, Virginia’s close friend, went to school and watched as her teacher cleaned out Virginia’s desk, she said. The teacher gathered up all the papers, pencils and other school supplies and threw them in the trash.

“The teachers didn’t even talk about it,” Johnson said.

Johnson understood from her teacher’s muteness that she shouldn’t talk about Virginia as well. That silence was imposed on the community, particularly young women and mothers, Johnson and the Williamses said. When parents talked about the death, they spoke in whispers, Johnson said.

VirginiaWilliams GM 002.JPG
Freddie Johnson stands in the doorway of the old Sarah Nance Elementary School. Johnson shared a desk with Virginia Williams and remembers her protective presence I school. Williams was raped and killed in 1964 as she walked through the Booker Washington Heights Neighborhood. Johnson wasn’t able to forget Virginia’s death and this summer sent a letter to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to look back into the case. Gavin McIntyre

When the silence was broken it was often by people or other kids labeling Lucille and Margaret as the sisters of the girl whose body was found in the woods.

“I got so tired of hearing ‘You’re G-boo’s sister. Your sister got killed,’” Margaret said. “I got so sick of that.”

After Virginia’s killing, the sisters missed school for months, feared walking in the neighborhood, and lost friends. They moved out of Booker Washington Heights and never moved back, the sisters said.

Margaret saw their mother deal with Virginia’s passing quietly and with little support. Their father had died a few years before the murder, and community and church leaders suggested that she give her children away.

Lula, as her children called her, probably struggled more than they knew, according to her daughters and granddaughter. She didn’t talk about the death, letting it be a pain that she quietly carried until she died.

“Mama didn’t have nobody,” Lucille said.

Fear spread through Booker Washington Heights. The rumor of the “Green Man,” someone who abducts children, spread through the neighborhood, Johnson remembered. If she ever had to walk alone she ran nonstop. Parents took steps to protect their kids.

Johnson’s mother paid an older girl to walk with her daughter.

“I use to walk down Piedmont (Street) but after Virginia, never again,” Johnson said.

To Lucille, it felt like everyone “left us by ourselves with our pain.”

1964 police work

The medical examiner’s report gave Virginia’s name and then “(F-C),” meaning female, colored. It said where her body was examined, Leevy’s Funeral Home, and the date the postmortem was done. The brief report gives her age as 14 even though she was only 13.

To the Williams family, the wrong age is just one example of the authorities’ apathy in the case.

Johnson and Sabrina Williams in recent years reviewed the original Richland County Sheriff’s Department case file from 1964. The lack of evidence and documentation struck both of them.

“I think it’s pretty clear they didn’t do an investigation,” Sabrina said. “There’s nothing in that file.”

Sabrina Williams
Virginia Williams’ niece, Sabrina Williams, remembers her mother telling her small details about her aunt death but didn’t begin investigating until 8 years ago. Virginia Williams was raped and killed in 1964 as she walked through the Booker Washington Heights Neighborhood. Her death has left a void in the Williams’ family and Sabrina Williams hopes remembering her aunt will bring healing to her family. Gavin McIntyre

Johnson believes the police “didn’t do their due diligence to take care of this young black girl.”

Police told Lucille and Margaret not to talk about their sister’s death, they said.

“They told us to hush up,” Lucille said. “Leave it alone.”

After they were told not to talk about it, Margaret realized “they weren’t going to do no more work on it.”

A crime scene photo seen by Sabrina was also part of the original case file. It was poor quality, Sabrina said. “It wasn’t much to see. You saw the body but you couldn’t see her face.”

The black-and-white saddle shoes she was wearing stood out in the photos more than anything connected to the crime.

Sgt. Andrew Caldwell, who today supervises cold case investigations with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, knows the Williams case well, he said.

Nothing in the investigation from 1964 leads him to believe the detective work was below standard because of race. He said the investigation showed that police were cooperating between agencies and officers shared information. Officers spoke with the media, hoping to get more information from the public, Caldwell said.

“I did not get the indication that nobody cared about this case — that there were things that could have been done and weren’t done,” Caldwell said.

Using today’s police standards, the investigation a half century ago might seem to be lacking, according to Caldwell.

“The technology and training was just not what it is today,” Caldwell said.

VirginiaWilliams GM 001.JPG
Margaret Williams, right, and her sister, Lucille Williams, stand together after spending the afternoon with family and friends. Their sister, Virginia, was raped and killed in 1964 as she walked through the Booker Washington Heights Neighborhood. The case has remained unsolved but Richland County Sheriff’s are actively investigating her death. Gavin McIntyre

Caldwell said the Williams death is an open investigation so he couldn’t speak about details of the department’s latest efforts. However, the department’s handling of cold cases generally works like this: Detectives constantly look for any new information and explore any new angles. Investigators may re-examine a case after a certain period of time passes, time that may create a fresh perspective. A cold case might go to a new investigator to get new eyes on it.

“They’re almost in a constant state of review,” Caldwell said.

Cold cases like Virginia’s will never be closed until a person is held accountable for the crime, whether that person is dead or alive — until Caldwell can say to a family “here’s an answer of what happened to your loved one. Here it is beginning to end.”

For the family, neither they nor Virginia have found that closure.

“I don’t think my sister is really resting good,” Lucille said.

Judging a suspect

The Williams family said questions have been raised about several people in connection to Virginia’s death.

One was E.D. Johnson, the man quoted in The State’s initial story and who led the sisters to the body.

The State’s initial story said Johnson led them to the area where she was last seen, but Lucille and Margaret said Johnson took them to the exact location of Virginia’s body, even brushing away the debris that covered her.

Decades later it was indicated to Sabrina Williams that investigators in 1964 didn’t believe Johnson was a person of interest.

After the family moved from Booker Washington Heights, Lucille remembered her mother answering the door of their apartment at Saxon Homes, a former Harden Street public housing complex near where Allen Benedict Court stands. Johnson was at the door. As Lucille stood by her mother’s side, he said, “‘I killed your daughter. I’m sorry,’” Lucille remembered.

Her mother started crying. The next day, Lucille watched as Johnson’s body was brought out of a nearby highrise housing complex, she said.

VirginiaWilliams GM004.JPG
Virginia Williams was raped and killed in 1964 as she walked through the Booker Washington Heights Neighborhood. Her body was found in a wooded area near railroad tracks. The case has remained unsolved but Richland County Sheriff’s are actively investigating her death. Gavin McIntyre

Lucille doesn’t believe that Johnson killed her sister. She said he was too old and weak, that Virginia would have gotten away or hurt him. Lucille believes Johnson was covering for someone else, she said.

Margaret and Lucille also thought that maybe a neighborhood boy who gave Virginia a ring could have attacked her. The ring was missing when they found her, the sisters said.

The family and Freddie Johnson know of other suspects.

Johnson said she was told by authorities that a man serving a life sentence for a different crime said he killed Virginia. Later, authorities told her that new information showed that man didn’t kill Virginia.

Another man admitted to the killing in a letter to authorities, according to the family and Johnson.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department would not say whether it had any tips or leads in the investigation.

Even if no one ever faces a jury, Lucille believes judgment will still come.

“I put it in God’s hands and let God handle it,” Lucille said. “When you take somebody’s life, it’s terrible to do that. But they think they got away with something. You ain’t got away with nothing. You ain’t done nothing but hurt yourself. You got to answer to that man up there.”

“Not Forgotten”

Virginia’s death has haunted them, the sisters said. Decades later, both Lucille and Margaret sometimes see their sister’s body when they try to sleep.

Fear followed Margaret when she became a mother. She worried about letting her four children go out on their own. She said she was overly protective of them, and for so long they never knew why.

They lived in the shadow of Virginia’s death, Margaret’s daughters said.

“We lived that,” Margaret’s second-oldest daughter, Angela Brown, said. “For a long time our mama wouldn’t let us go nowhere.”

In 2017 Freddie Johnson wrote a letter to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, imploring investigators to look deeper into the death of her former classmate. She didn’t know that Sabrina Williams also had renewed interest in the case.

Johnson organized a meeting with Sabrina, Margaret and Lucille on Mother’s Day in 2018.

“There were hugs and tears and for me a sense of relief,” Johnson said. “I immediately felt a kinship, a connection of a sort. To me it was like they were pouring out their souls of all that pent-up grief ... They felt like it was a gift to their mother.”

Freddie Johnson and the Williams family
Freddie Johnson, left, Lucille Williams, Angela Brown, Sabrina Williams, and Margaret Williams stand together after spending the afternoon with family and friends. Gavin McIntyre

Johnson, Sabrina and the two sisters came together again on Dec. 16 at Johnson’s home in Northeast Columbia along with Margaret’s two other daughters, Tanya and Angela, and Regina Williams, a longtime Booker Washington Heights resident and community leader. Regina Williams is not related to Virginia and her family.

Regina Williams along with a historian at USC are putting together a history of Booker Washington Heights. Telling Virginia’s story is part of the account, she said.

Williams is also working with Sabrina on putting together a vigil for Virginia.

Talking about Virginia can still bring Margaret to tears. The tears are from sorrow and joy. While the trauma still lingers, the silence has been broken.

Sitting across from Margaret in the living room, Freddie said that every spring when flowers are blooming she thinks of Virginia.

“She’s a sweet spirit,” Freddie said.

Freddie brought them together to share their grief, Virginia’s sisters said, a reconciling that was overdue and one that brought Margaret to say to Freddie, “I love you so much, you just don’t know.” While Johnson can’t stop the pain, “you’re going to ease the pain,” Margaret said. “I thought nobody cared, or nobody knew us.”

For the sisters, knowing that someone cares about Virginia and cares about their family healing was missing for so long. Now, the Williams knows they aren’t alone in remembering Virginia.

“She looks like a forgotten little girl,” Freddie said. “But she’s not forgotten by us.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.