On the night of August 21, 1945, Portland police officers arrived at the home of Ervin Jones, a Black man who had moved with his wife and two young children from Louisiana to work in the nearby shipyards during World War II. According to witness testimony, the plainclothes officers never identified themselves while demanding to be let in, mistakenly believing that a murder suspect was sheltering inside the home. Jones was shot by one of the officers through a bedroom window and died a short while later. Now, a new investigative report reveals the tragic aftermath of the killing, and how one family’s quest for answers has led to a call for justice and official acknowledgment of Jones’ innocence decades later. Joining us to talk about her reporting on this story is Melanie Henshaw, a staff reporter at Street Roots.
Editor’s note: On October 5, 2022, Street Roots reported that Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt supports amending Ervin Jones’ death certificate.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: On the night of August 21, 1945, Portland police officers arrived at the home of Ervin Jones, a Black man who had moved, with his wife and two young children, from Louisiana to work in the nearby shipyards during WWII. According to witness testimony, the plainclothes officers never identified themselves while demanding to be let in, mistakenly believing that a murder suspect was sheltering inside the home. Jones was shot by one of the officers through a bedroom window and died a short while later. Now a new investigative report reveals the tragic aftermath of the killing and how one family’s quest for answers has led to a call for justice and official acknowledgement of Jones’s innocence decades later. Melanie Henshaw is a staff reporter at Street Roots and she wrote a story about this. When I spoke with her yesterday, I asked her what put her on to the story?
Melanie Henshaw: So when I first started at Street Roots, I found out that a local community organizer had actually contacted the paper on behalf of the family and introduced us to the Ervin Jones case and the family invited us to investigate what had happened to Ervin Jones.
Norcross: Yeah, can you tell us about him and his life before his murder?
Henshaw: Absolutely. Ervin Jones was, by all accounts, a loving father of five. He was from Louisiana. He had moved to Portland to be a part of the war effort along with his wife and two youngest children and his wife’s siblings. He worked for a defense production company, most likely the American Brake Shoe Company. His family lived in Gail’s Lake, which was a wartime housing development for employees of defense production companies.
Norcross: What led the Portland police to go into his house on that night in August of 1945?
Henshaw: The Portland police were in pursuit of a murder suspect. A murder had occurred earlier in the evening in Gail’s Lake. And according to a witness, the murder suspect went to the home of Ervin Jones. Now the crucial piece is the family didn’t know this man. And the man, by his own word, also didn’t know the Jones family. So really, it’s unclear why there was a witness who said that he was in the Jones’s home. But the Portland police came to the Jones home at about 2:00 AM on the night of August 21 and began banging on his door. Ervin was inside sleeping with his two children and wife. The home at Gail’s Lake was extremely small so they shared spaces. The entire family slept in one bed and the other siblings slept in shifts depending on who was working at the time. Now, according to all the witnesses, the police didn’t identify themselves. So Ervin thought they were burglars and he retrieved a gun, in his own words, to protect his family. Police who had split up on two opposite sides of his home saw him retrieve the gun.
And according to what the police said, Ervin shot at them. However all the witnesses, besides the police, dispute that. They said that Ervin never fired his gun. They also dispute police accounts that they identified themselves as such. So detective Bard Purcell, the detective who was on scene, as well with two other detectives and an investigator from the District Attorney’s office, saw Ervin get the gun and shot at him over the bed, hitting him in the back, killing him. In the process, the bullet that killed Ervin struck Ardodia, a three year old child, Ervin’s daughter who was in the bed at the time and grazed her forehead. Afterwards no charges were ever filed, although there were two inquiries that held that the police acted within the scope of their duties.
Norcross: The NAACP was providing pro bono legal services to the family and the organization asked the governor to impanel a grand jury which actually happened. What happened then?
Henshaw: As news of Ervin Jones’ killing spread throughout Oregon, particularly through Black newspapers, outrage came from the Black communities throughout Oregon and they sent, as you said, a lawyer to work pro bono on the family’s behalf. Originally, a coroner’s inquiry was impaneled, which is essentially a fact finding mission where the coroner selected six white folks who then heard testimony from the widow and around 20 other witnesses and determined that the police acted in performance of their duties.
This continued outrage among the Black community who demanded the governor at the time impanel a grand jury, which then reinforced the findings of the coroner’s inquiry in that the police had acted within the scope of their duties. And now afterwards, the city council at the time voted to cover the legal fees of the police officer who had killed Ervin Jones.
Norcross: From your reporting, what access did you actually have to documents from the time from the court proceedings from the police personnel files, including on detective Bard Purcell, who you mentioned shot and killed Ervin Jones that night.
Henshaw: I investigated this story for about three months and access to archival documents was a bit of a tricky situation. Many of the official court documents from that period had been destroyed. So I relied primarily upon archival documents from The Oregonian, The Portland Observer, as well as The Advocate and The Oregon Journal. I also consulted with several historians, one of whom, the extremely knowledgeable Dr. Tanya Lynn March, provided me with copies of the police personnel files of detective J. Bard Purcell, the police officer who killed Ervin Jones. And the actual files have been destroyed, so these are the only copies of Purcell’s files. The police personnel files, and stunningly the killing of Ervin Jones, isn’t even mentioned in Purcell’s files. Purcell went on to enjoy a very healthy career as a police officer and retired with a pension before passing away in 2003.
Norcross: Melanie, before you published your story, you called Ervin Jones’ daughter Ardodia and her daughter Rhonda to tell them about what you’d found. What was their reaction?
Henshaw: Well, this was the first time that they’d ever been provided a comprehensive list of events that led to the death of their relative, Ervin Jones. So for them it was, I think, very painful to know what had occurred but also potentially cathartic in a way to have their voices elevated and to have a definitive answer as to what had actually occurred in the lead up to Ervin’s killing.
So this has actually been the first time that they’ve ever spoken to anyone about their experiences. So it was, I think, a difficult experience for them, but they were extremely courageous in the way that they were able to articulate the pain and trauma that their family has been through as a result of this.
Norcross: What does the family want?
Henshaw: So Ervin Jones death certificate, the manner of death that is listed is justifiable homicide. Now, typically there’s only three options, accident, suicide or homicide. And on Ervin Jones’ particular death certificate in the margins of the certificate they wrote ‘justifiable’. Now this is extremely painful for the family. They feel that the other children who were in the bed, as well as Ervin’s widow, could have been killed as well. There was no warrant. Ervin Jones was innocent and was not suspected of any crime. He had not done anything wrong. And for the family, writing ‘justifiable homicide’ on the death certificate is extremely painful. So they want the City of Portland to acknowledge what happened was not justifiable homicide and effectively change the manner of death on the death certificate.
Norcross: And in fact you reached out to Portland’s City Commissioners to share with them this story when it was published a couple of weeks ago. What kind of reaction did you get?
Henshaw: So far, I have a pending meeting with the office of Commissioner Rubio. Otherwise I have not received much of a response from city leaders. I’ve forwarded this story along to all of the Commissioners as well as Mayor Wheeler and asked them for a response. And the only response I’ve received so far is to have a meeting with members of Commissioner Rubio’s office who said Commissioner Rubio is too busy to meet with me herself.
Norcross: Are you planning any follow-up coverage?
Henshaw: Yes I am. I’m going to be following up on the City response for the Ervin Jones original piece, as well as how the family has been affected by our reporting and what it means to them going forward and how they want to proceed.
Norcross: This is part of a much bigger, very painful story. And I’m wondering if while you were working on this story, you learned anything new or anything different about the City of Portland’s treatment of Black people at the time, in 1945. And what resonance [has] that history had today?
Henshaw: Well, in 1945, Portland was an openly hostile place for Black Portlanders. They lived a very segregated life, although there were no official segregation policies. There were signs equating Black and jewish Portlanders with dogs, advertising white-trade-only in businesses across Portland. They were effectively not welcomed in areas outside of North Portland. A historian I spoke with effectively called Portland a ‘sundown town’ during that period, meaning that people of color were not welcomed after sundown. Additionally, during WWII, there was a large influx of Black folks, primarily coming from the south but also from the midwest, to be a part of the war effort. And for white Portlanders at the time, that was not welcome. And so they created communities like Gail’s Lake and Vanport which were very insulated, in the sense that their infrastructure didn’t allow them to leave these segregated neighborhoods to other parts of Portland.
Norcross: Are you in touch with the family now? How are they feeling?
Henshaw: They are very glad that the story was published and interested in elevating Ervin’s name. They want justice for Ervin in their own words. And they are hoping to hear from the City or from the County with regards to what happened to Ervin. You know, what happened to Ervin Jones is eerily similar to other stories of police violence that we see happen against Black folks. [It is] particularly similar to Brianna Taylor which was, and you know Breonna Taylor was killed by police in a very similar way.
Norcross: This is a Louisville woman who was killed by police in a terrible case of mistaken apartment. Right?
Henshaw: Yes. And she, Breonna Taylor, died in a very similar way - in a no-knock raid. She was not suspected of any crime. And for Ardodia, Ervin’s daughter, that was a moment, when she learned of what happened to Breonna Taylor, that she told her daughter Rhonda, that that was how her father died. And that began a sort of a process of their seeking answers.
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