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Steven J. Niven

lynching victim, was born Ricedor Cleodas Watson near Gethsemane in Jefferson County, Arkansas, the first child of Albert Leak Watson, a logger, and Alonzo (Woolfolk) Watson, a farmer. Both parents had children from previous marriages. Wright believed, probably incorrectly, that his natural father was named Henry Wright and adopted that surname as an alias around 1937 after robbing a grocery store. Cleo Wright's early life was fairly typical of rural blacks in the Jim Crow South in the years between World War I and World War II: he attended the local segregated grade school, but only after the vital work of bringing in his mother's cotton crop, among other tasks, had been completed.

A talented pianist, tap dancer, and baseball pitcher, Wright made friends easily. Like many adolescent young men he got into fights occasionally, though only if provoked, and he did not have a violent reputation. In 1932 ...