Forgotten in Black History Month: two African-Americans on the grassy knoll

Grassy knoll aftermath

This photo, taken about 30 seconds after the assassination of JFK, shows a Dallas policeman running toward the so-called “grassy knoll” where two young black people were having lunch.

A half-century ago, two young black people in Dallas found themselves eyewitnesses to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy — yet their voices have never been heard. Indeed, a half century later, even their names are unknown.

This young man and woman were sitting on the spot famously dubbed “the grassy knoll” on November 22, 1963. They had a front row seat for a key moment in 20th century U.S. history: the murder of a popular liberal president.

 

They were two young African-Americans, friends or perhaps siblings. While JFK was reviled by many whites in Dallas for his liberal policies, he was popular among young black people for his support of their aspirations for equal rights. They came to see JFK and First Lady Jackie in person, and they witnessed a nightmare.

How we know the story

“There was a colored couple. I figure they were between 18 and 21, a boy and a girl, sitting on a bench, just almost, oh, parallel with me, on my right side, close to the fence, ” recalled Marilyn Sitzman, a bystander who also witnessed JFK’s assassination.

As seen in the movie  ’Parkland,” Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti)  filmed JFK’s assassination. His secretary noticed the two black people eating lunch nearby.

Sitzman, a secretary, had accompanied her boss, dressmaker Abraham Zapruder, to Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas to watch President Kennedy’s mid-day motorcade. They found a spot on a marble wall atop a grassy embankment overlooking the president’s route. Sitzman was standing behind Zapruder who held his Super 8 millimeter movie camera. Zapruder’s famous movie would capture the killing of the president.

In a 1966 interview, Sitzman told author Josiah Thompson that she had first noticed the black couple 10 or 15 minutes before JFK’s arrival.

“Everybody was milling around down there, trying to find a place to stand and everything,” she said, “and I know when we went over to get up on the marble thing, they were already sitting there.”

“They were eating their lunch, ’cause they had little lunch sacks, and they were drinking Coke,” Sitzman recounted.

As the motorcade passed by, President Kennedy, seated next to First Lady Jackie, was waving to the friendly crowd when gunshots rang out.

Kennedy was struck by a bullet in the back and then then flung violently backward by a bullet that struck his head above his right ear blasting his skull open in an explosion of blood, brains, and bone, killing him almost instantly.

In the ensuing chaos Sitzman saw the black couple again.

As depicted in Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” Marilyn Sitzman stood behind Abraham Zapruder on Nov. 22, 1963.

“The main reason I remember ‘em is, after the last shot I recall hearing and the [president's] car went down under the triple underpass there, I heard a crash of glass, and I looked over there, and the kids had thrown down their Coke bottles, just threw them down and just started running towards the back, and … everybody else was running that way.”

Sitzman didn’t see “the kids” again.  They were never identified or interviewed by any law enforcement officer or investigator. No journalist, researcher or author ever found them. In the vast literature of JFK’s assassination, they barely exist. They were present at the scene of an epic crime — and they vanished.

What did they see and hear?

The two young African-Americans were sitting right in the middle of the spot hat would become famous as “the grassy knoll.” If there was a gunman there, they were as close to him as anybody else.

The two young black people vanished in the panicky aftermath of JFK’s assassination.

No such gunman has ever been identified.that doesn’t mean there wasn’t  one. “Grassy knoll” is sometime used as a synonym for crazy conspiracy theorizing. (“Oh don’t go all grassy knoll on me.”) But it was not a conspiracy theorist who came up with the idea that Kennedy had been killed by a gunshot fired from in front of his motorcade. It was a veteran newspaper reporter.

The term was coined by  Merriman Smith of United Press International who was riding in a car behind JFK’s limousine when the shots rang out. Twenty five minutes later, Smith filed a story on JFK’s assassination in which he reported:

“Some of the Secret Service agents thought the gunfire was from an automatic weapon fired to the right rear of the president’s car, probably from a grassy knoll [emphasis added] to which police rushed.”

Smith had coined an immortal phrase. At least 34 witnesses would come forward to say they thought a gunshot had been fired from the grassy knoll area. A more comprehensive survey found  52 witnesses said they heard a shot from the knoll area.

But there was no young black man or woman among these witnesses.

What they left behind

There is a photograph that corroborates the details of Marilyn Sitzman’s story.

Two Dallas detectives examine the fast food lunch left by two young black people at the scene of JFK’s assassination.

The photo, taken within a few minutes of JFK’s assassination, shows the park bench referred to by Sitzman. It shows two Dallas police detectives looking at the remains of a bag lunch. Another photograph taken at the time shows a pool of liquid on the ground, the spilled soda.

The black man and woman whom Sitzman saw were never identified or interviewed by any law enforcement officer or investigator. No journalist, researcher or author ever found them. In the vast literature of JFK’s assassination, they barely exist. They were present at the scene of an epic crime — and they vanished.

They might still be alive. If Sitzman was right about their ages, they would be between 68 and 71 years old now  (The average life expectancy of African-Americans is 70.2 years.)

There have been some reports claiming to identity of this couple. I went to Dallas to corroborate these claims. I interviewed a person who claims to have known one of them.  I could not corroborate those claims.

Why didn’t they come forward?

Don Roberdeau, a Vietnam War veteran and JFK researcher who has mapped the exact location of many witnesses to JFK’s assassination, told me in an email:

“For me, one of the black couple simply threw down his/her pop bottle after the shock of seeing President Kennedy bloodily executed only 75 feet away. Someone, maybe the other black person, set his/her pop bottle atop the retaining wall, they left their hamburgers bag behind, and they both just went off into the [Texas School Book Depository] parking lot, choosing never to come forward, nor have they been identified publicly — for whatever reasons. My guess is that they both sensed the nearby fired shot and one or both of the black couple saw the … picket fence assassin who was only forty feet southwest of the sitting bench.”

If the black couple is still alive, their testimony would be important contribution to commemoration of the 50th anniversary JFK’s assassination. If the fatal shot came from a gunman behind the fence, they were closer to him than almost any other witnesses. Conversely, if there was no gunman in that area, they would have been among the first to see that.

Jim Crow in Dallas

One can well appreciate why they did not come forward at the time. In 1963, Dallas was a Jim Crow city, where racial segregation was legal and respectable, and African-Americans were routinely treated as second-class citizens, especially by law enforcement officers.

Jim Crow in Dallas

The official story of JFK’s assassination, promoted almost immediately by the Dallas Police Department, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, and Lyndon Johnson’s White House, was that the president had been shot from an office building behind Kennedy’s limousine, by a pro-Castro communist named Lee Harvey Oswald, who had no co-conspirators and no discernible motive.

The FBI studiously avoided interviewing white people in the vicinity (like Bill Newman, the man seen lying down in the top photo above). Newman said he thought the fatal shot came from the front and he was mostly ignored.

Under such circumstances, it would have been foolish for any young black person to come forward to tell a story that few white people in positions of power wanted to hear. After Oswald, who denied shooting JFK, was murdered in police custody, it would have been almost suicidal.

The black people on the grassy knoll met a familiar fate of African-Americans in that time. They were silenced: by fear, by the hostility of law enforcement officers, and the indifference of the media. They were written out of black history and American history.

————-

If you know something about these people, please send me an email. Confidentiality is assured.

35 comments

  1. leslie sharp says:

    Former Mayor Ron Kirk would be well connected within the African American community in Dallas, and I think that he would be sensitive to the best approach for on-the ground-circulation of your request. I emphasize ‘sensitive’ because, as you have pointed out, you are seeking two people of a certain generation living in what was then a racist Dallas.

  2. “To some JFK commentators, “grassy knoll” is sometime used as a synonym for crazy conspiracy theorizing. (“Oh don’t go all grassy knoll on me.”)”

    There has been a whole book written with the witness testimony of those who saw or heard something funny behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll.

    “The Grassy Knoll Witnesses: Who Shot JFK?” by Harry Yardum. It is an excellent book.

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Grassy-Knoll-Witnesses-Shot/dp/1438945612/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363287671&sr=8-1&keywords=grassy+knoll+witnesses

    Then there are those who smelled gunpowder in Dealey Plaza – call them “nose witnesses” if you will. With the wind blowing west to east, they could only smell gunpowder coming from the front of JFK’s limo.

  3. Chester dog says:

    Interesting article but this last part needs work:

    “If you know any black people in Dallas, or have ever heard anything about an African-American couple in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, please send them this article.”

    Should I just arbitrarily send it to any black person I may know in Dallas?

  4. Alex Foyle says:

    Hi Jefferson Morley, thanks a lot for posting this. I feel the same way about wanting to identify this young black couple. There was a very good article about them some time ago, see:

    http://depletedcranium.com/an-enduring-mystery-of-the-kennedy-assassination/

    Robin Unger and others have to be thanked to bring this story to the forefront over the last years. I recently suggested at the JFK assassination newsgroups to start a crowd funder to finance a full one page ad in the biggest most widely circulated Dallas region newspaper with best possible quality images of the colored man and ask the public if anyone recognizes him. The 6th Floor Museum could help with this effort too. What do you think?

  5. Allen Lowe says:

    how do we know they never came forward? Is it possible they went to the DPD and were scared into leaving and never coming back? They may even have been murdered if they were, indeed, good eyewitnesses; we know of a few who testifed in the Tippit shooting, for example, and were assaulted afterwards.

  6. A V says:

    Where was LBJ during shooting?

    • Zac says:

      LBJ was supposedly ducking down before the gun shots went off, three cars behind Kennedy’s limo. And, taking a peek every so often as the shots were being taken at JFK.

      • Mark says:

        LBJ said he wasn’t ducking. He said he had dropped his lucky pen and had to crawl around on the floor before he found it. It took a few minutes.

      • Ronnie Wayne says:

        Actually Congressman Ralph Yarborough, riding in the back seat with LBJ and Ladybird said: LBJ was bent over between the two front seats. He and his #1 Secret Service Agent Rufus Youngblood, who was also bent low, to his left and back in the right front seat were listening to a radio communication channel turned so low Yarborough could not hear it. Interestingly I’ve read the first communication over one of the police channels after the head shot was the word Victory in Morse code.

  7. mike chambers says:

    You know up to 8 days ago with the advent of the new “smoking gun” tv show I had never noticed any of the JFK specifics.

    The final conclusions from my 7 day study of jfk details are .. Oswald was definitely conscripted into the assassination plot – the collated totality of oswald history says that. It may not hold up in court but supplies that detail. Therefore the conspiracy had completed its plans for where it was to take place before it arranged Oswalds job in the book building. SO it was that wide a specific conspiracy.

    A lot of what i read debunks a lot of supported evidence facts of that seemingly on the grounds they think there could not have been a wide as that plot much less that wide involved specifics. So I conclude 80-97% of the supported evidence of such is true.

    Oh and btw WHY was the 80-97% of supported evidence true and planned?? … to confuse the issue and draw attention away from the 2 cameraradar synced silenced guns that zeroed in from front and back similtaneously on JFK’s head or the only other scope of such I explain below.

    EG that is why there is 5ft of blood and bone splatter in both and all directions. One such gun in front of the windscreen of the car behind JFK and the other in the rear of the car in front of JFK or the other that direction scope.

    There is no other trajectory possible for both or either of those shots to my eyes. I studied all the supported evidence claims of the head shot and while they are many and varied they all fall within a certain area that allows only that trajectory.

    The from behind claims all need a slight upward trajectory which is only possible from below the windscreen of the car behind JFK.

    Whilst the from the front claims all need a near level very slight up or down trajectory which is only possible along the road in front of jfk passing gov connallys right, or facing jfk from an angle between the car occupants to jfk. Which second possibility of from the front trajectory may have a wider possibility than just the car ahead of jfk, ie from the overpass end of the grassy knoll and south including the overpass and through the overpass.

  8. Mark says:

    The missing bullet or large parts of it are still in Dealey Plaza. It is worth an easy million dollars if found, yet not one person, has grabbed some high end metal detectors to locate this treasure. Lead does not degrade in soil. A bullet hitting grassy soil is surely pristine, even after 50 years. I wish I lived in Dallas. I would be sweeping the Plaza with my metal detector in my spare time. A million dollars would buy me lots of fun.

  9. Ronnie Wayne says:

    If these two black people were the closest to the fence near where “badge man” supposedly was I can think of two possibilities.
    One, seeing the head shot they were horrified, and, having the shot come from almost literally right over their heads they were scared to death and ran away scared to tell anyone (or as alluded to above they did tell some one and were intimidated into silence, or worse).
    Second, if they were the first ones behind the fence they may have seen something they were not supposed to (e.g. gun disposal, people running away)and might have been escorted away by some of the ‘secret service’ agents on the knoll.

  10. Hans Trayne says:

    One of the dangers of searching for genuine JFK ambush victims is the public doesn’t know if they are getting the ‘real deal’ or a hustler. Beverly Oliver was (and still is) accused of conning the public with her claim of being the ‘babushka lady’ (Gerald Posner pounced all over the woman in TV interviews). The fellow who hangs around Robert Groden claiming to be in one of the Ike Altgens photos has aroused a lot of suspicion too; after listening to what he claims to have witnessed go over & stand at the spot he claims to be at & one can’t help but notice that a view of Elm Street literally disappears from that spot (cars & trucks are barely visible, if at all with, even with no traffic obstructions).

    The tale of the 2 black people is indeed intriguing. It was reported that a pool of blood was found on the western end of the TSBD front sidewalk shortly after the assassination. The late Jack White spoke about it often. Someone sustained an injury during or after the ambush; it may have been one of the black couple that bled there after being attacked by someone connected to the shooting. We don’t know.

    Whoever they are, if they haven’t been murdered & are still alive they would have to be aware of the global interest in this case & the fact they would become instant historical celebrities, joining the ranks of Abe Zapruder, Mary Moorman and a handful of others that were unquestionably present during the ambush. Perhaps their offspring will come forward & tell us who their parents were, what they told them they witnessed & what happened to them.

    They might even see it here & act. The Internet reaches around the globe in an instant.

  11. Jerry Carpenter says:

    See “Into The Nightmare”, Joseph McBride – Page 551 & 552…

  12. TLR says:

    According to one researcher, this couple was Evelyn and Arthur King. He interviewed them:

    http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=19310&page=4

    They are also mentioned in Joseph McBride’s new book INTO THE NIGHTMARE.

    • George says:

      McBride seems to have done a thorough job on this issue of the back couple in his book “Into the Nightmare.” For his response to the confusion & theorizing go to the thread at:

      https://deeppoliticsforum.com/forums/showthread.php?11861-My-new-book-quot-Into-the-Nightmare-quot/page24#.Uu1sMfvgxc5

      Just one point regarding McBride’s black couple allegedly seeing what appeared to be a shooter or shooters resembling “Dallas police” officers:

      The documentary “The Men Who Killed Kennedy” noted that when professional assassinations are hired for jobs like this, they will often appear in disguises, such as dressed as police men or workmen during the shooting. As incredible as it sounds, the real Dallas police officers who rushed towards the knoll right after the shooting might encounter an assassin in the vicinity whom they assume to be a fellow officer, simply because he is convincingly dressed as such.

      I’m of the opinion that during the head shot the limousine was briefly stopped (or near stopped), and that there were two near simultaneous shots to Kennedy’s head: one being a full metal jacket bullet fired from behind (perhaps from the Dal Tex building), followed closely by a frontal head shot using an exploding bullet fired from the drainage ditch/culvert area. The shot from the knoll could have been merely a near simultaneous shot that was basically a “blank” or diversionary shot designed to get the police & spectators to run towards that area.

      If McBride is correct on this issue, Evelyn King would represent another witness (e.g., see also “The Girl in Blue”) who had previously been reluctant to come forward, & now in their senior years is more comfortable with speaking out, albeit only to a select few researchers/journalists.

      Great JFK Facts article and discussion. Regards, George, Canada

  13. bogman says:

    Don’t know why I never thought of this but I’m sure others have.

    The reason to have SS credentials was to keep people out of the area BEFORE the shooting as well as afterwards to explain your presence.

    • Ronnie Wayne says:

      Never thought about that aspect myself, or read anything about it (the BEFORE part). Excellent reasoning and post though I’m no judge. Thank you.

  14. Tom Scully says:

    Joseph McBride attributed only
    the questionable source for his details of the young black couple to a post on the Education Forum. The details in that thread are sourced from a presentation by Casey Quinlan, who Bill Kelly said was informed by an intermediary who claimed to have met the black couple and was speaking for them. The intermediary is Groden sidekick, Michael Brownlow, the sole source of the name Evelyn King. Bill Kelly, myself, and a number of others have been unable to verify Brownlow’s information as presented by Quinlan and quoted in McBride’s book. Bill has talked with Brownlow by telephone and was told by him that Evelyn King was with her brother Albert, now deceased.
    No death record can so far be located. No one other than Brownlow, it now seems, has claimed any direct contact with the black couple in Dealey Plaza.

    • Nx says:

      Many visitors to Dealey Plaza meet (or are accosted by) Mr Brownlow. After my first time there in Feb 2012, I did a little research and found that he’s quite the fixture. Mr Brownlow claims to have been in the crowd the day of the assassination, a 13 year old boy standing with his grandmother outside the Dal-Tex building on Elm & Houston. He also claims to have seen a puff of smoke from behind the picket fence. I have no cause for dispute re: his presence that day or what he saw. However, there is a question surrounding Mr Brownlow’s age. As mentioned above, Mr Brownlow said he was 13 at the time of the assassination. However, a mugshot of Mr B I found online gives his age in 2011 as 55. If correct, it means Mr Brownlow was no older than eight in Nov 1963. I acknowledge that the mugshot info may be incorrect, but if not, a question needs asking about the veracity of Mr Brownlow’s claim. I’ve no axe to grind; I found Michael to be a very affable man. (Mugshot can be found here: http://www.justmugshots.com/texas/dallas/712673 )

  15. Photon says:

    Wouldn’t the simplest explanation for their absence from history be that Miss Sitzman simply made a mistake?
    Nobody else at the scene has mentioned them.
    There aren’t any pictures of them.
    They didn’t exist.

  16. Hans Trayne says:

    I wouldn’t put much faith in Groden’s sidekick. Last visit to Dealey Plaza he was telling the crowd gathered at the flea market table by the Zapruder pedestal that he knew all the blacks on the sidewalk (depicted in Robert Croft’s photo); he had names for each of them.

    When visiting Dealey Plaza listen to him spin his tales & then walk over to the spot in one of the Ike Altgens photos he claims to be him in the photo. Stoop down to an adolescent’s height & look at Elm Street. It can’t be seen; the drop off is too steep.

    I’d stick with Jeff’s original call for the couple, their offspring or friends to go public with what they know before relying on spinmasters that make money off JFK’s murder.

  17. Dave says:

    Are there any photos of the couple? I may be visualizing something that is not there and perhaps is just an image of tree leaves but it seems in the Mary Moorman photo there is a man and a woman poking there heads above the wall at the moment of the headshot. The woman is to the right of the man and seems to have blonde bushy hair, perhaps died blonde. They can be seen from their necks up. However they don’t seem to show up in the 8mm films taken from the same side of Elm St.

  18. Dave says:

    As for my comment last night: I’ve since gone online and looked at other copies of the Moormon photo and the area in question in those photos are all different and just look like tree branches and leaves. The copy I’ve been looking at is not as well defined as some of those and the 2 people I see in my copy although very convincing are probably just a result of digital noise.

  19. Cherub says:

    Jackie should have grabbed her hubby and pushed him down after the first shot. What was she thinking?

  20. Melvin Fromme says:

    There were quite a number of black Americans that were present during the ambush of President Kennedy that slipped through the cracks & were not identified or interviewed besides the black couple near Zapruder & Sitzman. They include the porter cleaning one of 2 parked train passenger cars car parked on the railroad tracks near the back of the North pergola that Eugene Boone encountered while searching the railyard, the Dal-Tex fire escape onlooker & a small group of male & female onlookers on the Elm Street sidewalk near the cupola walkway entrance to the North pergola (visible in the Robert Croft Elm Street photo). Jeff Morley has generously opened the door for such witnesses skipped over by law enforcement & the media to tell their stories to the world via his website while maintaining their privacy. We all would benefit to know what these witnesses experienced.

  21. Mike Rago says:

    You should not rely on any statements by Marilyn Sitzman. She has never given any testimony under oath in this case. Even at the time of the HSCA in 1978 when a finding of fact that a shot was fired from the Grassy Knoll AND Zapruder was no longer alive, she still was not called to testify under oath.

    To my knowledge she did not even give a witness statement to the DPD like so many other witnesses did that day.

  22. Mike Rago says:

    Recall that Marilyn Sitzman denied , several times, that there was a shot from her right side.

    And of course, the HSCA has a finding of fact that a shot was fired from the Knoll.

    So why didn’t the HSCA call her?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

In seeking to expand the range of informed debate about the events of 1963 and its aftermath, JFKFacts.org welcomes comments that are factual, engaging, and civil. more