Monday, September 1, 2014

Posse of angry vigilantes end the lives of one Black woman, an unborn child, eight innocent Black men, and one who confessed his guilt

Mary Turner was not a slave. She was a free-born citizen of the United States. She involuntarily became one of America's dark tales of tragedy and injustice. Mary Turner’s name and life story are not found in school text books. Information on the Internet is limited. A book on Turner was published in 2011, but it won’t be required reading in public schools.  Such is the history of “Coloreds” and “Negroes” that have been hanged, mutilated and burned alive in American states and counties.

The lax destruction and annihilation Blacks were not worthy news; however, the appalling acts of murders were an enjoyable event for onlookers, and the principal actors who carried out the barbaric murders. Pictures of lynched victims were reproduced on post cards and sold to the public.  The hangings and live burnings drew large crowds of anxious Whites, creating  carnival or picnic atmospheres. The lynchings were theaters of free entertainment for Whites only. No family of Blacks allowed unless they were schedule to hang from a tree.

Russellville, Logan County, Kentucky, July 31, 1908
James Allen’s “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” is a good book to see pictures of lynchings. Sometimes multiple hangings were performed in one day, with all victims hanging from the same tree.

(pictures from "Without Santuary" by James Allen) The hanging of four Black men in Kentucky. They were identified as Virgil Jones, Robert Jones, Joseph Riley and one unidentified. The burning corpse of William Brown, 1908.

Tony Brown, publisher of Tony Brown’s Journal, writes in the January/March 1984 issue  that, “Lynchings included
September 28, 1919, Omaha, Nebraska
mutilations, fiendish rites and barbaric group behavior and were advertised in newspapers. Crowds of thousands sometimes came on chartered trains. Typically, they came from all over to Newnan, Georgia on April 28, 1899—including the mob leaders who traveled from Pennsylvania to plunge angry knives into Sam Holt, carving from the body its ears, fingers, and genital parts for souvenirs as he burned at the stake.  At the end, he cried: ‘Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus!’

“The Vicksburg (Mississippi) Evenings Post reported the lynchings of Luther Holbert and his wife two years later: ‘They were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. Some of the mob used a large corkscrew to bore into the flesh of the man and woman . . . then pulled out . . . .’”

Mary Turner’s life ended just as tragically at the end of a rope and bullets May 21, 1918. Her husband, Hays Turner, met the same fate, but his death was less gruesome. Mary Turner and her husband’s destiny with ropes and bullets started in Brooks County, Georgia after a White farmer was shot to death by one of his Black employees. By the time the dust settled at least 11 Blacks were twisting in the wind at the end of ropes, bodies riddled with bullets. A few of the bodies fished out of a local river.

Mary Turner sculpture

From 1882 to 1968 historical data estimates that 3,446 Blacks were lynched compared to only 1,297 Whites. The majority of the hangings occurred in southern and border states.  Hanging Black people was used to arouse fear in them. The fear evolved into control. Hangings, burnings and mutilations kept “Negroes” in their place.

Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology, Ferris State University, in an article titled “What Was Jim Crow” cited Joseph Boskin, author of “Urban Racial Violence in the Twentieth Century”, 1979. Boskin postured that racial riots in the 1900s had certain characteristics. 

Dr. Pilgrim writes that “Boskin omitted the following: the mass media, especially newspapers published inflammatory articles about ‘Black criminals’ immediately before the riots; Blacks were not only killed, but their homes and businesses were looted and many who did not flee were left homeless; and the goal of White rioters, as were the White lynchers of single victims, was to instill fear and terror into the Blacks, thereby buttressing White domination. The Jim Crow hierarchy could not work without violence being used against those on the bottom rung."

 Walter White, an investigative reporter and assistant secretary for the NAACP in Brooks and Lowndes Counties, wrote about Mary Turner’s horrific lynching. In the Crisis Magazine 1918 edition, he writes, “Hampton Smith, whose murder was the immediate cause of the holocaust of lynchings, was the owner of a large plantation in Brooks County. He bore a very poor reputation in the community because of his ill treatment of his Negro employees.”

Smith’s reputation of cruelty to his employees was well noted in his community. He could not to hire dependent “Negroes” to work for him because of his reputation. Realizing his pool of potential employees had dried up, Smith devised a scheme that raised his chances of hiring :Negro" men and women to work his plantation. He was an unscrupulous scavenger on a hunt. Smith's scheme was foolproof and guaranteed to actualize its purpose.

White reports that Smith went to “the courts and because [if] a Negro was convicted and was unable to pay his fine, or was sentenced to serve a period in the chain gang, Smith would secure his release and put him to work out his fine on the plantation.”

One man that Smith recused from the chain gang was Sidney Johnson. He was charged with “gaming”. His $30 fine was paid by Smith.  Apparently Johnson agreed to the arrangement, or he did not have a choice. The problem occurred when Johnson worked way past the $30 fine. He asked Smith to pay him for the extra time he worked. Smith said no. An argument followed the demand. Johnson did not return to work the next day. In fact, a few days passed and he still had not returned.

White writes that Smith went to Johnson’s cabin to see why he had not come to work. Johnson told Smith that he was sick, the reason he had not reported to work. Hampton Smith flipped out.

“Smith thereupon began to beat him, inspite of the protestations of the victim. Johnson is said then to have threatened Smith and a few nights later, while sitting in his house, Smith was shot twice through the window near which he was sitting, dying instantly. His wife was also shot, the bullet passing through the center of her breast, miraculously missing both her heart and lungs. Her wound is not believed to be serious.”  Smith’s wife recovered from her wound. Rumors of her getting raped by Johnson were proven false.

When news of the shootings reached the community all hell broke loose. A group of men and boys from two counties gathered, and formed a lynch mob. They did not know who they were looking for, but they knew some “Negroes” were going to pay for the crime. Talk of a conspiracy whipped the mob into a foaming mouth frenzy. White writes that the angry mob believed a group of “Negroes” who had worked for Smith, got together and planned to kill the tough task master.

“The first of the mob’s victims to be captured was Will Head, a Negro of the community, who was caught on Friday m0rning, May 17, at 8:30, near Barney, Georgia; the second was Will Thompson, seized later on the same day. That night both were lynched near Trouperville, about five miles from Valdosta. Members of the mob stated to the investigator that over seven hundred bullets were fired into the bodies of the two men,” writes White.

Hayes Turner was captured on a following Saturday morning, and taken to the Quitman jail by Sheriff Wade and Roland Knight. He was moved to the county court, supposedly for safekeeping. “Turner was taken from these men en route to Moultrie at the fork of the roads about three-and-a-half miles town. He was lynched with his hands fastened behind him with handcuffs and allowed to hang there until Monday when he was cut down by county convicts.” Hayes was buried 100 feet from the tree that he was hanged on.

The following Saturday—Saturdays and Sundays must have been the designated days to hunt down and lynch Negroes—another unidentified “Negro” was lynched. Later three bodies were pulled from the Little River, located below Barney.

Walter White reports that, “The murder of the Negro men was deplorable enough in itself, but the method by which Mrs. Turner was put to death was so revolting and the details so horrible that it is with reluctance that the account is given. Mrs. Turner made the remark that the killing of her husband on Saturday was unjust and that if she knew the name of the mob that lynched her husband, she would have warrants sworn out against them and have them punished in the courts.” 

The year was 1918, a year before the “Red Summer” of 1919, when racial riots and lynching of African Americans spread like wildfire all over America. It is not likely Turner would have found a court or attorney receptive to filing a wrongful death suit against a White lynch mob.

“This news determined the mob to ‘teach her a lesson’ and although she attempted to flee when she heard that they were after her, she was captured at noon on Sunday,” writes White. “The grief-stricken and terrified woman was taken to a lonely and secluded spot down a narrow road over which the trees touch at their tops, which, with the thick undergrowth on either side of the road, made a gloomy and appropriate spot for the lynching. Near Folsom’s Bridge over the Little River a tree was selected for her execution—a small oak tree extending over the road.”

Mary Turner, alone and pregnant, must have experienced untold fears and horror as she looked in the faces of her judges and executioners, all of whom were angry White men who about to take her life and that of her unborn child. She was eight months pregnant. Her condition did not deter the malicious mob. Her condition did not soften their hearts. They showed no mercy. They showed no pity.

White writes, “Her ankles were tied together and she was hung to the tree, head downward (upside down). Gasoline and oil from the automobiles were thrown on her clothing and the mob howled in glee; a match was applied and her clothes burned from her person. When this had been done and while she was yet alive, a knife, evidently one such as is used in splitting hogs, was taken and the woman’s abdomen was cut open, the unborn babe falling from her womb to the ground.”

White reports that the baby, “prematurely born, gave two feeble cries and then its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into the body of the woman, now mercifully dead, and the work was done.”

After the double murder of Turner and her unborn child, the roving mob was still blood thirsty. They murdered another Black man named Chime Riley.  His hands and feet were tied together and he was thrown in to the Little River. White did not state if he was dead or alive at the time.  Another victim named Simon Schuman was taken from his ransacked home one night, and his family did not hear from him again. 

All the Black men and one woman, were innocent victims of a run-away mob that hanged and killed them without fear of reprisal. Over 500 Black farmers in the area were so fearful for their lives that they prepared to leave the state, hoping to escape the reign of terror. According to  Tony Brown’s Journal, the farmers “left hundreds of acres of untilled land behind them.”

With the intent to hold every “Negro” hostage in the Valdosta vicinity, a mob of bullies warned the Black farmers that they would implicate them in the shooting death of Hampton Smith if they tried to skip town. The mob warned that they would not hesitate to lynch them. Despite the threats and talk of revenge, the farmers left the state, leaving behind everything they had worked for.

“Hundreds of acres of untilled land flourishing with weeds and dozens of deserted farm houses give their own mute testimony of the Negroes’ attitude toward a community in which lynching mobs are allowed to visit vengeance upon members of their race,” White concluded.

Two instigators and 15 mob members were identified, and revealed to Georgia’s governor Hugh Dorsey in an investigative report. An anti-lynching law was proposed by legislatures in 1922, but it was rejected by the Georgia Senate. None of the mob members were ever charged for the multiple murders of the innocent Black men, one woman, and one unborn child. The real criminals openly committed their murderous acts in 1918. No was prosecuted.

***The above sculpture of Mary Turner was designed and created by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, 1919.   

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