In May of 1918, Hampton Smith, a 31 year old White plantation owner in Brooks County, Georgia was shot and killed by one of his Black workers.
Smith was well known throughout Brooks County for abusing and beating workers to the point few people in the area
would work for him. Because of this, he turned to the debt peonage (a.k.a. "convict leasing") system
of the day and found an easily exploitable labor pool. He used that system by bailing Black people out of jail,
people who had typically been racially profiled and arrested for petty offenses. He would then make them to work off their debt
to him (e.g. the bail money) on his plantation. According to historian Christopher Myers,
Smith was such an abusive employer he had to "resort to trolling" the Quitman, Georgia
courthouse for workers where he would then "pay a convicted criminal's fine" who then "had
to work for him until the amount of the fine was satisfied." Nineteen year old Sydney Johnson, arrested for "rolling dice"
and fined thirty dollars for "gaming," was one such unfortunate person.
After a few days of work on Smith's plantation, and shortly after Smith had beat him for not working while sick, Sidney Johnson alledgely shot and killed Hampton Smith and wounded his wife. What ensued after that shooting was a white lynch mob driven manhunt for Johnson and other individuals suspected to be "part of a conspiracy" related to the death of Hampton Smith. That manhunt or "lynching rampage," as Myers described it, lasted for more than a week and resulted in the deaths of at least 12 people, with some historical accounts suggesting a higher number of persons killed.
The first victim of the lynch mob that terrorized black people in Lowndes and Brooks Counties for days was Will Head who was captured and killed on Friday morning, May 17, 1918. Pressured by the mob, Mr. Head allegedly "confessed" to a multi-person plot to murder Smith. After that coerced confession, Mr. Head was reportedly taken to Troupville, Georgia, a few miles west of Valdosta where he was hung from a large oak tree by a mob of approximately three hundred men. One report stated that a rope secured to the tree was tied around his neck. Will Head was then forced to climb the tree and jump from a limb. After being lynched, Mr. Head's body was "riddled with bullets" and was he left hanging for all to see. Sometime after Mr. Head's lynching, a "legal" inquest into his death decreed that he was not murdered but simply "came to his death by jumping from the limb of a tree with a rope tied around his neck."
The second victim of another, smaller lynch mob that had formed was Will Thompson. At some point in the day that same Friday after Will Head's murder, Thompson was captured by that mob and taken to Camp Ground Church between Morven and Barney where he was hung and left for all to see.
On that same evening of Friday, May 17, 1918, Julius Jones was captured and also hung by the mob. The specifics of his murder were not well documented and it was reported that his body was left hanging for at least one full day so the public could see it.
Sometime that same Friday, Chime Riley was resportedly hung by the mob and later thrown into the Little River with clay turpentine cups tied to his body (to weigh it down) near Barney, Georgia. It is important to note that Riley was not suspected to be part of any alledged plot to kill Smith. As Christopher Myers put it, he was "probably executed to quench the mob's thirst for blood."
On Saturday, May 18th Hayes Turner, who had at one point in time worked for Hampton Smith, was arrested for allegedly being part of the plot or "conspiracy" to kill him. After his arrest, Turner was held in the Brooks County jail before he was to be transferred to the Moultrie, Georgia jail for his safety. In the process of that transfer the Brooks County Sheriff and County Clerk were reportedly stopped by a mob of 40 masked men who took Hayes Turner and hung him at the intersection of Morven and Barney roads. Once again, his body was left there for a number of days for all to see.
That same Saturday and some time after the murder of Hayes Turner, Eugene Rice was captured by the mob and taken to Camp Ground Church where he was also lynched by the mob. Few other details are known about his murder.
On Sunday, May 19th, thirty three year-old Mary Turner (m.n. Hattie Graham), the wife of Hayes Turner and reportedly 8 months pregnant at the time, someone who had also worked for and been abused by Hampton Smith, outraged about her husband's lynching publicly threatened to swear out warrants for those responsible for his murder. Those "unwise remarks," as the area papers put it, "enraged" local whites further. Consequently, Mary Turner was captured and taken to a place called Folsom's Bridge on the Brooks and Lowndes Counties' shared border. To punish her, at Folsom's Bridge the mob tied Mary Turner by her ankles and hung upside her down from a tree. Mob members then poured gasoline on her and burned her alive. One member of the mob is said to have then cut her stomach open causing her unborn child to drop to the ground where it was reportedly stomped and crushed. According to N.A.A.C.P. investigator Walter White, her body was then riddled with gunfire from the mob. Later that night she and her baby were buried ten feet away from where she was murdered. Her makeshift grave was marked with only a "whiskey bottle" with a "cigar" stuffed in its neck.
Three days after the murder of Mary Turner and her baby, three more unidentified bodies were found in the area and Sydney Johnson was located and killed in a shoot out with police on South Troup Street in Valdosta, Georgia. Once killed, in the midst of a crowd of more than 700 people Johnson's genitals were cut off and thrown into the street. According to Walther White, a rope was then tied to his neck and his body was "dragged in open daylight down Patterson Street, one of Valdosta's business thoroughfares, and out to a place near Barney, Georgia" where Hampton Smith had been killed. There what remained of Johnson's body was tied to a tree and burned.
During and shortly after this chain of barberic events it is reported that more than 500 Black people fled Lowndes and Brooks Counties in fear for their lives.
Some may ask, why bring up "the past" and these horrible atrocities now? "It happened so long ago."
We think we should bring these crimes up and face them for many reasons. We should bring them up to acknowledge the lives lost, along with the reality that no justice has ever occurred for the victims, their families, and so many others affected by these atrocities. We should bring them up because few in the region speak publicly about these events yet wonder why race relations in the area is regularly strained. We should bring them up because these events remain one of the most gruesome examples of racism and racial terrorism in this nation's history, yet they are erased from history. We should bring them up because Mary Turner's lynching remains one of the unfathomable crimes committed against a human being, an American citizen, in this nation's history. And last but not least, we should bring these events up so we can face our collective past in order to see how it might affect our shared present and future.
The information above is drawn from the following scholarly and historical sources.
* Dr. Julie Armstrong Buckner's text, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching, Georgia University Press, 2011.
* Dr. Christopher Myers's article "Killing Them by the Wholesale: A Lynching Rampage in South Georgia," pgs. 214-235 in Georgia Historical Quarterly. Vol. XC. No. 2. Summer 2006.
* Walter White, "Memorandum For Govenor Dorsey," July 10, 1918, Papers of the NAACP, Group I. Series C, Box 353, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
* Walter White, "The Work of a Mob," The Crisis. 16 (September 1918), p.221.