On Jan. 22, 1912, white Georgians lynched their first woman. She was African-American, of course, and it took over a hundred years for her story to be told. Her name was Loduska Crutchfield. They called her Dusky.
Most newspapers of the time got her name wrong. They called her Belle Hathaway, confusing it with the name of the black minister lynched beside her, whose name was Burrell Hardaway. They called him Dusty Crutchfield. Two other men were also lynched that wintry midnight beside the outdoor baptismal font at the Friendship Baptist Church in Hamilton.
The men were suspected of conspiring to murder the new sheriff’s nephew. The woman was expected to testify against them. Because the men were innocent and because she refused to falsely accuse them, she, too, was dragged to the tree that night. When offered one last chance to testify, she said, “Pull the rope, white man.”
Crutchfield was not your average black farm woman. Her husband, a moonshine man, had been sent to prison on the word of a powerful white man who wanted her body. Forced to move to his farm and become his concubine in order to survive, she went about town referring to herself as “Miz Mobley,” the white man’s name. That, coupled with her refusal to do what black men and women had been forced to do for decades – provide false witness and send innocent men to their deaths – was the final straw for the white men who ran Harris County, Georgia. Many of them, including the sheriff, the deputy, and mob members, were my ancestors.
Today I think of Crutchfield as an early #MeToo woman. The preacher beside her on that tree was a #TimesUp man. This lynching was – like many others -- all about white men’s sexual predation of black women and girls, a key factor in our nation’s sordid history of lynching, but one barely studied by the mostly white male scholars of the subject.
Preacher Hardaway, like Crutchfield, was a bold outlier. Called a “shirt tail preacher” for his lack of schooling, he spoke from the pulpit against the sheriff’s womanizing nephew, a man known to prefer black over white and girls over women, a man in hot pursuit of a 14-year-old member of his congregation. The teen’s father served the preacher’s church as deacon and he also died that night on that tree. While powerful African-Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Cooper could voice this taboo subject bravely and did with impunity – Du Bois calling on black men to risk lynching if need be to protect black women -- , Preacher Hardaway’s position was far more precarious.
I spent more than a decade unearthing my ancestors’ long-buried secret, but when I did it was Crutchfield’s valor, those last words – “Pull the rope, white man” -- that still burned in White memory. I have spent hours reading lurid, racist headlines and studying vile quotes by politicians, preachers, journalists, and scholars -- feeling a false relief to be living a century later in what seemed a country that had faced some of that history and was moving toward equality and justice.
Last month, my sister and I met up with three newly-discovered cousins – incisive, outspoken African-American women, all of us related to John Moore, the youngest black man on that tree in 1912. We journeyed to Hamilton, Ga., to collect soil to fill four gallon jars that will become a part of the collection of soil samples at the new memorial for southern lynching developed by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery. We spoke words, both loving and sorrowful, about the bravery of Dusky Crutchfield and Burrell Hardaway, then drove the soil to the EJI and poured it into the glass jars with their names, the place and date of their lynching on them and placed them on a shelf alongside hundreds of others. Eventually, more than four thousand jars will adorn the national lynching memorial where people can come from all over the world to hear the story of the four people my great grandfather and my grandfather and numerous uncles and cousins and the white people of the south helped to kill or stood by while others did.
They say that some of the three hundred bullets fired into those four bodies that night went through Dusky Crutchfield’s tongue. My older cousin Louise told me she saw the hole in the tongue. If that was meant to silence her, it failed. Old men still tell stories of hearing her howls at midnight. From other mouths, black and white, her story and others are being told. May we hear them well. May they burn themselves into new laws, new justice, new ways, a new society. May the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements grow large and loud and legitimate enough to save the Crutchfields and Hardaways of today and tomorrow.
Karen Branan is author of The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, Atria Books, 2016.