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The Long Afterlife of a Lynching

The old man was waiting for me when I arrived. He didn’t know I was coming nor did I. It just turned out that way. I was in Harris County, Ga., my ancestors’ home, in 1995, hoping to find some elders who’d remember a lynching eighty-three years earlier. I doubted I’d find any and, if I did, doubted they’d talk about it, but I was quickly stunned to discover there were many who’d been small children in 1912 when a woman and three men were lynched and they were more than willing to talk about what they’d seen and heard.

The old man’s name was Clyde Slayton. He was sitting in a rocker on the plain pine board porch of the cabin he’d lived in all his life. He was a small boy on that midnight of Jan. 22, 1912, when a mob of men snatched Dusky Crutchfield, John Moore, Gene Harrington, and Burrell Hardaway out of their jail cells in Hamilton, Ga., and marched them to a water oak beside the outdoor baptismal font of the Friendship Baptist Church. They were being held on suspicion of the murder of the sheriff’s nephew. The mob had tried to take them a week earlier as the sheriff was carrying them to jail, but he’d talked them out of it, promised a speedy trial, that “justice would be done.” He was new to the job and didn’t want a lynching. It was getting harder in 1912 for sheriffs to simply turn black prisoners over to mobs --- some blacks were suing and more progressive white lawmakers were passing laws against it, laws rarely enforced. The local judge was a fierce anti-lynching man. So the mob promised to stand by and the sheriff got the judge to schedule a special trial, but soon thereafter his case against the four fell apart. The mob moved in and the dark deed was done. Three hundred shots fired at midnight. Bodies left hanging all the next day.

The sheriff was my great-grandfather. His deputy was my grandfather. The mob was made up of many of my kinfolk. “Parties unknown,” the grand jury declared, hewing to that ancient script so scrupulously followed by grand juries all over the South for more than a century. I later learned the youngest man on that tree, Johnie Moore, was kin to me from slavery. I’d learn a lot more about black-white kinship in Harris County before it was all over.

“There were a lot of bad people around here back then,” Clyde Slayton told me after removing a wad of Red Man tobacco from his jaw and placing it gingerly on a piece of cheesecloth stretched across a McDonald’s Big Slurp cup. I’d been sent down to see Clyde by C.D. Marshall, a black man I’d run across up the road. Marshall was hoeing the corn patch next to his cabin. It had been there since slavery, he told me, the last of its kind in the county. He’d already told me “those four folks was innocent.” I didn’t mention this to Slayton -- who was white and turned out to be a cousin on my mother’s side -- but he said it as well. He knew who’d killed the sheriff’s nephew. “It was a white man,” he said. “I just thought of his name last night, but now I can’t remember it.”

It was like this with numerous people I spoke with on my journey. No one knew I was coming. I had no idea whom I’d interview. I just drove around country roads looking for old folks on porches, in gardens or corn patches. Confessed on his deathbed. Sometime in the 30s. Slayton tried hard to remember the name of the white man who’d killed my cousin Norman but couldn’t. Like a lot of the folks I talked with he spoke of other killings, later killings. White men killing white men. I wasn’t sure at first why they brought these up. Likely because they happened when these people were older so they could speak more knowledgeably of them.

It was a while before I realized they were part of the 1912 lynching’s long aftermath. “Every man in the mob died with his boots on,” numerous people told me, black and white. A curse fell over the county. Long hours of research later, I’d learn that many of the wives and children of folks in the mob or folks in authority who let it happen died suddenly or in freak accidents after that midnight of horror. My great grandfather, the sheriff’s, daughter, only 19, felled by typhoid fever. Judge Williams, my paternal great grandfather’s brother, lost a son and a 14 year old granddaughter overnight it seemed. Another branch of the family lost young ones. A young man stomped to death by a mule, a leading citizen stricken with indigestion and dead on the sidewalk in a flash just before Christmas. It went like that into the 20s, the killings and the freak accidents. My great uncle Dock’s head “beat to jelly” in a gambling row, my uncle Worth’s head crushed beyond recognition in an auto accident.

Before it was all over, sixteen of the men said to have been in the lynch mob had been murdered by other men said to have been in the lynch mob. The last was shot to death in 1929 by a black man in self-defense. He’d gone after the man with a gun, thinking he was making the howling noises outside his window, noises long believed to have been made by the ghost of the woman who was lynched. “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” old folks, black and white, murmured, shaking their heads slowly, each time they heard of another. Over those long years, slow justice was being exacted.

Despite my fears the lynching would have been forgotten, I found that, on the contrary, 80-year-old-plus memories remained fresh. As if recalling an event that very week, the Fort sisters, Mary and Edna, launched into a painful description, their faces as stricken as they must have been when, as children, they lay quaking beneath their covers, the terrified shrieks of Dusky Crutchfield ricocheting around their bedroom.

It’s been twenty years since I made those rounds in Harris County, Georgia, but I think of those people still. Black and white, they expressed deep sorrow for those four innocent people and the hideous way they died. Why didn’t this ever come to light? Why didn’t anyone ever, until now, make public this awful thing and how it affected them all? It kept many African Americans scared all their lives. It kept a lot of the decent white ones ashamed, deeply ashamed, of the fathers, relatives, and neighbors who committed this crime and others. It kept many blacks and whites at a distance from one another, a distance which for many remains to this day. That distance, that edginess around one another, came roaring to the fore this January when a memorial service planned by me and my family to honor those four people so viciously and wrongfully lynched was abruptly called off by the white Methodist minister who had offered enthusiastically to hold it. Members of his congregation had expressed anger over my book, and when the minister of the black Baptist church where the lynching took place said he and his congregation wanted “nothing to do” with such a service, he decided to call it off. The Mayor, who'd warmly endorsed the idea, saying she thought it would be a wonderful thing for Hamilton to do, failed to return my calls. Fortunately, that fear didn't extend to the town library where head librarian Ada Demlow opened the doors for a service that drew dozens of folks of both races to openly and honestly discuss some very painful history. On June 4, I'll travel back to the area, to adjoining Troup County, and spend two hours at Lagrange College with the Racial Reconciliation and Trust-building Group.

I like to think that I am continuing the work begun by those elderly witnesses I interviewed. I like to think that I am telling truths that some of them wanted to tell and for whatever reason couldn’t or wouldn’t until they were asked and were close to death. The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, My Search for the Truth tells the story these “Ancient Mariners” told me -- of how an innocent woman and three innocent men were savagely hanged and shot 300 times to cover up the murder of a white man by a white man and to cover up the inter-racial night-time lifestyles of some of the county’s most prominent men.

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