On June 4 I journeyed to Lagrange, Ga., for two speaking engagements – neither of which I shall ever forget.
Lagrange, the seat of Troup County, sits a short distance from the Harris County line, a quick drive from Hamilton. Some progressive things happened in Lagrange long ago, some of them mentioned in my book, some not. During Reconstruction a brave white Methodist minister named John Caldwell opened a school for freed children. Black Radical Republicans came here to inform freed people of their rights. Later, the all-white Methodist Women’s Missionary Society held conferences at Lagrange College, one of the places I was speaking; some of these conferences provided a podium for anti-lynching advocates. Later the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) held conferences here. ASWPL confronted sheriffs and helped put an end to mass lynchings in the 30s and 40s.
My first event took place at Lagrange College, a private Methodist-affiliated school founded for women in 1831. In sharp contrast to Harris County, whose sheriff, Mike Jolley, has posted a sign in front of the jail saying “We are politically incorrect” advising those who have a problem with his Worship God, Salute the Flag, etc. ideology to “Just Leave,” the police chief in Lagrange, Louis Dekmar, participates in a Racial Reconciliation and Trust-Building group of a hundred people who’ve met for a year to narrow the gulf between the races. It was started by a black former state legislator and a white former county commission chair. They’ve done trainings through Hope in the Cities in Richmond, Va., to increase their awareness of racism. It was this group that invited me to speak.
My talk about historical lynchings in the area was met with trepidation by some, who feared it would reawaken old hurts, but I received a warm greeting, rapt attention, honest conversation and a standing ovation. Because it was a breakfast meeting, participants sat around small tables and I asked them to discuss their own memories of racial violence and its effects on them, which they did eagerly. The sharing afterward was painful to hear, but rewarding in its honesty. It was clear these folks had solid experience in being together and were more than able to take on the tough subjects that came up as a result of my discussion of miscegeny, rejected and even murdered kinfolk, lynching, and other forms of racial violence.
Warmed as I was by this group’s response, I was not prepared for what happened next at the Lagrange Memorial Library. There I told my story much as I always do, but found myself opening up a topic I haven’t previously broached – the 1947 murder/lynching of Lagrange resident Henry “Peg” Gilbert in the Hamilton jail. I told the story to illustrate how these old wounds still festered as I interviewed elderly citizens of Harris County. I told of black farmer Cornelius Bugg’s urgency as he related how his friend Peg Gilbert suffered in that hellhole and how justice was not done. I discovered that J. Edgar Hoover had investigated it and concluded that the cover story – self-defense—was true. I revealed my belief that my sheriff grandfather, Douglas Hadley, had lied to Hoover when he told him that his friend, the police chief who shot and killed a viciously-beaten Gilbert, had no choice.
As I spoke I noticed a rustling among some in the audience. Glances were exchanged. Some shuddered or lowered their eyes. It hit me what was happening. I stopped and looked at six people, including two very elderly, sitting in front of me. “Are you Peg Gilbert’s family?” I asked. They nodded. The room froze. There we sat in the middle of history, thrust back into 1947. Several of the white women in the audience had been children in Harris County when this happened. I had spent summers there in my sheriff grandfather's house. The black woman in the wheelchair was the 98 year old sister of Peg Gilbert’s wife. With her were his great nieces and nephews. They began to talk, to tell me how horrible life had been for Gilbert’s wife May, left with four daughters to raise alone, forced to leave Lagrange and live in Atlanta, the children farmed out for a time to relatives. May Gilbert refused ever to drive through Hamilton when the family came South. Once the person driving forgot, and Gilbert’s widow, suddenly finding herself in the heart of Hamilton, almost had a nervous breakdown. Tell me history doesn’t live on, isn’t as alive today as it was back then. Tell me.
I continued to talk with this family. I told them, “I am so very sorry that my grandfather allowed this to happen, that he did not have the moral courage to prevent it.”
Today I make copies of the FBI report of the investigation to send to a niece who’s been trying to get information, to find out what really happened. Perhaps we’ll find a way to get the case reopened, to bring some sort of belated justice to Henry “Peg” Gilbert and his family.
It’s things like this my book and the stories of others are bringing to the fore. Books are bridges bringing together the descendants of the perpetrators and the descendants of the victims. Bridges to healing.
Postscript: Along the way, I discovered that Prof. Margaret Burnham of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern U. Law School in Boston and a team of her students had spent several years investigating Henry "Peg" Gilbert's lynching. You can read the report at http://www.northeastern.edu/civilrights/georgia/henry-gilbert