Sunday, November 27, 2011

100 years ago today: We remember the wrong names

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

Down near the bottom of the front page of The Times Dispatch (Richmond, VA) of November 27 1911 there is a small headline: WILL BE HANGED TO-DAY / White Man Must Pay Penalty for Murder of Negroes. The focus of the short article that follows is not the nature of the crime but the historic nature of the punishment:
There was a follow-up article on the front page of the same newspaper the next day:
Indeed this was an historic occasion. A white man had not only be found guilty of murdering an African-American he had been given the most severe penalty possible for doing so. But there is something very wrong that it is his name that was recorded in these newspapers not the names of women he killed. That is why I have redacted the murderer's name from these articles.

This story was picked by the Associated Press and the article varied from paper to paper across the United States by headline and length. For example, the headline near the bottom of the second page of the November 30 1911 edition of the Hopkinsville Kentuckian was Unusual and the accompanying article was simply:
NAME REDACTED, a white man, was hanged at St. Mary's, Georgia, for the murder of a negro woman and her daughter.
In The Titusville Herald (Titusville, PA) the piece ran on page 8: WILL HANG TODAY
For the murder of a negro woman and her daughter near Kingsland; Ga., NAME REDACTED, a white man, will be hanged here tomorrow. This is believed to be the first time in the history [sic] that a white man has been executed for killing a negro.
If the name of the first white man in that area of the United States executed for killing an African-American was of historic interest surely the names of the two women he murdered -- the first African-Americans in that area of the United States whose murders were treated with the same degree of severity as were murders of white women -- deserved to be recorded.

Even The Appeal, an African-American newspaper, did not include the names of the two women when it picked up the Associated Press story. Which leads me to suspect that the story was sent out without their names. But the name of their murderer was not only put out on the wires, it was mentioned in major newspapers because his death marked an historic first. His name and his story have become part of the tourist industry of the town where he was hanged because he was also an historic last. He was the last man hanged at that jail. So his story is repeated and even dramatized for the tourist trade.

The name of the murderer was in all the newspapers I read. A little bit of digging turned up the name of the man who arrested him. I know the name of the (white) woman who had taught one of the murdered women to read and write. I know that that murdered woman was proud she was literate and proud of the hard work that she did to earn a living. I know that she made a habit of writing her name on the dollar bills she received when she was paid. I know that it was the possession of money with her name written on it that led to her murderer being caught. I know that family members of the white woman who taught her sat on the jury that heard the case. I know that the older woman was walking home with her daughter when she was attacked by a white man who intended (at the very least) to steal all her money. Perhaps she feared that even greater harm would be done to her daughter. I know that the older woman fought her attacker and I know that he murdered her and her daughter and then took the money from their corpses.

But I do not know the name of the mother or the daughter. I don't know how old either were. I know only that one white man took away their lives and that their place is history has almost been wiped out by the disinterest of those who record these kinds of things.

One hundred years ago today the State of Georgia enacted official revenge for the murder of two black women. It is their names that should be remembered not that of the man who murdered them.


  1. I guess the killing was so egregious, and the man so despicable, that normal social protections didn't apply to him.

    Doesn't mean that society would suddenly start valuing black people enough to find their names and identities important.

  2. There have been some interesting academic studies of the exceptions to the rule that white people weren't executed for killing African-Americans. It is difficult, unless one is on the scene and has access to old records, to find out what "really" happened.

    The little I have been able to dig up -- the man who was executed was a "community scoundrel" who was suspected of having killed his own wife. Meanwhile the woman who had taught the African-American woman to read belonged to one of the most prominent white families in the community.

    Reading between the lines it seems likely that the white family had been slave owners and the African-American woman was probably the daughter of one of their slaves. She may even have been (given the realities of life on plantations) a cousin of existing members of the white family.

    Or, cynically speaking, the politics of class trumped the politics of race.

    I suspect that in an earlier time the white man in question would not have been executed. In fact he would not even have been arrested. Instead, he would have been "disappeared."


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