Equal Justice Initiative believes that in order to heal the wounds from our present, we must face our past. Learn more at lynchinginamerica.eji.org
In 1919 in Ellisville, MS, an accusation could cost a black man his life. This is John Hartfield’s story, as told by a family friend.
remembering family friend John Hartfield, who was lynched in 1919 in Ellisville, MS.
Tarabu Betserai Kirkland: My mother, she was seven years old when her father came home after midnight in terror, and told my grandmother, “Gather the kids on the first train in the morning,” but he had to leave now. So, put yourself in a situation where you’re seven, you pack up everything you can fit in the two or three little suitcases that we have, and you leave right away. And then come to the realization that the reason why was because, if he did not, he was going to be hanging from a tree. This was 1915 so any look the wrong way, or even the smallest of slights could inflame the white citizenry.
The story not only involves my grandfather, but the gentleman who he left with, whose name was John Hartfield. They made it to East St. Louis, Illinois, but John Hartfield decided to return back to Ellisville, where he was accused of assaulting a white woman.
And this group of white people decided they could be judge and jury. So he was shot, but he was kept alive in a doctor’s office, so that he could be publicly lynched the next day. His lynching was advertised in the Mississippi State Daily News, and the title of the front page newspaper article is JOHN HARTFIELD TO BE LYNCHED BY ELLISVILLE MOB AT 5 O’CLOCK.
Ellisville was a little sleepy town of a thousand, eleven hundred people, but by that afternoon, there were ten thousand people who were there to witness this spectacle. The governor of the state proclaimed that he was powerless to do anything about it.
While he was hanging from the noose around his neck, they dismembered parts of his body as souvenirs, and the crowd randomly shot around two thousand bullets into his hanging body. One of the bullets finally clipped the rope, he fell to the ground, and they burned him on the spot where he fell. And no one was ever held accountable for John Hartfield’s death. And if the persons responsible were brought to justice, you would need a courtroom that could accommodate 10,000 people, because that’s how many people participated in it.
It could have very easily been my grandfather hanging on that same tree had he gone back to Mississippi. So my family was forced to flee Ellisville, Mississippi, they left everything they owned to start a whole new life again. They did that in East St. Louis, Illinois, and then race riots erupted, which were one of the most violent race riots up to that point. There were groups of white vigilantes roaming the communities where black people live, setting houses on fire. Close to 6,000 African American families left as a result of the violence. Our family was one of them.
And so their next stop was Ohio, and they were visited by a group of klansmen. My mother remembers the incident vividly. They saw the klansmen outside, they saw the cross burning on their lawn, they were all hiding underneath the bed, shaking like a leaf. And this is the third incident of racial terror in her life. And so it’s framed the Great Migration in very personal terms in our family.
It’s one of the largest migrations of people in the world, from the South to the North. They were fleeing, basically as refugees.
So how do we get through this together? I don’t have the answers to that. I just know, we have to keep remembering, and we have to keep telling the story, because how do you get through that if you don’t confront history?
The decline of lynching gave way to a new form of capital punishment: the death penalty. Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. This is his story, in his own words.
reflecting on his journey from death row to life as a free man.
Anthony Ray Hinton: I was cuttin’ grass. I just happen to look up and there’s two white gentleman standing there. And I said, “Can I help you?” And they said, “Yes, we’re looking for Anthony Ray Hinton.” And they identified themselves as detectives. And they said, “We have a warrant for your arrest.” And I said, “For what?” He said, “We charging you with first degree attempted murder, first degree robbery, and first degree kidnapping.” I said, “Well, you got the wrong person. I ain’t done none of that!” And he continued to look at me and he said, “You know, I don’t care whether you did it or didn't do it. But I’mma make sure you’ll be found guilty of it. And there’s five things that’s going to convict you.” He said, “Number one, you’re black. Number two, a white man is gonna say you shot him. Whether you shot him or not, I don’t care.” He said, “Number three, you gonna have a white prosecutor. Number four, you gonna have a white judge. And number five, more than likely you gonna have an all white jury.” And he continued to look at me. And he said, “You know what that spell? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.”
And sure enough, they found me guilty. And so, I went to death row for 30 years.
I never did pray, God, please, free me! I thought that was selfish. But, I didn’t want the world to believe that my mom had raised a son that was capable of taking another human being’s life. And so I asked God to let the truth come out. I knew if the truth would come out, then I would come out. And that’s what happened.
So, when Mr. Stevenson came aboard, I said I need you to hire a ballistics expert. Because they convicted me off ballistics, saying that the bullets that they retrieved from the victim's body matched the gun that they got from my mother’s house. And all three of them came to the same conclusion that the bullets didn’t match.
And so, with this, we go before the attorney general, and we ask him to reexamine the bullets. He refused to just take one hour and reexamine the bullets. I sat on death row an extra 16 years all because my life was not worth re-examining the bullets for one hour.
Years later, the Supreme Court did something they’ve never done in the history of the courts, they ruled in my favor. All nine justices. And I’ve been out a year and a half, and no one have had the decency to say I’m sorry.
Just like it was back in the lynching days. Two men came and got me, falsely accused me. It was a white mob that prosecuted me, a white judge that sentenced me, a white jury that convicted me. And so, what changed? They brought it inside and created another way of execution. Went from the tree, to the electric chair, from the electric chair to the gurney. When they come get you they at least try to take you to jail, and then in some places, they kill you right there on the spot. Say you had a gun, say you went reaching for a gun. They took off the white robe, and put on the black robe. At the end of the journey, they still putting you to death.
I lost not just 30 years, I lost the years with my mom who passed September the 22nd, 2002. When I came home, this house here was infested with mold. Some people thought they should just bulldoze it. But this is where I was when I was arrested, this is the home that my mom loved so much. And out of respect for my mom and out of love for my mom, I said it could be fixed. And I am proud that when I open that door, regardless of who is on the other side, that I can say welcome to my home. It’s not much, but it’s mine. You are welcome here.
In 1916 in Abbeville, SC, a black man could be lynched for standing up for himself. This is Anthony Crawford’s story, as told by his great-great-granddaughter.
remembering her great-great-grandfather Anthony Crawford, who was lynched in 1916 in Abbeville, SC.
Doria Dee Johnson: I am the great-great-granddaughter of Anthony Crawford who was lynched, October 21,1916.
And in my aunt’s home, which was where we had our Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas, she owned the largest photograph of him in a permanent space over the dinner table. And they always pointed to him and said, “Walk with a sense of pride,” because Grandpa Crawford stuck up for his rights to the time of his death.
As a child, when we were told the story of Grandpa Crawford, he’s like a king almost. We were told that he was born enslaved, and had worked his way up to owning property, and was wealthy. He started a school for the black children of Abbeville, he was the president of the Black Masons of South Carolina, and, at the time of his death, Grandpa Crawford owned 427 acres of prime cotton land.
So one day in 1916, it’s a Saturday morning, Grandpa Crawford went to town to sell cotton seed and they offered him 85 cents per unit, when it was worth more. He said, “Give me my damn cotton seed back,” and was arrested for cursing a white man. Word had gotten around town that Anthony Crawford had started acting uppity, and so about 400 people gathered, taking Grandpa out of the jail. They stabbed him, beat him, tied him to the back of the buggy, and drug that around town to the county fairgrounds. They hung him there and riddled his body with 200 bullets.
The last thing he said was, “I thought I was a good citizen” and “Give my bank book to my children.” The family tried to retrieve the body and were told to leave it there. So if you could imagine your grandfather being at home eating breakfast with the children, laughing, and now all of the sudden, he’s hanging from a tree with 200 bullets in him. That’s a form of terrorism.
And then there was an ad taken in the newspaper by white citizens, and they said that the Crawford family needed to leave the state of South Carolina, otherwise everybody’s life was in danger. My great-great Uncle Walter, Grandpa’s oldest son, wrote Governor Richard I. Manning, and asked him for protection. Governor Manning wrote back and said, while he deplored the lynching he could not guarantee our safety.
So my family didn’t leave the South, they were chased away from the South. We moved to Evanston, Illinois, and, not only did the Crawfords leave, but half of the black population of Abbeville was gone within the next 10 years.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in the South—the first time I went to Abbeville was the first time I could understand what 427 acres looks like, and that’s when I think I got really offended. That’s the day I became an activist.
I came home and I started writing congressmen, and I’m saying, “Do you know that our family was kicked off this property for this?” These are unsolved murders. And people who benefitted from lynchings, their families are still alive, and they’re still benefitting financial rewards from the land of our ancestors, and that just seems a shame.
So from Grandpa to Emmett to Trayvon, the trajectory of lynching history has shifted over time in America, because when grandpa was killed in 1916, there was no charges brought, and no trial. In 1955, Emmett Till’s murder, there was a trial, but no convictions. And then Trayvon Martin, now you have a trial, and a not guilty verdict. So all the time you have dead black bodies, and nobody is ever convicted for the murders.
And so on the 100th anniversary of Grandpa Crawford’s lynching, we went back to Abbeville. Over 200 family members came from all over the United States to help unveil the marker dedicated to Grandpa Crawford’s lynching.
And I remember grandpa’s granddaughter, one of only living grandchildren, was next to me in a wheelchair, and when we took the cover off of the marker, she looked at the picture of him, I saw her face light up, and I heard her say, “My, my, my.” And to watch her enjoy that moment, that meant the world to me.
So the marker being in Abbeville is important because the story has been denied for so long. But now, if you go to Abbeville City Hall to do business, you have to walk right past Anthony Crawford to do it. You can’t bypass him anymore.
In the 1930s South, black men often faced a terrifying choice: flee—or die. This is Fred Croft’s story, as told by his niece.
remembering her uncle Fred Croft, who fled the South in the 1930s after a near-lynching.
Vanessa Croft: As a child, my aunts and uncles were like movie stars to us, living in different parts of the country, you know that was my uncle in Detroit, or Los Angeles. And my Uncle Fred lived in New York. But he never came back home to visit my dad. I never knew the reasons why until my dad told me this story.
One day, this group of white men came to my granddad’s house asking to bring my Uncle Fred out, and Fred was a young teenage boy. They said, “This little white girl, somebody pushed her off the back porch.” And the little girl, she stood up and said, “I told y’all it was not him.” But this guy said, “I know it was Fred. We coming back.” So my granddad told my daddy, “Run downtown, tell Fred, do not come home,” and my granddad got Fred out of town with nothing but the shirt on his back. So if my Uncle Fred was there at home that day, you just knew it would not have ended well.
I was a grown woman when I heard the story, so for me it really came into perspective—that’s why you have seven uncles who leave and never come back to Alabama. And then it started clicking, okay, 1906. There was a 28 year-old-man named Bunk Richardson, who hadn’t done anything by the way, but the mob lynched him, off of the Coosa River train bridge, because he was black. And it’s not like he was hung and they cut him down. They left his body there, so his family members who were told to get out of town, as they left that morning, they saw their relative's body hanging. And my grandad and my family would have seen his body hanging on that train trestle. So the racial terror has been embedded into you. And that’s the intention of any terrorist act, to invoke fear into a community, and, I’m sure it did.
My dad didn’t see my Uncle Fred, after he had to leave Alabama, until years later. Word War II broke out and they both had joined the Navy. My dad was stationed in Pearl Harbor, and Fred was on a warship that docked in Hawaii, and that was the next time my dad saw his brother. He told me that story, and I could see in his face, that was probably one of his best days because that was his best friend.
Today, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest, his statue is down on Broad street, Gadsden. The middle school was General Forrest. And, you know, having your rival high school playing Dixie, I remember that. That was their fight song, and I hated playing them. The entire stadium was just going wild, and they’re running back and forth with the confederate flag. It was almost like they were going to battle, and this is at a football game. And we were just sitting there, just wish we could leave.
Those types of things have an impact on you generation after generation, dealing with the same issues, it breeds white supremacy. There is a silent supremacy, they don’t have to do anything or say anything, it has already done its job.
I remember we had to eventually put my dad in a nursing home because he had a feeding tube. One day I was leaving, and he said, “Tell all my children they better stay close, because they gonna have a ride through.” A ride through is when the klan would ride through at night. And like, “No, Daddy, you’re okay. Nobody’s riding through.” But isn’t that something? He was 86, and still remembered that.
In 1937 in Abbeville, AL, courting a white woman could cost a black man his life. This is Wes Johnson’s story, as told by a family member.
remembering his relative Wes Johnson, who was lynched in 1937 in Abbeville, AL.
James Johnson: I guess maybe I was an outspoken young boy — very curious, had a lot of questions. Why can’t I drink at this water fountain? Why do I have to go through the back door of white people’s homes? And we would pass right by nice white schools, but we were not allowed to go to those schools. I had a lot of whys, but no one would give me the answers. Most of the time they would tell me, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “That’s the way it always has been.”
But my mother told me about this young black guy, his name was Wes Johnson, and I was related to him. And so what had happened, this white guy thought there was a courtship going on between Wes Johnson and this white man’s wife. So he was put in jail and a mob came. They took him and he was hanged and shot, I believe.
My mother’s tone was very precautionary. It was very difficult, particularly for young black guys growing up here. And the least thing that you do, or it was perceived as being out of line, you could very well lose your life. My mother told me, “The most important thing here is keeping the family together. Don’t worry about what they say or what they do, if you fight back, the family will be destroyed.” And so we had to accept that, but, having to accept all this stuff, it caused me to be very bitter, because I didn’t like the way things operated.
This is a time when the Civil Rights workers were being killed over in Mississippi and Alabama as well, prior to the march from Selma to Montgomery, so things were really just getting kicked off here. I was able to take part in the march where we integrated the Star Cafe. It being a small town like this, everybody knew everybody. They knew who I was, and they knew my grandmother, and she received a call once.
The words to her were, “Chastise that grandboy of yours, otherwise he gonna get in trouble.” So my grandmother told me, she said, “Listen, you don’t have to stay here, but I gotta live here.” So rather than to risk her life, or my younger siblings, which were girls, I left.
‘Course I wandered around for a while, and I still wasn’t finding the answers I needed, so I knew that the best thing for me to do was to get in college—majored in education. By then I knew that eventually I was gonna return to the South, but I had to come back prepared. There was mob violence in New York and Chicago and throughout the North, but in the South it was so heinous because if you were a black male, you could very easily be lynched. Whether it was an electric chair or gas chamber, or whether it was with a rope or gun, it didn’t matter.
And so I ended back here in Alabama, where I got my start, because there was a need to come back to help. It allowed me to be able to give the kids some of the answers that they were searching for that I couldn’t get. So to come back here at home, to a place where you grew up, where you were refused access to this high school, but now you’re teaching in that high school. I felt like I had accomplished something.
And we are approximately 20 miles from where Wes Johnson was lynched. I don’t know where it actually took place, but I often wonder if this is the area it happened. I wonder if this is the tree where it happened, you know? But the people that could’ve told me more about that are dead now.
The era of lynchings, it left a bitter taste in the mouths, or in the lives, of both black and whites throughout this country who did not particularly like what was going on, but many went along just to get along. So this is a very dark spot in American history that would never be erased, because the people who could’ve done something about it allowed it to happen.
In 1912 in Shreveport, LA, black men could be lynched for writing letters to white women. This is Thomas Miles’s story, as told by his family members. #SlaveryEvolved
remembering their grandfather Thomas Miles, who was lynched in 1912 in Shreveport, LA.
LM: When my grandmother passed away, we ran across a little box of papers, under her bed, and of course being nosey, we picked it up and it was clippings.
PD: Yeah, and when I read the newspaper clipping, we discovered my grandfather was lynched in Shreveport, Louisiana April 9th, 1912. I’ve never seen a picture, but I just see him being afraid of this mob, you know, he’s alone, and he can’t defend himself, and, he most likely knows he’s going to die that day. And it’s almost like I could feel that fear, and it kind of made it real for me. And Dad was only six years old.
SD: He was old enough and aware enough to realize that they murdered his dad, and that they had to then run, and they changed the spelling of his last name.
SD: The original spelling of Miles is M-I-L-E-S, and now we spell it M-Y-L-E-S, because they were essentially trying to hide, and…
LM: That’s when the family uprooted and came to California.
PD: I think that since they were running from the authorities, back in Shreveport, my Dad changed his birth date, and his birth place, he was saying that he was born in San Francisco, because he wanted to have had all his paperwork burned in the great fire I think it was in 1906? I just think he felt safer, having another name another birthday, they couldn’t attach him to that lynching.
LM: A lot of the time he preferred to be in other countries, I guess where he felt more comfortable, and that was probably the root of it.
PD: I think my dad did not appreciate how important a father figure is in the family. I personally, would’ve liked to have had my father around a lot more. But since he grew up with just women, you know, his mom, his grandmother, maybe he didn’t realize, you know what, I should be more present in the family.
LM: When you see the whole picture, the puzzle comes together. Because we always wondered, oh, he just likes Mexico better or he likes South America better. But, as for raising us, I think he wanted to keep us away from the racism, and that was his way of doing that.
LM: You know, you never know the whole story as to why.
SD: I didn’t realize that you guys only found out once your grandmother died, and then you found the clippings, I didn’t even know that.
LM: It was known to just not ask, you know. Speak when you’re spoken to, that kind of thing. If my grandmother didn’t bring it up, you wouldn’t bring it up either, you know what I’m saying. My father never brought it up, and his mother certainly never brought it up, and we lived with her, for periods of time.
PD: Right now that she’s mentioning that, so far I’ve been focusing on my grandfather. I didn’t think about my grandmother’s feelings. Here she is at a young age, she was all part of that too.
LM: Yeah, she was only 26 when she became a widow.
LM: If my grandmother was here today, I would ask her what it felt like when the incident happened. And why didn’t she tell us about it? She missed out on a source of comfort, and I don’t think we would have judged her. I think we would have felt, “Wow, you went through a lot,” you know?
SD: When I found out all that information, I started crying, mostly for my grandfather—the pain he went through. And then crying for my mom and her family, because I started to understand how the pain that he suffered affected his relationship with his family. How something like this can impact generations.