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?