Wanda Cooper-Jones had “The Talk” with her son Ahmaud when he learned to drive, the one where Black parents warn their children how to stay safe when encountering law enforcement.
“I didn’t think him jogging, that that would put him in danger,” said Cooper-Jones who was raised in Burke County where family still lives.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot to death Feb. 23 in Brunswick, Ga. It wasn’t until May, after a third prosecutor and the GBI entered the case, that the men responsible for his death — Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan Jr. — would be charged with murder.
LATEST NEWS: Jury finds 3 white men guilty of murder in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery
Also: What were the charges in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and what do they mean?
Opinion: Ahmaud Arbery was murdered or, more accurately, lynched
Read More: Son’s slaying nearly swept under rug in south Georgia
Arbery’s death has been labeled a lynching, which is defined as a killing by three or more people claiming extrajudicial reasons to kill.
The renowned educator, adviser to presidents and first president of Tuskegee University Booker T. Washington was among the first to find a need to document lynchings in the country. He set the standard for Monroe Work, a Black sociologist who built the archives and documented lynchings between 1881 and 1936.
This Thursday, May 7, 2020, file photo combo of images provided by the Glynn County Detention Center in Georgia shows Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael. Georgia’s attorney general on Sunday asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the handling of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who authorities say died at the hands of the two men as he ran through a neighborhood.
Lynchings weren’t just hangings. People — the vast majority of whom were Black, 94 percent in Georgia and 96 percent in South Carolina — were also shot, beaten, stabbed, drowned, tortured and burned alive. Sometimes all of the above.
There are 4,745 documented lynchings in the collection Work started in 1904. If anything, it’s a vast under-count, said Dana Chandler, associate professor for Tuskegee University Archives who is in charge of Work’s lynching files at the historic Black university.
A lot more people were carted off in the middle of the night and no one knew what happened, Chandler said.
The back story to many accounts of lynching often boils down to Blacks voting, earning more than neighboring whites, and committing perceived slights to white supremacy, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
This booking photo provided by the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office shows William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., who was jailed Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Brunswick, Ga., on charges of felony murder and attempted false imprisonment. A judge has denied bond to Bryanm one of three white men charged with murder in the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery while the Black man was running in a neighborhood near Georgia’s coast.
One of worst times for Blacks was after the Civil War, according to a recent study released by the Equal Justice Initiative, “Reconstruction in American.” In 12 years, from 1865 to 1876, at least 2,000 Black people were lynched. It happened even though laws were enacted to grant Blacks citizenship and equal protection under the law, and for Black men the right to vote. And it happened despite federal troops being sent South in large part to protect Blacks.
One such incident happened in what is now McDuffie County in November 1868. Perry Jeffreys, his wife and their four sons were lynched after Jeffreys voted, according to Reconstruction in America.
Read More: Death of white man in 1918 led to one of Georgia’s worst Black massacres
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And: Age, innocence did not sway Columbia County lynch mob in 1910
Lynching was used to control people, Chandler said. It was telling people to stay in their place. “It’s a form of terrorism.”
A year earlier in Edgefield County, six were lynched, and in July 1876, during the Hamburg massacre, six Black national guardsmen were murdered, one tortured, by whites seeking a reversal of the gains of Black citizens. The Meriwether Monument in North Augusta was erected in 1916 to honor the one white man killed in the Hamburg massacre and makes no mention of the other killings.
The U.S. Supreme Court furthered the efforts of whites seeking supremacy over Blacks, finding 12 times that laws passed to protect the rights of Blacks were unconstitutional. Further attempts to empower Blacks ended when Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to pull federal troops out of the South to win the controversial 1876 presidential election.
Between 1885 to 1908, all 11 former Confederate states rewrote their constitutions to restrict voting rights for Blacks. Laws were enacted to control Blacks, as the Jim Crow period had begun.
The U.S. Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on Jim Crow in an 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. Segregation was constitutional, the nation’s highest court decided.
From 1882 to 1933, according to The Augusta Chronicle’s research of the lynching archives at Tuskegee University, a total of 94 people were lynched in the Georgia and South Carolina counties along the Savannah River. Only two were white. No jury had convicted the victims of any crime, although several were dragged out and murdered during their trials.
Fannie Flono, a former resident of Augusta, is related to two different sets of lynching victims.
The first time it happened in her family was Oct. 25, 1898, when Wash Mackey and James Mackey, her relatives, and Luther Sullivan were dragged to the Republican Church in Edgefield County and murdered. They had been on trial for allegedly killing Mrs. O. Adkinson, a white woman.
Flono is also related to Bertha Lowman, 27, Clarence Lowman, 14, and Damon Lowman, 21, who were dragged out of the Aiken County jail the night of Oct. 8, 1926, after Damon Lowman was acquitted of murder in the fatal shooting of Sheriff Henry Howard. According to accounts given to Black investigators, a large crowd gathered to watch the executions. The sheriff finished off Bertha Lowman when he pressed the barrel of his handgun against her head and fired.
Walsh Mackey, from Fannie Flono
“Those were very scary times,” said Flono, a journalist who worked at The Augusta Chronicle and later as a reporter and editor for the Charlotte Observer who wrote a book, “Thriving in the Shadows: The Black Experience in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Her family never discussed the lynchings, but her grandparents told stories going back to Reconstruction, Flono said. The perseverance of those family members through such horrible times was astounding. She was told of how her grandfather was cheated out of land a white farmer promised for sharecropping, Flono said. “He just picked himself up and went back to work.”
The story of what happened to members of her family is not unique in the Augusta area.
In April 1893, John Peterson was accused of rape in Demark, S.C. He fled to Columbia, S.C., and appealed to Gov. Benjamin Tillman who sent him back to Denmark. There, the victim told a mob that Peterson wasn’t the one who attacked her. The mob lynched him anyway.
Dennis Head and Jesse Butler were lynched in Aiken County on July 16, 1903, after they said they didn’t know where a murder suspect was. James A. Nelson was lynched July 12, 1894 in Edgefield County so he couldn’t testify against a white man. On Dec. 28, 1889 in Barnwell County, eight Black men were lynched when a mob took them from the jail. Only two were even charged with murder.
Bertha Lowman, from Fannie Flono
On Feb. 19, 1933, Herman Jeter was dragged from his Aiken County home in front of his wife and father. He was beaten to death because he was suspected of stealing liquor. The men who dragged him from his home stood trial. They were acquitted.
According to studies by the Equal Justice Initiative and others, 99 percent of those who took part in lynching were never convicted of any crime. Some occurrences were even downplayed.
In a May 11, 1907, Chronicle article, the McDuffie County sheriff disputed reports there had been a lynching in his county. What happened occurred in Columbia County when a “negro was whipped by a number of white men. Other than this little inconvenience … the negro is today alive and well.”
Vivian Harris has painted a number of pictures featured at the Tuskegee University. Researching her family history she discovered the story of her great-great-grandfather who was surely murdered by the Klan, Harris said. His name isn’t included in the Tuskegee lynching files, however. Men came for him one night. The family never saw him again. His body was never recovered.
Harris has been collecting lynching stories from others, such as one from a 90-year-old man who told her how the KKK would come in and take women to rape. “That’s a form of lynching, too,” Harris said. She’s heard tales of Black farmers cheated out of every penny then chased out of town, leaving their families with nothing.
Sam Lowman, who had never been arrested until Aiken County law men killed his wife and later murdered two of his children and the nephew he was raising, was sentenced to two years hard labor after liquor was ‘found’ on his property.
Germany’s Nazi leaders were so impressed by the southern states’ suppression of Black rights, they incorporated their tactics, according to Yale Law School Professor James Q. Whitman who wrote “Hitler’s American Model.”
Some people want to see the stories made public, Harris said. She has been working to back up stories with documentation. But some people don’t want their names used, and others say “I don’t want to tell,” she said.
There may be a reluctance to talk about family history of lynching when the “official” side is that the lynching victim committed murder, or rape. But there’s no way to know if those allegations were true, Chandler said.
The real story of what happened to Arbery didn’t come to light until more than two months after he was killed. The McMichaels and Bryan told Brunswick police they believed Arbery had been burglarizing the neighborhood. A video shot by Bryan showed they chased after him in two pickup trucks as he jogged through their Satilla Shores neighborhood. They worked to pin him in, and Travis McMichael confronted Arbery with a shotgun. He shot Arbery twice, and then cursed Arbery and called a dying Arbery a racial slur, according to Bryan.
When Cooper-Jones pointed out the prosecutor assigned to Arbery’s killing in Brunswick earlier this year had a conflict — because his attorney son worked with one of the men responsible for her son’s death — George Barnhill took offense. Although he had already told law enforcement Arbery’s death wasn’t a crime, he put Cooper-Jones off, telling her that he couldn’t do any investigation until Arbery’s toxicology report was completed.
He couldn’t have been more nonchalant, Cooper-Jones said. The police wouldn’t answer her telephone calls. No attorney was interested in taking her case.
“Those were some dark days,” she said.
But his death prompted the Georgia General Assembly to pass a hate crime law this year. The U.S. Congress nearly passed an anti-lynching bill this year, until Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, refused to support it. It was supposed to be passed by unanimous consent and had the support of 99 senators, but Paul’s failure to support it doomed the bill. It would have been named for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black child tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after he was falsely accused of affronting a white woman.
Many people, including Chandler, believe Americans need to talk about racial injustice, including what happened in the past. He’s a true believer in Tuskegee’s mission to maintain the lynching archives.
“I want people to know that history can be told without any embellishment … and it can change people. It has changed people.”
HOW THIS STORY WAS REPORTED
The Augusta Chronicle spent months going through old editions of newspaper and the Aiken Standard as well as reports from The New York Times, The State in Columbia, S.C., the Chicago Defender and the New York World. The lynching files archived at Tuskegee University were also instrumental to the project.
Additional sources were Walter White reports for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACCP booklet for the National Conference on Lynching, U.S. Supreme Court opinions, a paper on the Lowman lynchings by historian Elizabeth Robeson, and the books “Red Summer” by Cameron McWhirter, “The Man from the Train” by Bill James, “A Deed So Accursed” by Terrence Finnesan, and “Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching” by Julie Buckner Armstrong.
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Arbery case reminder lynchings part of GA past and present