Georgia Police Chief, Other White Leaders Apologize for 1940 Lynching

Griot: Karen Branan

Ernest Ward, president of the Troup County NAACP, (left) and LaGrange Police Chief Louis Dekmar have organized an event of acknowledgement in the 1940’s kidnapping and murder of Austin Callaway, 18. (Photo By: Melanie Ruberti | LaGrange Daily News)

On January 26, 2017 the police chief of Lagrange, Georgia, along with the city’s mayor, a judge, and a college president, representing the white business community, issued an apology for the 1940 lynching of teenaged Austin Callaway. The apology was issued to NAACP Pres. Ernest Ward and to members of Callaway’s family. Special mention was made of the church’s minister Rev. W.L. Strickland, who took his own life in his hands when he not only spoke out to a silent city against the lynching but wrote Thurgood Marshall, then legal counsel for the national NAACP for help, and started the Lagrange NAACP chapter.

On March 18, 2017, a local citizens organization, Troup Together, assisted by the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, AL, will place a memorial marker to Callaway and other African Americans lynched in that county at Vernon Memorial.

A Sept. 9, 1940, article in The New York Times about the lynching of Austin Callaway. The fatal cruelties inflicted upon him are to be acknowledged Thursday evening. (The New York Times)

Before the Lagrange apology only one public official, the mayor of Waco, Texas, has taken responsibility for a lynching in his jurisdiction. Never has a police chief done so. In Lagrange, Chief Lou Dekmar said, “Most lynchings would not have happened if the police had done their jobs.”  Officials who spoke emphasized their determination to work for improved race relations on all levels. The service was covered by the New York Times, CBS, NBC, CNN, and NPR.

Karen Branan is the author of The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth. She has been involved with the Lagrange effort for over a year. The lynchings detailed in her book occurred just 20 miles from that of Austin Callaway.

At ABHM’s Founder’s Day for Racial Repair and Reconciliation 2017, Karen will present about how her discoveries about her family’s complicity in a lynching unleashed her anti-racism activism.

Efforts by Counties and Towns to Purge Minority Voters From Rolls

SPARTA, Ga. — When the deputy sheriff’s patrol cruiser pulled up beside him as he walked down Broad Street at sunset last August, Martee Flournoy, a 32-year-old black man, was both confused and rattled. He had reason: In this corner of rural Georgia, African-Americans are arrested at a rate far higher than that of whites.

 Downtown Sparta, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. The Board of Elections and Registration that oversees Sparta systematically questioned the registrations of more than 180 of its black citizens. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

Downtown Sparta, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. The Board of Elections and Registration that oversees Sparta systematically questioned the registrations of more than 180 of its black citizens. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

But the deputy had not come to arrest Mr. Flournoy. Rather, he had come to challenge Mr. Flournoy’s right to vote.

The majority-white Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration was systematically questioning the registrations of more than 180 black Sparta citizens — a fifth of the city’s registered voters — by dispatching deputies with summonses commanding them to appear in person to prove their residence or lose their voting rights. “When I read that letter, I was kind of nervous,” Mr. Flournoy said in an interview. “I didn’t know what to do.”

The board’s aim, a lawsuit later claimed, was to give an edge to white candidates in Sparta’s municipal elections — and that November, a white mayoral candidate won a narrow victory.

 Marion Warren, a Sparta elections official who documented the purges and raised an alarm with voting-rights advocates. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times


Marion Warren, a Sparta elections official who documented the purges and raised an alarm with voting-rights advocates. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

“A lot of those people that was challenged probably didn’t vote, even though they weren’t proven to be wrong,” said Marion Warren, a Sparta elections official who documented the purges and raised an alarm with voting-rights advocates. “People just do not understand why a sheriff is coming to their house to bring them a subpoena, especially if they haven’t committed any crime.”

The county attorney, Barry A. Fleming, a Republican state representative, said in an interview that the elections board was only trying to restore order to an electoral process tainted earlier by corruption and incompetence. The lawsuit is overblown, he suggested, because only a fraction of the targeted voters were ultimately scratched from the rolls.

“The allegations that people were denied the right to vote are the opposite of the truth,” he said. “This is probably more about politics and power than race.”

But the purge of Sparta voters is precisely the sort of electoral maneuver that once would have needed Justice Department approval before it could be put in effect. In Georgia and all or part of 14 other states, the 1965 Voting Rights Act required jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to receive so-called preclearance before changing the way voter registration and elections were conducted.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court declared the preclearance mandate unconstitutional, saying the blatant discrimination it was meant to prevent was largely a thing of the past.

But since the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling in the voting-rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, critics argue, the blatant efforts to keep minorities from voting have been supplanted by a blizzard of more subtle changes. Most conspicuous have been state efforts like voter ID laws or cutbacks in early voting periods, which critics say disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Less apparent, but often just as contentious, have been numerous voting changes enacted in counties and towns across the South and elsewhere around the country.

 Martee Flournoy, 32, was one of many black Sparta, Ga., residents whose voter registration was challenged last year. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

Martee Flournoy, 32, was one of many black Sparta, Ga., residents whose voter registration was challenged last year. Credit Kevin D. Liles for The New York Times

They appear as Republican legislatures and election officials in the South and elsewhere have imposed statewide restrictions on voting that could depress turnout by minorities and other Democrat-leaning groups in a crucial presidential election year. Georgia and North Carolina, two states whose campaigns against so-called voter fraud have been cast by critics as aimed at black voters, could both be contested states in autumn’s presidential election.

Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a leading voting-rights advocacy group, said that before the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling, discriminatory laws and procedures had been blocked by the preclearance provisions.

Now, she said, “We’re seeing widespread proliferation of these laws. And we are left only with the ability to mount slow, costly case-by-case challenges” to their legality….

The local voting changes have often gone unnoticed and unchallenged. A June survey by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund found that governments in six former preclearance states have closed registration or polling places, making it harder for minorities to vote. Local jurisdictions in six more redrew districts or changed election rules in ways that diluted minorities’ votes…..

vote-suppression12But perhaps none of the battles is more striking than the one in Hancock County, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta, where three in four of the roughly 10,000 residents are black. The racial divide here is deep and prolonged; the white mayor of the county seat, Sparta, made headlines in 1970 after responding to black citizens’ school-desegregation protests by equipping the town’s six-member police force with submachine guns.

By the 1990s, the Justice Department had invoked its preclearance authority to block measures that it said would weaken minority representation on the Sparta City Council, but political control of the county was frequently split. By last year, black politicians ran Sparta, a white majority controlled the Hancock County commission, and a furious contest was underway between black and white slates to control the next Sparta administration.

The five-member Hancock County Board of Elections and Registration was controlled by three white members — the chairwoman, appointed by a local judge, and two members appointed by the Hancock County Republican Committee — one of whom, curiously, is a Democrat. According to documents filed in a federal lawsuit in nearby Macon, the board began taking steps last August that seemed destined to tilt the playing field to the white slate’s advantage.

This Nigger Voted

During Jim Crow, blacks who voted – or tried to vote – were likely to be intimidated, beaten, or worse.

The board first proposed to close all but one of the county’s 10 polling places, a move the N.A.A.C.P. and other minority advocates argued would disenfranchise rural blacks who could not travel long distances to vote. Board members eventually chose to eliminate just one predominantly black precinct. But around the same time, they began to winnow the county’s roll of registered voters, ordering an aide to compare the registrants’ stated addresses with those on their driver’s licenses to spot voters who had moved after registering to vote.

By October, a month before the city election, the board and a private citizen who appears to have worked with its white members had challenged the legality of 187 registered voters in Sparta. The board removed 53 of them, virtually all African-Americans — roughly one of every 20 voters. As a “courtesy,” court papers state, county sheriff’s deputies served summonses on the targeted voters, commanding them to defend themselves at election board meetings.

Some did, and were restored to the rolls. Others reacted differently to a police officer’s knock on their door.

“A lot of voters are actually calling to say they no longer wish to be on the list, so now we have people coming off the list who no longer want to vote,” Tiffany Medlock, the elections supervisor for the Hancock County elections board, told a Macon television reporter in late September. “It’ll probably affect the City of Sparta’s election in a major way….”

Full article here.

More Breaking News here.

The Long Afterlife of a Lynching

Griot: Karen Branan

Karen Branan

Karen Branan searched for the truth about her family’s involvement in the lynching of four people in Georgia in 1912.

The old man was waiting for me when I arrived. He didn’t know I was coming nor did I; it just turned out that way. I was in Harris County, Ga., my ancestors’ home, in 1995, hoping to find some elders who’d remember a lynching eighty-three years ago. I doubted I’d find any and, if I did, doubted they’d talk about it but I was quickly stunned to discover there were many who’d been small children in 1912 when a woman and three men were lynched and they were more than willing to talk about what they’d seen and heard.

The Lynching

The old man’s name was Clyde Slayton. He was sitting in a rocker on the plain pine board porch of the cabin he’d lived in all his life. He was a small boy on that midnight of Jan. 22, 1912, when a mob of men snatched Dusky Crutchfield, John Moore, Gene Harrington, and Burrell Hardaway out of their jail cells in Hamilton, Ga., and marched them to a water oak beside the outdoor baptismal font of the black Friendship Baptist Church.

They were being held on suspicion of the murder of the sheriff’s nephew. The mob had tried to take them a week earlier as the sheriff was carrying them to jail but he’d talked them out of it, promised a speedy trial, that “justice would be done.”  He was new to the job and didn’t want a lynching. It was getting harder in 1912 for sheriffs to simply turn black prisoners over to mobs – some blacks were suing, more progressive white lawmakers were passing laws against it, laws rarely enforced. The local judge was a fierce anti-lynching man. So the mob promised to stand by and the sheriff got the judge to schedule a special trial but soon thereafter his case against the four fell apart.  The mob moved in and the dark deed was done. Five hundred shots fired at midnight. Bodies left hanging all the next day.

Friendship Baptist Church in Hamilton, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Deborah Dawson

The lynching took place by the outdoor baptismal font here, at the Friendship Baptist Church in Hamilton, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Deborah Dawson

My Family’s Involvement

The sheriff was my great-grandfather. His deputy was my grandfather. The mob was made up of many of my kinfolk.  “Parties unknown,” the grand jury declared, hewing to that ancient script so scrupulously followed by grand juries all over the South for more than a century. I later learned the youngest man on that tree, Johnie Moore, was kin to me from slavery. I’d learn a lot more about black-white kinship in Harris County before it was all over.

“There were a lot of bad people around here back then,” Slayton told me after removing a wad of Red Man tobacco from his jaw and placing it gingerly on a piece of cheesecloth stretched across a McDonald’s Big Slurp cup.  I’d been sent down to see Slayton by C.D. Marshall, a black man I’d run across up the road.  Marshall was hoeing the corn patch next to his cabin, which had been there since slavery, he told me, the last of its kind in the county.  He’d already told me ‘those four folks was innocent.’   I didn’t mention this to Slayton – who was white and turned out to be a cousin on my mother’s side – but he said the same thing. He knew who’d killed the sheriff’s nephew.  “It was a white man,’’ he confided.  “I just thought of his name last night, but now I can’t remember it.”

Curses and Ghosts: The Lynching’s Long Aftermath

The railroad in Hamilton, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Deborah Dawson.

The railroad through Hamilton, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Deborah Dawson.

It was like this with numerous people I spoke with on my journey.  No one knew I was coming. I had no idea who I’d interview. I just drove around country roads looking for old folks on porches, in gardens or corn patches. “Confessed on his deathbed. Sometime in the 30s.” Slayton tried to remember the name of the white man who’d killed my cousin Norman and for whose murder the four had been lynched,  but couldn’t.  Like a lot of the folks I talked with he spoke of other killings, later killings. White men killing white men.  I wasn’t sure at first why they brought these up. It was a while before I realized they were part of the 1912 lynching’s long aftermath.   “Every man in the mob died with his boots on,” numerous people told me, black and white.

A curse fell over the county. Long hours of research later, I’d learn that many of the wives and children of folks in the mob or folks in authority who let it happen died suddenly or in freak accidents after that midnight of horror.  My great grandfather, the sheriff’s, daughter, only 19 and a new mother, felled by typhoid fever.  Judge Williams, my paternal great grandfather’s brother, lost a son and a young granddaughter overnight it seemed. Another branch of the family lost young ones. A young man stomped to death by a mule, a leading citizen stricken with indigestion and dead on the sidewalk in a flash just before Christmas. It went like that into the 20s, the killings and the freak accidents. My great uncle Dock’s head “beat to jelly” in a gambling row, my uncle Worth’s head crushed beyond recognition in an auto accident.  Before it was all over, sixteen of the men said to have been in the lynch mob had been murdered by other men said to have been in the lynch mob.  The last was shot to death in 1929 by a black man in self-defense. He’d gone after the man with a gun, thinking he was making the howling noises outside his window, noises long believed to have been made by the ghost of the woman who was lynched.  “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” old folks, black and white, murmured, shaking their heads slowly, each time they heard of another, over those long years slow justice was being exacted.

Painful Memories Still Fresh

Despite my fears the lynching would have been forgotten, I found that old memories remained fresh. As if recalling an event that very week, the Fort sisters, Mary and Edna, retired white schoolteachers, launched into a painful description, their faces as stricken as they must have been when, as children, they lay quaking beneath their covers, the terrified shrieks of Dusky Crutchfield ricocheting around their bedroom as she was dragged past the window

It’s been twenty years since I made those rounds in Harris County, Georgia, but I think of those people still. Black and white, they expressed deep sorrow for the four innocent people and the heinous way they died.

Why didn’t this ever come to light? Why didn’t anyone ever make public the truth behind this 1912 lynching and the ways it affected them all?

It kept many African Americans scared all their lives. It kept a lot of the decent white ones ashamed, deeply ashamed, of the fathers and the neighbors who committed the crime. It cursed the county and kept many blacks and whites at a distance from one another — a distance which, for many, remains.

Telling the Truth

Brannan book coverI like to think that I am continuing the work that some of them began. I like to think that I am telling truths that some of them wanted to tell and for whatever reason couldn’t or wouldn’t.   In The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, My Search for the Truth (Simon & Schuster, Jan. 2016), I tell the story these “Ancient Mariners,” as I call them, told me, of how an innocent woman and four innocent men were wrongly murdered to cover up the murder of a white man by a white man and to cover up the inter-racial night-time lifestyles of some of the county’s most prominent white men.

My prayer is that bringing these long-festering secrets into the sunlight for honest discussion among black and white people will reduce the distance between us.

Simon & Schuster synopsis

In the tradition of Slaves in the Family, the provocative true account of the hanging of four black people by a white lynch mob in 1912—written by the great-granddaughter of the sheriff charged with protecting them.

Harris County, Georgia, 1912. A white man, the beloved nephew of the county sheriff, is shot dead on the porch of a black woman. Days later, the sheriff sanctions the lynching of a black woman and three black men, all of them innocent. For Karen Branan, the great-granddaughter of that sheriff, this isn’t just history, this is family history.

Branan spent nearly twenty years combing through diaries and letters, hunting for clues in libraries and archives throughout the United States, and interviewing community elders to piece together the events and motives that led a group of people to murder four of their fellow citizens in such a brutal public display. Her research revealed surprising new insights into the day-to-day reality of race relations in the Jim Crow–era South, but what she ultimately discovered was far more personal. As she dug into the past, Branan was forced to confront her own deep-rooted beliefs surrounding race and family, a process that came to a head when Branan learned a shocking truth: she is related not only to the sheriff, but also to one of the four who were murdered. Both identities—perpetrator and victim—are her inheritance to bear.

A gripping story of privilege and power, anger, and atonement, The Family Tree transports readers to a small Southern town steeped in racial tension and bound by powerful family ties. Branan takes us back in time to the Civil War, demonstrating how plantation politics and the Lost Cause movement set the stage for the fiery racial dynamics of the twentieth century, delving into the prevalence of mob rule, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the role of miscegenation in an unceasing cycle of bigotry.

Through all of this, what emerges is a searing examination of the violence that occurred on that awful day in 1912—the echoes of which still resound today—and the knowledge that it is only through facing our ugliest truths that we can move forward to a place of understanding.

More about the book here.

Buy the book at online book retailers: Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Claxton Dekle – Prosperous Farmer, Husband & Father of Two

By Dr. Fran Kaplan from information provided by Richard L. Byrd, great-great-nephew of Claxton Dekle

When he was lynched, Uncle Clax (1893 – 1917) was 24 years old. He and his wife Huddie had a 14 month old daughter, Myrtle,  and Huddie was pregnant with their daughter Joe Britt, whom Claxton would not live to see born.

Claxton Dekle (pronounced Dee-cul) was part of a family that, by 1917, had obtained the American dream of their times: 40 acres and a mule. They owned a sizeable amount of land in Emanuel (now Candler) County Georgia.

Plowing with a mule. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Plowing with a mule. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The circumstances leading to Uncle Clax’s murder began when his father, Henry Dekle, decided the family needed another mule to plow their growing acreage. He sent Clax to buy one from a white farmer nearby.

Uncle Clax went into Metter, Georgia and bought the mule. Upon returning home, however, the family discovered that the mule was blind. They sent Clax back to either get another mule or get the family’s money back. But the farmer would neither take the mule back or return the money, even though he knew  the mule was blind when he sold it. An argument ensued. According to reports, the farmer hurled “nigger” insults and attacked Uncle Clax. In turn, Clax defended himself at a time when it was death to insult or question the word of a white man–let alone cause him physical harm.

The Atlantic Constitution newspaper, not known for unbiased reporting of stories about people of color, reported that when Clax began to get the better of the white farmer, two white bystanders came to his aid. Nonetheless, Clax killed the white farmer, and Clax returned home and told what had happened, according to the story handed down in his family,

Meantime a mob formed. They captured and executed Uncle Clax.  As was  customary at the time, he was not given a trial, just immediately executed–the typical punishment for killing a white person, whether the killing was done in self-defense, as an accident, or with malice aforethought.

As Clax hung from a tree, the enraged mob riddled his body with bullets. When his great-great-nephew asked his cousin what happened next, she clasped her hands and held her head down. “They told me they drug him through Metter [for all to see]. . . . After they drug him for so long, it was one white man that told them [the mob] if they didn’t untie that man from that [buggy] and give him back to his people—because he was already dead—that he would start shooting. So they finally untied him and gave him to his people. . . . While they were having the funeral, those white people went to the grave and they meant to kill the whole family. They were hidden in the woods. And this other white man that made them untie [Clax] went to the church and told [the Dekle family], ‘Don’t y’all go to the cemetery because they plan to kill all of y’all.’”

The family heeded the warning and took the necessary precautions, scouting the area and waiting until the following morning to bury Uncle Clax. To save the family from further harm, Granddaddy Henry and his brother, Uncle Benjamin Dekle, changed the family’s name to Uncle Benjamin’s wife’s maiden name and left the area (as so many blacks did when their lives were in jeopardy). They knew they would receive no protection from their local authorities, who were often supportive of or even directly involved in the murder-by-lynching of blacks. Even though they were tax-paying US citizens, black people were on their own; they had no rights or protection by local governments and had little-to-no recourse at the state and federal levels. 

In the end, the hard-working and proud Dekle family was forced to abandon their property, leaving behind decades of hard work and prosperity, simply because their lives were not as important as the man’s whose skin tone lacked pigmentation.