Griot: Stephanie Harp, MA

Copy Editor: Fran Kaplan, EdD

LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS. In April of 1927, an eleven-year-old girl was murdered. In May, an angry posse grabbed a man who didn’t do it and hung him from a telephone pole.

The Powder Keg 

On April 12, 1927, a little white girl, Floella McDonald, disappeared on her way home from the library. For three weeks, family, friends, and officials searched for her. Finally, following a foul smell, the black janitor of the First Presbyterian Church found her body in the church’s bell tower.Her head had been bashed in with a brick found nearby. A teenager, Lonnie Dixon, the church janitor’s son, was arrested and charged with rape and murder.1

Many whites were angry and wanted to “get” Lonnie themselves. Several thousand people went to the jail and demanded that police turn him over. Instead, Chief Burl Rotenberry sent Lonnie to an out-of-town jail, to keep him safe.

The Spark

On the morning of May 4, two white women – Mrs. B.E. Stewart, age forty-five, and her daughter Glennie, seventeen – were driving a wagon on a rural road, heading toward Little Rock. A black man approached them. Some accounts said the horses were out of control and the man grabbed the reins to  help the women. Others said he jumped in the wagon, demanded whiskey, and knocked them to the ground. A car stopped and took Mrs. Stewart and Glennie to the hospital. The man ran into the woods. When the women’s family heard that a black man had jumped on their wagon, Sheriff Mike Haynie organized a posse. Hundreds of people came from Little Rock to help in the all-day search.2

After eight hours, two officers saw John Carter, a local black man. The previous summer, he had gone to jail for attacking a white woman with a hammer. He had escaped from a work crew four days earlier, the same day the janitor found Floella’s body. Some said Carter was mentally disabled. The posse grabbed him and put him into a car. As more and more searchers joined the crowd, some said they wouldn’t let police protect him as they’d protected Lonnie Dixon. Glennie Stewart arrived and identified him as the man who had attacked her and her mother.

The Explosion

Mob members took Carter to a telephone pole and hit him with a revolver. They told him to confess, and then to pray. Before he finished, someone put a rope around his neck and told him to climb on top of a car. When he couldn’t, he was pushed up. Peace officers later said armed men threatened them when they tried to stop the lynching. Men holding the rope pulled John Carter up above the ground. Then someone drove the car out from under him and he swung in the air. A line of fifty men fired guns, striking Carter with more than two hundred bullets.

The crowd quickly grew to four hundred. The sheriff brought the coroner to write a report about John Carter’s death. Even though someone took a picture of the hanging body, with the crowd visible in the background, none of the mob members would admit they’d been there. The report said Carter had been killed “by parties unknown in a mob.”3

The mob voted to take Carter’s body to Little Rock and burn it. When they got to the city, they tied him to the car’s bumper and dragged him through the city for an hour, down Main Street and past police headquarters. Finally, at about 7:00 p.m., the mob stopped at Ninth and Broadway, the center of the black business district.4 They poured gasoline and kerosene over Carter’s body. They piled on boxes, tree limbs, and pews from the nearby Bethel A.M.E. Church, and lit the fire.5 More white people hurried to the area. The crowd was shouting, firing guns into the air, cursing, yelling, and dancing. The active mob was about seven thousand, with thousands more men, women, and children watching.

Mayor Charles Moyer and Police Chief Rotenberry had left the city and no one knew where they were. Major J.A. Pitcock, chief of detectives, wanted to take fifty men and stop the rioting. But the assistant police chief said he couldn’t give that order without hearing from city council. City council wouldn’t act without the mayor.

Governor John Martineau was out of town, too. When he heard what was happening, he called out the National Guard. Seventy soldiers arrived at 10 p.m. with guns, bayonets, and tear gas bombs. When they told the remaining one or two thousand people to go home, they did. A fire truck doused the fire. An ambulance took Carter’s remains to City Hall and then to the undertaker. People already had taken pieces of his body from the ashes, and they carried them around the city during the night.6

Soldiers reported seeing one person directing traffic with a charred arm torn from Carter’s burned body.

Epilogue

No one was ever charged or prosecuted for lynching John Carter. A jury deliberated for only twelve minutes before convicting Lonnie Dixon of killing Floella McDonald. He was executed in the electric chair on June 24, 1927, his sixteenth birthday.

Endnotes:

In those days, when black males had any sort of contact with white females, the males very often were charged with rape.

Sheriffs could deputize ordinary citizens when they needed help with a crisis or a search. “Deputize” means to give temporary authority to people who are not law enforcement officers.

Most lynching victims were recorded as killed “by parties unknown.” Very often, photographs were taken of lynching scenes, and still no one was identified. The photograph of John Carter’s death appeared in Haldeman-Julius, The Story of a Lynching, 3.

Because of Jim Crow segregation, blacks and whites had to shop and do business in separate sections of town.

“When I was a little girl, my mother and I saw a lynch mob dragging the body of a Negro man through the streets of Little Rock . We were told to get off the streets. We ran. And by cutting through side streets and alleys, we managed to make it to the home of a friend. But we were close enough to hear the screams of the mob, close enough to smell the sickening odor of burning flesh. And, Mrs. Bates, they took the pews from Bethel Church to make the fire. They burned the body of this Negro man right at the edge of the Negro business section.” From the eyewitness account of Birdie Eckford, quoted in Bates, 62.

Burning the victim’s body and collecting body parts as souvenirs were common occurrences in lynchings. So was having a photograph taken of the victim with his murderers and spectators.

Sources

This account is compiled from:

  • April-June 1927 articles in these newspapers: The Arkansas Democrat, Arkansas Gazette, and The Chicago Defender. Read transcriptions of three original articles written on the day after the lynching published in the Arkansas Gazette:
    • Mob’s Lynching of Negro Brute Starts Trouble ([download id=”9″ format=”1″] pdf)
    • Body Dragged Through Main Street of City ([download id=”8″ format=”1″] pdf)
    • Law and Order Betrayed (Editorial) ([download id=”10″ format=”1″] pdf)
  • Haldeman-Julius, Marcet. The Story of a Lynching: A Exploration of Southern Psychology. Little Blue Book No. 1260. E. Haldeman-Julius, ed. Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius Company, 1927.
  • John Carter (Lynching of), The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, accessed August 8, 2012.
  • Bates, Daisy. The Long Shadow of Little RockFayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1987.

For more about John Carter and the rumors that surrounded his life, go to his entry in the Memorial to the Victims of Lynching.

To read about  Stephanie’s personal connection to the lynching of John Carter, click here.

NOTE: On February 15, 2013, Stephanie and George Fulton, great-grandson of John Carter, will join together in a public forum in Little Rock, AR, to explore the different perspectives on the lynching in the community. They now work together on a film and newsletter about the case. For more details, go here.

Stephanie Harp, MA, is a writer and journalist who holds a master’s degree in U.S. History from the University of Maine. Her family roots lie in Arkansas and Louisiana. Visit her blog about Race, Responsibility and Paying Attention in the Generations After Jim Crow.