May 16, 1918: The Murder that Sparked the 1918 Lynchings


WHAT HAPPENED?


On May 16, 1918, plantation owner Hampton Smith was murdered. What resulted was a series of lynchings throughout Southern Georgia wherein white people killed at least 13 black people over the course of 2 weeks.


The most well-known lynchings were that of Hayes and Mary Turner, who were killed on May 18 and May 19, respectively. Mary Turner's murder was referred to in NAACP anti-lynching campaigns throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s.


The lynchings spoke to the racially motivated mob-mentality violence of Southern white Americans at the time, particularly in 1880-1930, in which Georgia had the highest rates of lynching during this period.

LEADING TO THE LYNCHINGS


On May 16, 1918, Hampton Smith, a married, white, 25-year-old plantation owner named Hampton Smith was murdered. Smith owned the Old Joyce Place, a large plantation where he was known for being an abusive boss among black workers. Because of this, he had a difficult time getting people to work for him, and thus, he resorted to convict labor. Essentially, he would "lease" a black convict for labor. He would pay their fees to the local jurisdiction, feed and board his workers, and then they would work for him.


One of his workers was a man named Sidney Johnson. Smith payed his fine and Johnson came to work for him. (He was convicted for "playing dice", so it is not like this was an actual criminal). Convict leasing, defined by journalist Douglas Blackmon, was "slavery by another name", as the men were often abused or treated extremely poorly.


Smith had beaten Johnson extensively, and often. He beat him severely when he refused to work while very sick. Smith didn't only take his violence out on Johnson, though. He had a violent history with most of his black workers. He had beaten Mary Turner. After this incident, her husband, Hayes, threatened Smith. This only lead to Turner getting in trouble: He was convicted of threatening Smith by an all white jury, and was sentenced to a "chain gang", in which prisoners are chained together while performing hard labor.


And so, fed up with his own personal treatment and the black workers around him, Johnson shot smith and his wife through a window in their home. He wounded his wife, but killed Smith. He ran immediately, and hid in another Georgia city for several days.


But a manhunt immediately began. A white mob formed, and they searched for Smith's killer... but did a lot more than search along the way.

THE LYNCHINGS


So, this angry mob filled with racist white people was out looking for their killer. But while looking for him, they took the lives of 13 other innocent people. They were grabbed at random and strung up for all to see, having done nothing wrong. They were just born black.


Will Head and Will Thompson were taken from 2 different areas on the night of May 17, and lynched in neighboring counties. Chime Riley, though he had no connection to the murdered plantation owner at all, was lynched and thrown into the river, with turpentine cups tied to his hands to weigh him down.


During the white mob's rampage, Johnson was on the run. He reached Valdosta, Georgia and hid for a few days. But when he asked another black man for food, he notified the police. He and the police engaged in a shootout, and when the shooting stopped and the police entered the home he was in, he was found dead.


Feeling as though they were deprived of the chance to kill Johnson themselves, they mutilated his dead body, dragged it behind a car in a procession for the town to see, and hanged his body from a tree and burned it.


Eugene Rice, another black man, was lynched in the area, but had nothing to do with Smith's murder, or even knew him. 3 other unidentified black men were found in the river a week later.


Hayes Turner, who was known to have a conflict with Smith after he threatened him for beating his wife, was lynched on May 18. The mob accused him of a different murder, which he denied. He was first arrested and incarcerated. When he was taken out of the jail, he was taken by a mob and lynched about 3.5 miles away from his town. His body was left hanging throughout the weekend.


After Hayes was murdered, his wife, Mary, was distraught. On top of losing her husband, she was 8 months pregnant. She said he had nothing to do with any murder, and publicly spoke out against her husband's lynching. She threatened to have mob members arrested. But the mob didn't care that she was an innocent woman, a few weeks away from giving birth to her child. They turned against her. They wanted to "teach her a lesson". She ran, but was caught on May 19.


Mary's death is one of the most horrific things I have ever heard. She was tied by the ankles and hung upside down, doused in gasoline and burnt. Her 8-months pregnant belly was split open with a knife, which caused her unborn, almost fully to term infant to fall onto the ground, alive. The child cried when cut out, but its head was crushed by one of the mob members with his foot. After hanging her, burning her, slicing her open and stomping her newborn to death, they shot her body hundreds of times.


Mary was pregnant with her first child with Hayes, but had 2 other children from other men: a son named Willie, and a daughter named Leaster. They were both left parent-less after Mary was murdered.


In total, historians believe that at least 13 black people were murdered during and after the manhunt for Johnson, fueled with rage and racism.

AFTERMATH


After the lynchings, black people began to flee the area en mass. More than 500 black residents escaped the area, fearing for their lives. However, white people began to threaten to kill black workers who attempted to leave, making them feel like they were in danger whether they stayed or left.


All of the lynchings left the residents scared and caused an outcry, but especially the gruesome, brutal murder of Mary Turner. She and her husband's deaths were used for the NAACP's campaigns for anti-lynching legislation.


Even though Smith's killer, Johnson, was killed by police, a man named Leamon Wright was arrested and put on trial for murdering Hampton Smith and assaulting his wife. While he was on trial, a mob killed another black man who was in prison for something entirely unrelated. Wright was found guilty in 2 different trials. Smith's father identified Wright as his son's killer (though it doesn't appear he was anywhere near the incident). He went to his death claiming his innocence, but was executed on June 3, 1921.


The media reports could not have been more different. White newspapers mentioned Mary Turner's lynching, but casually left out that she was 8 months pregnant and that her baby was cut from her and killed on the ground. Black newspapers emphasized it. In white newspapers, her "unwise remarks" about her husband's murder were used as an excuse for her death. (Wow, the victim of a racially motivated murder being blamed for their death. That is so 1918! Nothing like that happens anymore... Right? Right?)


The NAACP assistant secretary Walter White went to Georgia to conduct an investigation into the lynchings, but while 2 instigators and 15 mob participants were identified, nobody was ever changed with anyone's death.


In 2008, 90 years after the lynchings took place, the Mary Turner Project was developed, a "diverse, grassroots volunteer collective of students, educators and local community members who are committed to racial justice and racial healing." They have made it their mission to educate about the May 1918 lynchings. They were the driving force behind the historical marker placed to remember Mary Turner, which was placed on May 15, 2010 near the lynching site. In July of 2013, 95 years after Mary Turner was killed, bullet holes were found in the plaque. 95 years later, and the racists act with less legality, but just as much hate.


This happened 102 years ago. A century has passed. And still, hearing about white people taking the law into their own hands, killing black people and getting away with it doesn't sound like something that happened before TVs were invented. It is something that just happened in February of this year. Years have gone by, and public lynchings have simmered, and the rights of black people in America have grown, but in 2020, you can shoot a black man out for a jog and not be apprehended until a video of it goes viral.


The actions during the 1918 lynchings were despicable. The murder of Mary Turner is just about the most horrific thing you can think of. But this isn't a situation where I can speak to the strides we've made, or how the horrors of yesterday have lead to the advancements of tomorrow. It may not look like an angry mob stringing up an innocent black person by her ankles today, but innocent black people are dying at the hands of angry, racist white people in modern times more than anyone should want to admit.


Hopefully, the fairly new Mary Turner Project, and all of the other movements dedicated to ending racism in America can start to make a dent in it, but right now, we have a long way to go.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1918_lynchings

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