This blog was written by Dr. Trichita M. Chestnut, Management and Program Analyst in the Office of the Chief Operating Officer at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
Lynching remains one of the most disturbing and least understood atrocities in American history. Defining the act of lynching is also controversial and for the purpose of the blog series, lynching is defined as the killing of women who were: 1) tortured, mutilated, burned, shot, dragged, raped, and/or hung, 2) accused of an alleged or unknown crime by a white mob comprised of no less than two persons, and 3) deprived of their life, either in secret or in the open, without due process and equal protection of the law.
There are case files on the lynching of women in Georgia, found in Record Group (RG) 60, the General Records of the Department of Justice and RG 65, Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In these records you will find correspondence, newspaper clippings, telegrams, petitions, and resolutions from ordinary Americans, as well as notable anti-lynching and civil rights activists and organizations relating to the lynching of African Americans in the United States.
In Georgia, the state with the second largest number of females lynched, had 18 female victims of lynch mobs from 1884 to 1946: 17 were African American and 1 was white. The series, Straight Numerical Files, 1904-1974 (NAID 583895), contains correspondence regarding the lynching of women in the United States.
In 1918, for about a week from May 17th to May 24th, about thirteen African Americans were victims of lynch mob violence in Valdosta, Georgia. Three of the lynch mob’s victims were from the Turner family, whose story is told in part in the Straight Numerical File #158260.
According to accounts on the lynching, when Mrs. Mary Turner was brought the news of her husband’s lynching by “persons unknown,” she was eight months pregnant. Even though she was close to giving birth to her first child, she openly expressed the innocence of her lynched husband, cursed the mob, and threatened to obtain warrants for their arrest. Consequently, almost 100 years ago to the date, on May 19, 1918, she and her unborn baby became additional victims of the lynch mob’s wrath.
[The following contains graphic details of the lynching.]
Mrs. Mary Turner and her unborn baby experienced a horrific and unimaginable death. Mrs. Turner was bound and hanged from a tree, set on fire, and her body was riddled with bullets, her screams of terror and pain only to be heard by her perpetrators, and the torture and mutilation continued. The life of her unborn baby ended when the baby was crudely cut from her abdomen and one of lynchers crushed its head with the heel of his shoe.
The lynching of Mrs. Mary Turner, her husband, and her unborn baby had shocked and outraged many Americans, including African American women’s clubs in Georgia. Ten days after the lynching, on May 29th, the Colored Federated Clubs of Augusta sent a resolution to President Woodrow Wilson asking that “sure and swift justice be meted out” to the lynch mob. The resolution was forwarded to the Department of Justice for review. The resolution read in part:
Whereas, the Negro Womanhood of Ga. has been shocked by the lynching of Mary Turner at Valdosta Sunday, May 19, 1918, for an alleged unwise remark in reference to the lynching of her husband; And whereas, we the Negro Women of the state are aroused by this unwarranted lawlessness and are discouraged and crushed by a spirit of humiliation and dread;…We therefore are asking that you use all the power of your great office to prevent similar occurrances [sic] and punish the perpetrators of this foul deed and urge that sure and swift justice be meted out to them.
There is no evidence in the files to indicate the Department of Justice provided a response to the Club and took the Club’s advice to execute “sure and swift justice” to the lynch mob responsible for the crime.
The lynching of Mrs. Mary Turner and her family was not suppressed from the memories of many Americans. The Department of Justice continued to receive letters from the public, decades after the lynching.
In 1934, sixteen years after the lynching, Mr. W.B. Chambers wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, recollecting on the Mrs. Turner lynching. In 1918, Mr. Chambers was a teenager and now in 1934, he was an adult. His letter was later forwarded to the Department of Justice. From his home in New Jersey, he wrote in part:
…During the adolescent years I can remember the blood running cold in my veins as James Weldon Johnson vividly portrayed the cruel fate of Mary Turner, a generation ago at Carnegie Hall. How this poor defenseless Negro mother was hung to a tree, and then disembowled [sic] by the brutal blood thirsty mob. Mr. President, I can still remember that unholy spectacle that nauseated me, as if it happened yesterday. I was but a child then…The fact remains…my government has done nothing to eradicate lynching…
Assistant Attorney General Joseph B. Keenan acknowledged receipt of Mr. Chambers’ letter. However, he offered no solutions on how the Department could bring the murderers of Mrs. Turner and her family to justice. He neither explained how to eradicate lynching in the United States by supporting and enacting federal anti-lynching legislation.
Mr. Samuel Brown, another concerned citizen, could remember at the age of five, “Negroes [being] subjected to lynching and burning at the stake.” Now thirty-three years old in 1940 and living in New York, he also wrote to President Roosevelt. He wrote about how he remembered reading about the lynching of Mrs. Mary Turner and her family in The Crisis, a magazine published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In part the letter stated:
…One of most vicious accounts of violence ever recorded…in addition to the other horrible acts committed against the family, was the stringing up by the heels of the pregnant mother [Mrs. Mary Turner], disemboweling her with a knife commonly used for killing hogs, and permitting the live foetus [sic] to drop to the ground. One member of the mob stepped forward and crushed the head with his heel…
There is no evidence in the files to indicate the Department of Justice provided a response to Mr. Brown’s lynching concerns and support for a federal anti-lynching bill.
No members of the lynch mob were ever appended or prosecuted for any of the lynchings that occurred that disturbing May week in 1918. Therefore, the victims were given the same sham verdict of a majority of lynch mob victims in the United States, the victims came to their deaths, at the hands of persons unknown, even when members of the lynch mobs were known in the community and by law enforcement.