It was May, 1918. The lynching rampage in Brooks County, Georgia, started after a white plantation owner was shot and killed by a black worker. Hampton Smith, known for abusing and beating his workers, had a history of violence with his workers and used the debt peonage system [outlawed by Congress in 1867]. He bailed people out of jail to work for him until their “debt” was paid. Only thing was, sometimes he refused to pay his workers, so the debt was never paid (but we don’t hear much about that now, do we?). Sometimes he beat them because they were not able to work when sick.
One day, Sydney Johnson got tired of the wrong treatment of his former employee, so he shot and killed him. This led to an all-out manhunt to find Johnson and any others who were deemed part of Johnson’s decision to kill Smith.
Mary Turner’s husband
Not much time or thought was given in finding the guilty culprits (if there even were any influencers of Johnson). The manhunt lasted for about a week, and more than thirteen people were killed in the process.
One of those was Mary Turner. A mother of two and eight months pregnant with her third child, she was horrified when her husband was killed in the rampage on May 19. She vowed to find who killed her husband, and declared he had nothing to do with the killing of Smith.
What happened to Mary Turner
They found her first. Before she had a chance to flee for her life, they caught her. The killing happened at Folsom’s Bridge near the Brooks and Lowndes county lines. The angry mob tied the pregnant widow by her ankles and hung her upside down from a tree like an animal for butchering. Next they poured gasoline on her and set her on fire. Her clothing burned off. Then, while she was still alive, one of the mob cut her stomach open and the unborn baby dropped to the ground. There, the baby was stomped and crushed by a member of the mob. God help us.
Later that night, Mary Turner’s remains and the body of her baby were buried a few feet from where they lost their lives.
Who is charged for Mary Turner’s death?
Even though local officials were given the names of instigators and fifteen specific participants, no one was ever charged or convicted of the murders. This, obviously, was when a time the color of skin mattered. God help us all.
One thing for sure, the people guilty of this horrendous crime knew. They might have “gotten away with it”, but they carried it to their graves. How they could live with themselves and not admit their wrong, I’ll never know. How much better it would be had they come clean with their crime and be absolved of their guilt by paying the time.
What I Know
This I know. We cannot move forward without acknowledging our past. The shame, the secrets, the skeletons – they bind us and keep us imprisoned. Until we come clean and make things right, we are prisoners of our own doing.
I never heard about Mary Turner when civil unrest was discussed in history classes in school. There are many stories out there and I recognize we can’t tell them all. Which stories have you been told? The fact that so many are hidden and ignored is wrong.
Jesus did not ignore injustices. He spoke against them and challenged His followers to do likewise. He mingled with “the least of these” and refused to follow the sentiments of the majority or the high-minded. I think Jesus wept over what happened to Mary Turner, and we should do the same.
If Mary Turner were a relative of mine, I would need to acknowledge that the past is the past, and we can’t change or undo it. We can, however, acknowledge that what was done was wrong, God help us.
If Turner was my family member, I would want to hear people of a different color acknowledge that what happened to her because of her color was evil, unfair, and wrong.
Two wrongs don’t make a right, and harboring hatred is as wrong as the hate crime committed against Mary Turner. I know I’d need to forgive so I could be free. Yet, the part that would help me the most is public acknowledgement by the folks in Brooks County Georgia that what happened there – and the lack of charges and payment in time for the crime – was wrong. God help us all.
What God knows
God knows what happened and who was guilty. On this we can rest. Payday comes for all of us, no matter our color or size.
God has declared, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.”
Those who thought they got by will one day face their Creator, who will judge their evil deeds. God will take care of it when payday comes. That truth gives us peace and sets us free.
At the cross, the ground is level, and – at the Cross – there is enough blood for us all.
Photo credit: IStock images