03 January 2018

Swift Vengeance Served on John Smith of Laurens County, Georgia

The main reason I wish to share the following newspaper article is it contains the name of the subject's father.  Especially with African American research – even after emancipation – this information is not always easy to come by.  The intent is not to gratuitously disparage Mr. Smith.

But first, a suggestion on newspapers as a source as they pertain to accounts of lynchings – especially in the South.  Basically, be aware and verify when possible.  Be aware of the time and context.  White newspapers, generally speaking, were biased in favor of white people (oftentimes the alleged wronged party).  Fitzhugh Brundage, in Lynching in the New South, writes this:

For all of the information that newspaper accounts provide, their serious limitations also must be recognized.  Because the majority of extant newspapers from the period are white newspapers, they reflect the harsh racial attitudes of the day, and their accounts of lynchings, the alleged crimes that prompted lynchings, and the portrayals of mob victims must be treated with great caution…[W]hite descriptions of both the alleged offenses and the character of lynching victims cannot be accepted without question.

NAACP Headquarters, New York City. Via Library of Congress (loc.gov).On to the article.

Macon Weekly Telegraph (Georgia)
Friday, 29 July 1881 – pg. 2 [via GenealogyBank]

SWIFT VENGEANCE ON A BLACK SCOUNDREL IN LAURENS COUNTY. – We find the following in the Dublin Post:

On last Monday night, Mr. R. T. Dominy was absent from home on an all night's fishing excursion, having left his young wife and little children with no other protection than that of his wife's mother, Mrs. Colley.  About midnight, after the family had been asleep for some time, Mrs. Dominy felt some one touch her foot.  But she was so overcome by drowsiness that she could not rouse herself at first.  But presently she felt a hand upon her so plainly that she called her mother, whereupon she heard the party crawl under her bed.  She asked her mother to get up and look after one of her children, pretending that she did not know that an intruder was in the house.  When the mother appeared with the lamp she beckoned her to the bedside and whispered that some one was under the bed.  Mrs. Colley was incredulous at first, but finally looked, when there met her horror-struck gaze a buck negro with no garment on but a shirt, holding some of the baby's clothing over his face, it is supposed to escape detection.  She screamed to him to get out, which he did in hot haste and ran off a short distance, but then returned to get his pants which had been left at the outside of the window.  The sequel renders it impossible to get those who know most to talk much, but from all we can gather we are perfectly satisfied that a few cool men of good judgement set their wits to work to find out the guilty negro.  From the tracks and from what the ladies could tell and other testimony they satisfied themselves that John Smith, alias John Cellam, a bad negro about twenty years of age, living with his father, Henry Smith, on the Fisher place near Mr. Dominy's, was the one they wanted.  They did nothing hastily or rashly, but took two days to investigate.  On Thursday night about midnight they went to Henry's house, called him up and asked for John.  Henry told them he was sleeping in the shed room.  They thundered at the door but failed to rouse him, so they broke down the door and shot him to death before he waked.

From NY Public LibraryA simple search on Google will give you the statistics. The Tuskegee Institute kept track of lynchings in America from 1882 - 1968. There were 581 in Mississippi, 531 in Georgia, 493 in Texas, 391 in Louisiana, 347 in Alabama, and so on. Total from all states: 4,743. That's more than one lynching and victim a week.

I feel a little like I should try to explain why I would give the horrible acts – those committed by the criminal, as well as those committed on the criminal – voice on this blog. There are no (at least to my knowledge) statistics showing the accuracy of the lynchers. How many times was an innocent person hung, riddled with bullets, and mutilated in the name of "justice?" I mean, we probably agree there are innocent people sitting in jail right now – with supposed checks and balances in place. Imagine when there were none. Shouldn't those innocent people be remembered?

Now, make no mistake, sometimes the lynching party "punished" the right person. As in, sometimes the true perpetrator was indeed apprehended – and then disposed of, often in a barbaric fashion. Even if you take the literal "eye for an eye" death penalty approach, I would not be surprised if that would have been an applicable punishment in only an infinitesimal number of cases. People were lynched for stealing, people were lynched for "insubordination," people were lynched for literally being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And let us not be cowards and leave out the racism debacle that lingers to this day. So another reason for giving voice to these past atrocities is in the same vein of "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

As a family historian, I am saddened to think (1) these revolting deeds took place, and (2) while statistics are easy to find, the names and stories of the individual victims are much harder to locate. A list of lynching victims will unfortunately never be complete. I hope that in a small way, posts such as these will serve as a memorial to those who were victims of Judge Lynch and his frightful law.

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