25 February 2018

When an Event Involving My Relative Sparked a Lynching (Part III)

[Part I is here.] [Part II is here.]

Recently, I have been studying and compiling information about lynchings in Georgia.  So when I came across the article about my second cousin, James Francis Hammock, he was actually not the subject of my search.  The victim of the mob violence, John Shake, was.

It most likely was on the second read-through of the article that I made the connection.  I distinctly remember my jaw dropping, and a small amount of anxiety creeping up within me.  Later, a sense of relief came in a wave when I realized J. F. Hammock was not directly involved in the brutal hanging of John Shake.  Next came the wondering of how my cousin felt about what happened.  The genealogist side took over, and I got lucky.


Notwithstanding Victim Was Negro Who Shot Him.
Macon, Ga., July 28. – G. [sic] F. Hammock, a Dunbar merchant who is in the hospital here, deplores the lynching Sunday of John Shake, a negro, by a Houston county mob for shooting Hammock, while robbing his store.

Hammock will recover.

[News-Press (Ft. Myers, Florida) – 28 July 1913 – via Newspapers.com]

I won't lie.  Finding this blurb in the newspaper made me feel better.  But, truth be told, I can't really know for sure how genuine the comment was.  The clipping is simply something to be added to the whole body of research.

I chose not to dissect the original article detailing the alleged crime, as I believe knowing that it all happened in 1913 Georgia is enough.  If you are unsure of my meaning of this, may I humbly suggest the time period and environment is definitely worthy of study.  My opinion of the alleged criminality of John Shake is this:  maybe the decision to shoot at Hammock was one of opportunity.  If John Shake was truly caught trying to rob the store, he likely saw no way out.  He might have felt, believed, known, that his life was over no matter what he did.  So his best option was to try to escape the untenable situation.

What can I do to help the cause? "Tell the world the facts."

I've been reading some of the brave work done by anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  So much – yet too much for this space – is worth quoting.  Hopefully the following will be sufficient:

The Negro does not claim that all of the one thousand black men, women and children, who have been hanged, shot and burned alive during the past ten years, were innocent of the charges made against them…

But we do insist that the punishment is not the same for both classes of criminals.  In lynching, opportunity is not given the Negro to defend himself against the unsupported accusations of white men and women.  The word of the accuser is held to be true and the excited bloodthirsty mob demands that the rule of law be reversed and instead of proving the accused to be guilty, the victim of their hate and revenge must prove himself innocent.  No evidence he can offer will satisfy the mob; he is bound hand and foot and swung to eternity.  Then to excuse its infamy, the mob almost invariably reports the monstrous falsehood that its victim made a full confession before he was hanged.

Does any of this matter today? Should it matter at all?

I can only answer those questions for myself:  yes, it matters, and it should.  Some may argue I'm applying presentism, interpreting past events in terms of modern values.  I respectfully disagree.

Slavery had been abolished with the ratification of the 13th amendment almost 48 years prior to the lynching of John Shake.  African Americans quickly proved they could be an integral part of society; they ran businesses and held public office during Reconstruction.  But southern states chose to enact harsh laws that enforced segregation and rolled back many of the meager freedoms African Americans had gained.

The law of the land had been circumvented.  Because African Americans had gotten too "uppity," mobs of people felt it necessary to teach them their place.  On a constant basis, and to the death.

This is not only wrong now, it was wrong then.

A Promise Kept

I've said my piece regarding the lynching of John Shake and my cousin's part in it, but I promised to return to the map shared in the first post.  Here it is again:


Even though I wasn't around in 1913, and John wasn't around when I grew up, I look at this map and see our crossed paths.

I was born in Wellston, though the name was changed to Warner Robins before my birth.  The Houston Medical Center stands roughly seven miles from the Dunbar Community.  Before I left my hometown a few years ago, I was living at Centerville – my apartment being roughly four miles from the Dunbar Community.

I've been to the swampy, muddy banks of the Ocmulgee River.  I can picture the scene in my mind.  The map above is dated 1933, but you have to believe those same pathways existed twenty years before.

I'll bet I've walked where those bloodhounds and groups of men – swelling to the number of 100 – feverishly searched and hunted for their prey.  I might have even stood on the once blood-soaked ground below where John Shake took his last breath.  This research experience, some 105 years after the fact, hit home for me.

Post (Post?) Script

It just so happens I am finishing this post on the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois.  A link to an article written by Ibram X. Kendi came with my Twitter feed this morning.  The article is entitled The Soul of W. E. B. Du Bois, and it's about Du Bois's famous collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk.  I confess to having never read this collection of Du Bois writings, but Kendi's article convinced me to do so.  The Souls of Black Folk is now waiting on my kindle.  A portion of The Soul of W. E. B. Du Bois combines words penned by Du Bois and Kendi:

“Let there spring, Gentle One, from out its leaves vigor of thought and thoughtful deep to reap the harvest wonderful,” Du Bois prayed at the end of Souls, in the section he called an afterthought. “Let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth, and seventy millions sigh for the righteousness which exalteth nations, in this drear day when human brotherhood is a mockery and a snare.” Looking at the harvest of black thought since Souls, his prayers have been answered. But looking at our drear days when human unity remains a farce, his prayers have yet to be answered.


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