Black History Moment: The lynching of Mary Turner and her unborn child
Mob violence had saturated Lowndes County, Georgia, just north of the Florida border. The year was 1918.
Mary Hattie Graham was from Brooks County, Georgia and she met a man named Hazel "Hayes" Turner. They fell in love and married on February 11, 1917 in neighboring Colquitt County.
The penal system had the practice of "loaning" out convicts to farmers and plantation owners, a crooked operation that was simply slavery by another name. One of these plantation owners was 25-year-old Hampton Smith.
Smith was known for being especially violent toward his black help, whipping them for the slightest infraction. One of his workers, Sidney Johnson, was whipped when he refused to work because of illness.
Consumed with rage, Johnson grabbed a firearm and shot Smith through a window, and wounded his wife as well. Johnson fled the area, sparking a massive manhunt around Brooks County and neighboring Valdosta.
A rampaging white mob killed at least 13 black people looking for Johnson. Anybody known to have had a problem with Smith was savagely killed by the roving mob. They shot one man up with more than 700 bullets. Another two men were lynched because they were known to have had some troubles with Smith.
Hayes Turner, mentioned at the outset, happened to have had a run-in with Smith as well. See, Turner had worked with Smith when he was on a chain-gang detail, but over a disagreement not divulged, Smith had beaten Turner's wife, Mary, and Turner snarled at him over that -- so there was bad blood.
As posses were formed to search out all those who hated Smith, it was also rumored that a group of conspirators had gathered at Turner's home.
He was summarily arrested by the sheriff and put in jail, but he was released to a mob. They lynched him and let his body hang for three days.
HIs wife, Mary Turner, spoke out against the killing, saying that her husband was not involved in Smith's death. The eight-months-pregnant widow threatened to have the lynchers arrested. And that's what turned the mob's fury on her. They vowed to "teach her a lesson."
Turner knew she had to flee. She gathered a few things and left her home, hoping to go somewhere safe, somewhere out of Lowndes County, maybe out of Georgia and the South.
On May 19, about noontime, she was captured.
"Her ankles were tied to the tree and she was hung upside down. Gasoline and oil gathered from the nearby automobiles were poured on her writhing body as she screamed out in primal fear and terror.
A singular match was lit and Mary Turner was set on fire to the howling delight of the crowd. This was going to be a fateful "lesson."
According to the book, "The Crisis," the scene if it wasn't macabre enough, turned downright Satanic at this point:
"When this had been done, and while she was yet alive, a knife, evidently as is one used in the splitting of hogs, was taken and the woman's abdomen was cut open, the unborn babe falling from her womb to the ground.
"The infant, prematurely born, gave two feeble cries, and then its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel."
The mob still wasn't done, as if possessed by some otherworldly entity, they then commenced to gathering their shotguns for more bloodlust: "Hundreds of bullets were then fired into the body of the woman, now mercifully dead, and the work was over."
Mary Turner's baby touched the green earth, this wonderful world of life and growth, for only a few seconds, before the leather boot of hatred and spitefulness, evil itself, snuffed it out.
Every year mourners, activists and historians commemorate the death of Mary Turner and her unborn child. Many of them burst into tears, others pray for atonement and forgiveness at the site. Everybody wishes it never happened.
"Mary Turner's story needs to be told, and it needs to be told in this way. In her gripping account of how one lynching has moved through cultural memory, Julie Armstrong reminds us why we must never be silent in the face of injustice. This is a groundbreaking book, one that should be read by anyone interested in the power of art, and scholarship, to change the way we talk about race in America."
—Christopher Metress, editor of The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative
For more information, see the MaryTurnerProject.Org