#SayHerName: The lynching of Mary Turner
#SayHerName: The lynching of Mary Turner
The lynching memorial that opened last Thursday in Montgomery, Alabama is a sobering reminder of an ugly and barbaric time in American History that many would rather we forget.
But with all the controversy following Kanye West’s TMZ meltdown where he declared to Harvey Levin and the viewing audience that “slavery was a choice,” people are now realizing just how imperative it is that we keep educating ourselves on what slavery really did to our communities and the lasting effects it still has on our lives and culture today.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this topic and see lynching victims as a faceless mob of ancestors who met an unfortunate end. But the truth is, they were real people, not mythical creatures. And it’s time we told their stories and humanize them beyond the heinous way they met their end.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is meant to commemorate the deaths of the 4,400 black people who were taken by angry mobs that later hung, shot or burned their victims to death. In some cases they did all three.
The fear of this extreme form of torture was ever present in the lives of slaves back then, so when they came for Mary Turner she knew she was about to die.
It was May 19th, 1918, almost exactly 100 years ago.
In retaliation for the shooting death of a white planter, a blood thirsty lynch mob in Brooks County had already tortured and killed eight black men in two days. One of the men murdered was Mary’s husband and she found herself mourning the loss of his life, while simultaneously fearing for her own.
“The foundation of the South was white supremacy,” said E.M. Beck, a retired sociologist at the University of Georgia and the co-author of A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings 1882-1930.
“And when you start getting challenges to social and economic order, then you start (moving toward) things that support the old order. Black folks weren’t seen as part of the community. They were seen as necessary ‘foreign’ labor. The white folks were ‘the community.’ When those boundaries began to break down, then you begin to see this violence.”
When the mob carried Mary to the Little River, they took her past the same tree where they’d mutilated and then hanged her husband. His body was still up there.
When they got near the Folsom Bridge, they hung her upside down by her ankles across the sturdy limb of an oak tree, then doused her body with gasoline and burned her clothes off.
“This is one of the more heinous and brutal ones in terms of butchering people,” said Mark Patrick George, a former Valdosta State University sociology professor who helped raise money for a memorial marker for Turner near the site of her killing. “But that wasn’t that uncommon.”
What had Mary done to be treated so savagely?
She’d dared to use her voice.
Overcome by grief she’d argued that her husband wasn’t involved in the murder he’d been lynched for, and said that she would report the names of the men who killed him.
The media reported it at the time, that she’d been killed for making “unwise remarks.” Back then speaking up for justice could cost you your life. And some would argue we may be slipping back into a similar time in our culture now.
But the story doesn’t end there, because the psychological trauma of Mary and Hayes Turner’s murders can still be felt today.
Whenever Charles T. Forehand visited his family in Brooks County he would stay with his great-grandmother, Hayes Turner’s younger sister. And she would tell stories of how part of his bloodline was brutally exterminated in those woods 100 years ago.
“It was spoken of in hushed whispers,” said Forehand who is now 63. “They would talk, but I would have to pry. It was emotionally painful for them to talk about. Today, every time this topic comes up, chills go through me.”
Lavon Gant, whose grandfather was Mary Turner’s brother, says her mother made sure she knew every detail of the lynchings.
“We were always inquistive about race relations and our family,” said 70-year old Gant.
“What my mother told me always stayed with me because it was so horrific and I could not believe that something like that could happen. It was so horrific. It has never left me what they did to her.”
The Turners had lost their lives while that mob was seeking justice for the murder of Hampton Smith, the notoriously unjust boss of the Old Joyce Plantation who, “bore a very poor reputation in the community because of ill treatment to his Negro employees.”
After a particularly brutal beating at the hands of his master, Sidney Johnson snapped and fatally shot the 25-year-old Smith.
When Johnson fled, a large mob gathered to go after him, slaughtering as many as 10 innocent men before they ultimately found him.
On May 18th they killed Mary Turner’s husband, Hazel “Hayes” Turner because he had once threatened Smith for beating Mary. Turner had been seized and lynched near the Okapiloo River, then left hanging from a tree all weekend.
The next day on May 19th, they set their sights on Mary.
Walter White, who investigated the killings for the NAACP once wrote, “The method by which Mary Turner was put to death was so revolting and the details are so horrible that it is with reluctance that the account be given.”
Mary was a young woman whose age was estimated to be somewhere from 19 to 33-years-old. She was also 8 months pregnant. As her body hung from the tree, someone took a knife, the kind used for splitting hogs, and then split her abdomen open.
Her baby fell to the ground and cried.
A member of the lynch mob ran over to crush the baby’s head. Others busied themselves with shooting Mary’s body hundreds of times.
Anyone whose researched this case finds themselves haunted by the pure evil in these details, including Carol Anderson, author of the National Book Critics Circle Award winning book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. Anderson points out that Mary’s execution was meant to send a clear message to all the other slaves.
“Lynching is about black people not knowing their ‘place,’ which is subordinate to whites,” Anderson said. “In spectacle lynchings, it was about sending a signal to the black community about knowing their place and putting them there. To say, ‘This is what we’ll do to you if you get out of place and there’s no power that will come to your rescue.’”
On May 22 Sidney Johnson, the only person who had actually killed Hampton Smith, was captured while hiding in a house in Valdosta, and died during a shootout with the police.
Even after he lay there lifeless, the mob made it a point to storm the house, mutilated his body, put a rope around his neck and used a car to drag the corpse down the busiest street in town.
Once their parade was over they tied what was left of him to a tree and burned it.
When all was said and done, 13 people had died in what may be the largest instance of mob violence in Georgia’s history.
Charles T. Forehand’s branch of the Turner family fled the area and he only goes back to visit on rare occasions. Once, he even ventured alone into the woods where Mary Turner and his distant baby cousin were murdered.
“I started taking pictures — of the area and there was a definite silence. No birds. No crickets. Nothing,” said Forehand, admitting the experience had shaken him. “When I got back to my car it was almost as if I was having an out of body experience.”
Through the Mary Turner Project, in 2012 volunteers from Valdosta State and descendants of Turner’s family, paid for and erected a memorial a few yards from where she died.
And on the upcoming centennial anniversary of her death, May 19, the Mary Turner Project will bring together members of the community to commemorate her life.
So next time anyone says that slavery was a choice, please tell them the story of Mary Turner. No one would ever choose what she went through, and it’s disrespectful to her family, and the families of the thousands of slaves who built this country to suggest otherwise.