Mary Turner, 19
May 19, 1918
Last updated: 8 months ago
Many stories are passed from one generation to the next. But over time stories fade.
Now some local citizens are determined to keep one particular story alive. This is the nearly 100 year old tale of Mary Turner.
"The Mary Turner case is one of the darkest in the history of this country," said Reverend Floyd Rose of Serenity Church in Valdosta.
"Some people have forgotten it. Some don't even know about it," said community activist George Boston Rhynes.
"After 90 something years it's about time for something to be said," said Jeremy Henry, a relative of one of the victims.
It was 1918, in Brooks County, Georgia. A white plantation owner beat one of his black workers. The worker killed him. Historians say it set off a week long killing spree of at least 13 African-Americans.
96 years ago this month, Mary Turner was 21-years-old and 8 months pregnant.
Reverend Rose met with Eyewitness News reporter Greg Gullberg and described in graphic detail what happened to Mary Turner.
"They took her and they took her to a tree. They tied her ankles around a limb of that tree. And then they took a knife and cut open her stomach. And when the baby fell to the ground one of the men took the heel of his boot and crushed its head until it was dead," said Reverend Rose.
George Boston Rhynes told Gullberg what happened next.
"They soaked her body in gasoline and motor oil, burned her to a crisp then riddled her body with bullets. And they say the mob members marked her grave with a whiskey bottle," Rhynes said.
A historical marker telling the story is the only public display in Brooks County that memorializes the events of that week. It's called "Mary Turner and the Lynching Rampage".
The marker stands at Folsom's Bridge over Little River between Barney and Hahira. Somewhere in the nearby woods is the tree where historians say Mary Turner was lynched.
You won't be able to find this story in any libraries or museums in South Georgia. Generally the story is only known through word of mouth.
"I can't understand that. If it happened it should be read about and it should be known about," James Turner told Gullberg.
James Turner is a relative of Mary. He knows the story from listening to his father who was born the same year she died.
Jeremy Henry is a relative of Will Head who was another man who that was killed in the week-long rampage. He has led his own journey to find out what happened.
"And a lot of them are just now really coming forth with it. But some of those older people that may have heard it hands-on from their parents have kind of died off," Henry told Gullberg.
At least 13 people were killed, including Mary Turner's husband Hayes Turner. Mary protested her husband's death to the Sheriff. But records show he didn't respond.
The newspaper headlines read "Her Talk Enraged Them: Mary Turner Taken To Folsom's Bridge and Hanged".
Sydney Johnson, the man who killed the plantation owner, was later found in Valdosta on South Troup Street where he was shot and killed. It's reported a crowd of 700 watched as a rope was tied around the neck of his dead body. He was then dragged 16 miles from Valdosta to Morven.
Nearly 100 years later these events are long over, but there are some people who are determined never to forget.
"And now they want us to forget that. They never ask the Jews to forget what happened to them. And the Jews won't let those who are responsible forget it," Reverend Rose told Gullberg.
It was reported that more than 500 people fled Brooks and Lowndes Counties shortly after the rampage week.
Mary Turner was a young African American woman whose 1918 lynching in Lowndes County, Georgia, prompted National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) officials to ask Missouri Congressman Leonidas Dyer to craft the 1922 Dyer Anti Lynching Bill. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives but never became the law of the land because it failed repeatedly in the U.S. Senate because of oppositio n from Southern Democratic Senators. .
Turner was born Mary Hattie Graham in December 1899. Her parents, Perry Graham and wife Elizabeth “Betsy” Johnson were a sharecropping family with four children. On February 11, 1917, 17 year old Graham married Hazel “Hayes” Turner in Colquitt County, Georgia. The couple had two children, Ocie Lee and Leaster, before they were married.
Together they moved to Brooks County, Georgia, where they took jobs with plantation owner Hampton Smith. Smith was known for abusing and beating his workers, and for bailing people out of jail and having them work off their debt in his fields. Mary Turner was once severely beaten by Smith and when her husband threatened him, local authorities sentenced Hazel Turner to time on a chain gang.
On the evening of May 16, 1918, Smith was shot and killed by one of his workers. The following week Brooks County saw a mob driven manhunt which resulted in the lynching of 13 people including some who were in the local jail.
Nineteen year old and eight months pregnant Turner publicly denied that her husband had anything to do with the murder of Hampton Smith. He had been arrested among others on the farm. Her remarks further enraged the locals, and the mob turned on her, determined to “teach her a lesson.”
Upon hearing the news Turner fled but was caught the next day, May 19. A mob of several hundred people dragged her to Folsom Bridge, over the Little River, which separated Brooks and Lowndes counties. The mob tied her ankles, strung her upside down, doused her clothes in gasoline and set her on fire. While she was still alive, someone split open her stomach and her unborn baby slid out and fell to the ground. The mob stomped and crushed the baby to death. Turner’s body was riddled with hundreds of bullets. Later that night, the remains of Turner and her baby were buried a few feet away from where they were murdered.
Three days later, the murderer of plantation owner Hampton Smith was caught, and killed in a shootout with police. During the week long rampage, more than 500 African Americans fled from Brooks and Lowndes counties in fear of their lives from the angry mobs.
Although local officials were given names of instigators and 15 specific participants, no one was ever charged or convicted of the murders. A historical marker memorializing Turner was placed near the lynching site and dedicated on May 15, 2010. - See more at: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/mary-turner-1899-1918#sthash.1QLTTdyW.dpuf
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