This is a hard, hard story to write because it deals with Grandpa Jim Richardson’s experiences when the last lynching of a black man took place in Smith County. It is an explanation of why Grandpa Jim never took part in public events and never went to Raleigh when he could send someone else. It involves an experience so painful to him that he broke down and cried when he told it to me. I do not know how many times he told the story, but I’m sure not many. He was not one to cry.
A known, hard-working, and honorable young black man had been accused of raping a white girl he had known all his life. The families were well-known as old residents. They had gotten along for generations. There were no explanations, and the young man was in the county jail at Raleigh. Feeling in such cases ran high, and lynchings in similar situations were commonplace all across the South. The popular sentiment in Smith County was that the modern thing to do was to lynch the young man without a trial. That would keep the niggers in their place and let them know once more who was boss.
Brother Dan Moulder and other ministers thought differently. They argued from the pulpit and privately that the young man should be heard and tried, just the same as a white man would be under similar circumstances. The accused might indeed be hanged if a judge and jury agreed, but he would have had benefit of trial and counsel. Brother Dan Moulder got together all the Baptist deacons from his churches (and other ministers did the same with their elders and supporters) and went to Raleigh to support the Sheriff if he needed help. They had heard rumors of the planned lynching on a specific day.
At first the nervous Sheriff accepted their help and they gathered on the street to the jail. At the planned time, a huge, drunken and armed mob arrived in Raleigh and moved toward the jail. The ministers and deacons gave their pleas for justice through law. The mob jeered them down, and pointed their guns at them. The Sheriff looked at the mob of armed and angry white men and recognized them as his supporters. He had an immediate change of heart. His excuse, as given later, was that, as Sheriff, he would have to hang the man; so why not let the mob do it for him? He would also not be responsible for one deputy being hurt in protecting a nigger who would be hung anyway. He gave the jail keys to the mob leaders.
The mob had the nigger, but it also came to the mob leaders that they had this passel of nigger-loving preachers and deacons. Let’s teach them a lesson, too. So they dragged the victim and herded the preachers and deacons to the tree or whatever was used for the hanging. They then called for the accused to admit his guilt, which he did. According to Grandpa Jim, the young black made a remarkable statement. Yes, he was guilty. Yes, he knew he would be hanged. Yes, he had known the young woman and had grown up with her as a neighbor from childhood. Yes, he had always loved her and no one else. Yes, he knew under Mississippi law they could not marry or have any sexual relationship. But, he saw her this one day and was overcome with lust. Yes, he did the deed, and he apologized to her, to her family, and to his own family. Yes, he was ready to die. Then he was hung, and the hemmed in ministers and deacons could only watch as he kicked and swung to his death. That was the end of the story as told by Grandpa Jim. (The confession reminds one of reports from long-ago victims of Hollywood, CA, date rapes by one young actor named Ronald Reagan.)
I asked no questions. It was too embarrassing. I do not remember how the discussion arose. I do not know the year of the lynching, the Sheriff’s name, or the names of the mob leaders, if they were mentioned. I do not know whether my father, Lisha Hough, also a deacon, was present. Brother Dan Moulder never mentioned the subject from the pulpit that I heard. I never heard anyone else give an eyewitness account. But it is a recorded fact that the lynching took place, and I have seen the year, though I do not recall it. 1915 sort of comes to mind, but it could be far off.
The effect on Grandpa Jim was that he withdrew from all public affairs. He took part in no political campaigns. He served on no juries. He offered no public prayers in church. He avoided Raleigh and other Smith County towns where he might encounter members of the mob. He did all his business in Magee, Simpson County, and by some freak arrangement, not his own, got his mail from Mount Olive, in Covington County. He said nothing whatsoever about it in daily affairs, but he must have been profoundly affected by what the young black man had said as he faced death. He could not see what could be done to achieve justice for black people. He did make two somewhat cryptic observations: (one about a trouble-maker member of our church who was making a fuss about the black community) “It seems like a white man who is discredited in the white community then tries to run the black community,” and “Maybe the best thing a white man can do for the black community is to stay out of it.”
I did not observe, but I am aware of one situation where Grandpa Jim acted on his convictions. A black man named Otis Berry had applied in Magee to Grandpa to sharecrop some of his land and, for some reason, Grandpa agreed. Otis was from a black community called Skiffer Ridge, near the Simpson and Jeff Davis County line. Otis had asked if there were black schools, and Grandpa told his yes, he had heard there was a school about a mile away. Otis moved into the tenant house and proved to be an effective, hard worker. Then when school time came, he could find no school. Grandpa was alarmed, and went to see the man who had maintained the school. This was “old man” Hinds Womack, who had several negro tenants. When he got to the Womack place, he was told by white employees that “old man” Hinds had changed his mind and did not want niggers to have any learning. Grandpa just asked one question: “Where is Old Hinds?”
No one knows what transpired when Grandpa Jim found Old Hinds. Hinds Womack, like Grandpa, had no education and had to learn to read and write on his own. Each knew what it must have been like for the black families. When Grandpa came home, old Hinds had agreed that one of his extra houses would be the schoolhouse, and that he would pay his share of the teacher’s salary. So it was that Otis Berry’s children went to school while they share-cropped for Grandpa. They proved to be bright and diligent students. (note: this incident took place after we joined Grandpa, so we saw Grandpa Jim drive away to see Old Hinds. He had long since ceased to drive, could hardly see, had no driving license, and could hardly get in and out of a car. We were very anxious till we saw him coming back. This was the last time I ever saw him drive alone.)
Back to the basic subject: What do you know about lynchings of black people in the South? Why did not white people stop them? How did white people feel about them? I learned a little about those questions at age 16 from Grandpa Jim.
Lynching, 20 Jul 2005.