Henry “Peg” Gilbert was beaten and shot to death by the Harris County police chief in 1947 while in custody at the county jail.
His lynching -- one of more than 600 reported in Georgia -- occurred when Gilbert, a husband and father of four daughters, had been wrongly accused of helping another black man flee after he had shot and killed a white farmer.
No one was ever held accountable for Gilbert’s murder and his family was forced to sell their 111-acre farm and leave the state.
On Saturday, Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley acknowledged local law enforcement’s role in the lynching in a ceremony honoring Gilbert that marked another effort by a Georgia community to heal racial wounds from the past.
“We should have protected him,” said Jolley, who is in his seventh term as the chief law enforcement official in the small county north of Columbus. “I acknowledged and accepted the fact that Harris County and the involvement was inappropriate and wrong, and it should have never happened.”
It marked the second time in the past year that a white law enforcement executive in Georgia publicly expressed remorse over his agency’s role in the lynching of a black man during the Jim Crow era.
LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, in neighboring Troup County, apologized in January 2017 for his department’s role in the 1940 lynching of Austin Callaway.
Callaway had been in custody in the city jail when a white mob took him in the middle of the night and shot him and left him to die along a rural dirt road.
Dekmar’s public statement was historic as he is believed to be the first police chief in the South to publicly apologize for his agency’s role in a lynching.
Dekmar became president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in October and he has said building trust with minority communities is an urgent challenge facing police agencies across the country. Part of that process, he said, is acknowledging past injustices.
His apology last year was part of a racial reconciliation effort in Troup County that helped inspire a similar effort in Harris County that led to Saturday’s ceremony.
Still, for some in Harris County, the circumstances of Gilbert’s murder, like lynchings in many communities across the South, are still a difficult issue to discuss.
Members of One Harris, a trust building and racial reconciliation group, had invited the sheriff, but were uncertain he would attend.
Jolley is not listed among speakers in the printed program for Saturday’s ceremony held at the Union Springs Methodist church in West Point, where Gilbert and his wife are buried.
For the group, the sheriff’s remarks were significant.
“We thought it was a step forward because what we want to do is for the community to heal,” said Valerie West, Gilbert’s great niece who is a member of the group. “His presence was very important, just like Chief Dekmar.”
Jolley said his words were less an apology and more of an acknowledgement and expression of remorse of a past wrong and failure of his profession. Mixing in words from the New Testament, Jolley called the murder “a dark time in our history” and one that should never happen again.
“No amount of apologies or ‘I am Sorry’s’ can change what took place to the Gilbert family,” he said. “And those words are hollow and empty if a person’s heart is not changed and the darkness in that heart is not really gone.”
Several of Gilbert’s family members, including grand children and great-grand children, listened to the sheriff and others on Saturday speak publicly about the murder. One of the speakers was author Karen Branan who has written about her family’s connection to the lynching and another racial killing in 1912. Her grandfather was Harris County sheriff and his name appears on Gilbert’s arrest warrant.
Until the past few years, most of Gilbert’s family knew nothing about the lynching or why the family left the South after his death.
They first learned the story when the family was contacted by law students from The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University that investigated the case. The efforts culminated in Saturday’s ceremony which included a plaque honoring Gilbert and a restoration of his and his wife’s grave sites.
“This was a horrific event that happened over 70 years ago that dramatically altered our family,” said Sheila Moss Brown, Gilbert’s granddaughter. “Our prayer is that exposing the truth will bring healing and peace to our family, to the community and to the nation.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.