Defaced sign honoring Georgia lynching victim going to human rights center

The marker will be on permanent loan from Georgia Historical Society

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

After nearly a decade of being shot and damaged by vandals, the historical marker honoring the Georgia victim of one of the nation’s most horrific lynchings may finally find sanctuary in an Atlanta civil rights center.

The Georgia Historical Society and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights are in discussions to have the damaged marker honoring Mary Turner placed on long-term loan to the center. The sign would become a centerpiece of the center’s collection of lynching and anti-lynching artifacts and documents called “Without Sanctuary Collection,” which is not currently on public display but will be housed in the center’s upcoming $17 million addition.

The marker tells the story of how Turner, a pregnant Black woman, and a dozen other Black people were brutally murdered in a week-long lynching spree in 1918 by white vigilantes near Valdosta. The murders led to an exodus of Black people out of the South Georgia town but also inspired federal anti-lynching legislation, which, though drafted, was never passed by Congress.

“This was one of the worst,” said Todd Groce, president and CEO of the historical society. “Thirteen people were lynched. Even at the time, it was shocking. But it brought national attention to this horrible thing happening in the South.”

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

“It tells a history”

Since it was erected in 2010 by the historical society in partnership with Turner’s descendants and a group of academics, students and community members called The Mary Turner Project, the marker has been routinely vandalized. For years, it was pocked with bullet holes as it stood on Turner’s murder site along the banks of the Little River in Lowndes County. Last fall vandals tried to break the large, heavy aluminum sign off its post, leaving large cracks in the sign’s base. After discovering the damage, the director of the Turner Project, Mark George, removed the sign, put it in storage and alerted the historical society. George was one of four people who installed the sign 11 years ago. Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office investigators said recently they still have no leads in the case.

While there are plans to replace and relocate a new marker near Hahira, the marred one will likely become a teaching tool about the history of racial violence in America and how it persists.

“As with all material culture, it is critical that the Mary Turner marker is preserved and cared for as a historical artifact — so its significance can be understood and learned from for years to come,” said Jill Savitt, president and CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. “The marker tells a profound truth. All at once, it tells a history of racial violence and the ongoing resistance to racial justice and equity today.”

Though the historical society has partnered with civic, community and private entities to sponsor the 300 markers around the state commemorating people, events and places that have shaped Georgia’s history, the society retains ownership of the markers. Groce said typically a damaged marker is removed and destroyed. That changed with the Turner marker.

“It’s not an artifact from the lynching itself, but it is an artifact from current times that really helps explain the ongoing racial feelings that are still out here,” Groce said. “It would be nice for it to be displayed in a way that people can actually touch it, even put their fingers on the bullet holes. It kind of gives you an immediacy, a contact with tactile experience with violence.”

“Her attitude”

The most detailed report of the lynching spree came from NAACP investigator Walter White. He traveled to Lowndes and Brooks counties in the immediate aftermath of the May 1918 murders. Based on his interviews with confidential sources and mob participants, White’s chilling account was later published as “The Work of the Mob.”

The episode began as a labor dispute between a notoriously cruel Brooks County plantation owner, Hampton Smith, and Sidney Johnson, a Black man Smith hired through a convict leasing scheme run out of the local jail. Smith allegedly beat Johnson severely after Johnson confronted him about being short-changed on wages. Johnson later shot Smith, killing him, and wounded Smith’s wife, who survived.

A lynch mob formed within hours of the shooting. Over the next seven days, the mob killed a dozen Black people unconnected to the Smith murder. They were killed in the most gruesome ways; castrated, riddled with bullets, hung from trees. In Johnson’s case, he was killed in a shootout with the vigilantes, then his body was dragged behind a car through Valdosta streets. His corpse was hung from a tree, shot repeatedly, then burned.

“My uncle heard stories about people who came in buggies looking for someone to kill,” said George of the Turner Project and whose family has lived in Lowndes County for generations. “It was a killing spree. There were so many people who were involved in the blood lust.”

Mary Turner’s husband, Hayes, was among those murdered early on, on Saturday, May 18. The next day, Sunday, Mary Turner publicly declared her husband’s innocence in Smith’s killing and threatened her husband’s killers with prosecution. According to news accounts in both The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal, the mob was inflamed by her comments, and “took exceptions to her remarks, as well as her attitude.”

That afternoon the mob hunted Turner down. She was eight months pregnant. They caught her within hours and forced her to a remote spot along the Lowndes County shore of the Little River. She was hung upside down from a tree, set on fire, her womb sliced open, her baby’s skull crushed by the boot heel of one of the lynchers. Then her remains were struck by volleys of gunfire. No one was ever arrested or charged in her killing or any of the others.

The savagery, however, fueled the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign which later led to the 1922 Dyer Bill which, had it passed Congress, would have made lynching a federal crime.

Credit: The National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Credit: The National Center for Civil and Human Rights

“Why is it OK?”

Defacement of historical markers about African American history, especially commemorating the civil rights movement, is not unheard of. For years, the Mississippi marker recognizing the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi was repeatedly shot by vandals. Two years ago, it was removed and replaced for at least the third time. Bulletproof glass was installed in 2019 to protect a new bulletproof marker near the site where two white men tossed Till’s body in the Tallahatchie River; they killed him based on accusations Till flirted with one of the men’s wives. Till, from Chicago, had been spending the summer with family in Money, Mississippi, at the time of his murder.

Like the Turner marker, the bullet-riddled Till sign was destined for storage. Then last year, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis approached the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Mississippi about using the defaced sign in a traveling exhibition about overcoming racial hatred.

Credit: Emmett Till Interpretive Center

Credit: Emmett Till Interpretive Center

“Why are people today shooting the sign of a child who’s been gone since the 1950s,” said Jennifer Pace Robinson, vice president of exhibitions at Indianapolis museum. “And why are we still carrying hatred? And why is it OK?”

Robinson said the museum is still raising money for the planned $1 million exhibition which will travel to arts and civic institutions from Mississippi to Chicago. As macabre as the marker may be, Robinson said, she is hopeful it will foster some sort of reckoning, albeit on a small scale, with the nation’s past.

“There are probably some people that we’re not going to change their minds that [shooting a marker] is a bad thing to do. But if we can expose children to what’s going on and help point them in the right direction, we’re going to grow a generation of advocates who won’t put up with that any longer.”

Turner’s descendants say they hope the Turner marker will serve a similar role in Georgia and want the marker to have a permanent place at the civil and human rights center.

“I never thought we would get this far, but I think the climate is right,” said Randy McClain of Atlanta, and a spokesperson for the family. Mary Turner was the sister of his paternal great-grandfather. “Our goal is reconciliation through conversation and that there would be justice.”