Historical markers about Black Georgians shot, vandalized

Markers in South Georgia paid tribute to Jackie Robinson and lynching victim Mary Turner.

Credit: The Georgia Historical Society

Credit: The Georgia Historical Society

Historical markers dedicated to Black Georgians have come under fire, culminating last week in the shooting of a marker for baseball legend Jackie Robinson in his hometown of Cairo, Georgia.

It was one in a series of incidents, including the desecration of a marker about the brutal lynching of a pregnant Black woman in 1918, and this recent increase of vandalism has historians — and descendants of lynching victims — concerned.

The signs are part of the Georgia Historical Society’s Civil Rights Trail series: 44 markers recognizing significant people, events and places that shaped the state.

Typically, such markers, while informative, might seem like a benign presence on the landscape. But given the volatile racial climate and political rhetoric of the past few years, some people worry the incidents involving the Black history markers — though a relative handful — signal entrenchment of racial intolerance and denial of history, observers said. They also say it’s particularly concerning that guns were used to damage the markers.

“It’s hard to imagine that it’s just a coincidence,” said Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society. “It’s either these markers have struck a nerve with people [in a way] that contradicts something that they’ve been taught in the past, or something’s happening in society that has triggered this kind of violent reaction.”

Credit: The Georgia Historical Society

Credit: The Georgia Historical Society

It is not uncommon for historical markers to be damaged by falling trees, car crashes or other accidents, Groce said. But of the more than 300 historical markers sponsored by the Georgia Historical Society since 1998, only those relating to Black history have been damaged by gunfire, Groce said.

“We hadn’t seen any kind of vandalism like this,” said Groce of the shootings.

“We’d never see it again”

The marker recognizing Robinson’s birthplace, along Hadley Ferry Road in Cairo, stood relatively unscathed since it was installed in 2001, said Groce. It tells the story of how Robinson went from the small town in South Georgia and became one of the most celebrated baseball players and civil rights figures in history —going from the Negro Leagues to becoming the first Black player to integrate Major League Baseball.

Last week, a tipster called the Georgia Historical Society saying the sign had been shot. The historical society sent a staff member to take pictures of the damage and report it to the Grady County Sheriff’s Office. Pellets from what may have been a shotgun blast left deep pocks in the large, cast aluminum sign. Deep burrows clustered around several words including “Negro-American” and “baseball’s color barrier.”

A Grady County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said on Friday that the case is assigned to an investigator, but could provide no further information.

This comes five months after a marker near Valdosta that’s dedicated to the memory of Mary Turner was removed late last year because of extreme vandalism. Controversial in and around Lowndes County when it was installed in 2010, the sign was repeatedly shot in recent years. Some rounds were so powerful they went through the aluminum.

Erected after a campaign led by Turner’s descendants, a group of concerned residents, and Valdosta State University professors and students calling themselves the Mary Turner Project, the marker told the story of the 1918 lynching that left Turner — who was eight-months pregnant — and about 10 others dead.

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Turner’s family and Mark George, who runs the Mary Turner Project, said the damaged sign — which at the time cost about $3,000 — should remain in its remote location near the spot where Turner was lynched, along the banks of the Little River, despite the absence of surveillance cameras in the area.

“We said no, we didn’t want to replace it because this is a testament to what happened back then — and what’s happening now,” said George, who previously taught at Valdosta State and Georgia State universities.

But last fall, George discovered the heavy aluminum marker had been deliberately and severely cracked in an attempt to dislodge it.

“We knew if it broke free, we’d never see it again,” George said.

So, the Turner Project alerted the Georgia Historical Society, removed the sign and put it in storage. In its place, George had a local metal fabricator make an 8-foot-tall steel cross etched with Turner’s name. Just as he and three other volunteers — one white, two Black — installed the original marker by mixing cement with river water from the lynching site to make the marker’s concrete footing, George installed the cross last fall with the help of two other men. All three are white.

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Capt. Stryde Jones, an investigator with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s office said Friday that his department has no leads in the Turner case.

“But we would welcome the opportunity to follow up,” Jones said.

Remote locations can make markers more vulnerable to criminal damage. But that’s not always the case. About three years ago, Groce said, the marker recognizing a church started by enslaved Black people in Fayette County was also shot at, despite the church having an active congregation.

The Georgia incidents have precedents in other southern states. Two years ago, the marker recognizing the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi had to be removed and replaced for at least the third time after being repeatedly shot by vandals. A new bulletproof marker soon followed. It was placed near the site where Till’s body was tossed in the Tallahatchie River by two white men who killed him based on accusations Till flirted with one of the men’s wives.

“Speaking from the grave”

While Robinson’s life story has achieved legendary status both in the sports world and in popular culture — told in books, songs, a television series, an Oscar-nominated film — Turner’s story is far less well-known. Though the circumstances of her death have inspired books, a play, a sculpture and even a jazz requiem, the crime’s extreme brutality is difficult to discuss, even now.

During seven days in May 1918, a lynch mob looking for a Black man accused of shooting a white plantation owner murdered at least 10 innocent Black people. They were killed in the most gruesome ways, including Mary Turner’s husband, Hayes. Mary Turner spoke out after her husband’s lynching and threatened to have his killers prosecuted, so the mob turned on her. She was led to a remote spot along the Lowndes County shore of the Little River, just outside Valdosta. While there, she was hung upside down from a tree, set on fire, her womb sliced open, her baby’s skull crushed, and then her remains were struck by volleys of gunfire. No one was ever arrested or charged.

Mary Turner was the sister of Randy McClain’s paternal great-grandfather. The Atlanta nursing supervisor said he didn’t realize Turner was his great-aunt until he was “well into adulthood” and planning a family reunion.

“It was never talked about” among the family, McClain said.

It was in a conversation with an uncle, however, that McClain learned he was related, on his mother’s side, to another victim of the lynching rampage, Will Head, who is not named but alluded to in the Turner marker.

That the marker to his great-aunt was so viciously defaced is an irony not lost on McClain. He said his family plans on putting a replacement marker in a more public location in Lowndes County. The permanent spot hasn’t been chosen.

Pattye Meagher, spokesperson for the historical society, said members of the organization’s board of curators have offered to pay the full cost of the replacement.

The Turner family also wants the damaged marker to have a permanent home.

“I would love for the vandalized one to be stored in a museum in Georgia because there’s no monument to her in Georgia,” McClain said.“ Particularly in the era we’re in now, with racial injustice, the timing is right for it.”

It’s unclear at this point whether the Robinson marker will be replaced or left to stand as it is. And the proposed new Turner marker may not find a permanent, more public home until after the pandemic is under control.

“We didn’t want a second erasure, which is why we erected the cross,” George said. “In a spiritual sense, she’s speaking from the grave.”

Whether that symbol will make a difference remains to be seen.

“If it’s a cross, maybe folks will be less likely to want to desecrate it,” George said.

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: The Mary Turner Project

Credit: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

Credit: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket