Effort in DeKalb County seeks to honor black victims of lynchings

DeKalb County is the first in Metro Atlanta to officially partner with the Equal Justice Initiative in recognizing the lynchings that took place in the county. The NAACP is leading an effort to organize a week of events in September that are book-ended by the unveiling of two lynching markers, an EJI lynching monument is also in the works. Video by RYON HORNE and TIA MITCHELL

After a black man was accused of assaulting a white woman, a mob in Redan wrestled him from the custody of deputies and hanged him from a tree.

Years later there was another alleged attack, this time involving the white postmaster’s daughter. Quarry workers chased two “black brutes” into the Lithonia woods, but the details of their deaths and their names were lost to history.

In another case, a black jitney cab driver stopped to pick up a fare not knowing that ride would end with the Ku Klux Klan leaving him to die in Druid Hills.

These three accounts are the known lynchings in DeKalb County, hidden in history and receiving little attention for many decades.

The names and dates of these incidents were made public as part of a new memorial in Montgomery dedicated to highlighting the impact of racial terror in America. DeKalb is bringing that effort home through a series of events dedicated to acknowledging that history but also to atoning for it.

The details of these incidents are receiving new attention today as a result of those efforts and additional reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The result has revealed to a family of one of the men, and to the organizers of these remembrance events, horrific details forgotten until now.

DeKalb County and some of its cities have joined a national movement to confront America’s history of racism in a more honest and complete manner. That effort began after 2015’s deadly church shooting in Charleston, S.C., prompted new attention to monuments that promote ideals of white supremacy.

Here, conversations about racial injustice increased after a woman was killed during a protest over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Va. In Decatur, DeKalb's county seat, a 30-foot tall monument towers over the town square. It is dedicated to Confederate soldiers "of a covenant keeping race."

County and city leaders have tried to move the monument from such a visible location, but state law limits their options. Now, they are focused on putting that structure into context within a much wider discussion about racism and the effects it has had on DeKalb, a community where more than half of its 756,000 residents are African-American.

Dee Smith, a member of the NAACP, sifts through her papers needed to make history. Smith is is leading an effort to make DeKalb County the first in Metro Atlanta to officially partner with the Equal Justice Initiative in recognizing the lynchings that took place in the county. Behind Smith is the DeKalb County Courthouse, the purposed site for the memorial. The NAACP is organizing a series of events that will include the unveiling of two lynching markers. An EJI lynching monument is also in the works. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

A sign that identifies the Confederate monument as an attempt to honor "white supremacy and faulty history" is in the works. The county is also in the process of adding a new element just steps away: a second marker that would highlight the impact of lynchings and other acts of racial terrorism.

DeKalb is believed to be just the second government entity in Georgia to acknowledge the lynchings that occurred within its borders.

The first was the city of LaGrange, where the white police chief in 2017 apologized for the role his department played in a 1940 death of a black teenager and a marker was placed at a church that led anti-lynching protests. That attracted worldwide attention.

DeKalb could be the first government entity in Georgia to erect a lynching marker on publicly-owned land. The county commission has already approved a resolution authorizing the marker and its placement on the grounds of the county courthouse.

The DeKalb branch of the NAACP is in the process of raising money for the effort. The marker will be donated by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, but money is still needed to fund its installation and to host the public events that will surround its unveiling.

It is called The Remembrance Project.

“You have to tell the whole story,” said Dee Smith, a member of the NAACP who is leading this effort. “The story of the Confederacy has been told loud and strong, sometimes inaccurately. Nowhere in this county is there anything telling about the other side. We want this to be a start.”

The plans include an interfaith worship service in September, soil collection from the lynching sites to display here and send back to Montgomery, an art exhibit and contests for high school and college students. Organizers’ plan to place the markers at one of the busiest places in the county — the courthouse — is a symbol that there is no hiding from the past.

In addition to helping the county reckon with its past, the markers could also provide healing for the loved ones of those affected by these killings. But first, that history must be examined.

‘They say he was lynched’

The historical marker is just one step. Later, the county has plans to retrieve a version of the lynching monument that rests among 800 others at the Equal Justice Initiative's Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. This solemn destination, commonly referred to as the "lynching memorial," has attracted tens of thousands of visitors despite opening to the public just 14 months ago.

The memorial sits on the top of a hill on the edge of downtown and consists of 800 steel pillars. Each county in Georgia where a documented lynching of a black person occurred has a monument where the names and dates of deaths of black lynching victims are listed.

Fulton County’s 35 reported lynchings take up the entire face of its monument. Cobb, Douglas and Henry counties each have one known lynching. Gwinnett and Clayton both have three.

So does DeKalb.

Delores Turner is niece of Porter Tunrer, taxi driver who was lynched by the KKK in 1945. DeKalb County is the first in Metro Atlanta to officially partner with the Equal Justice Initiative in recognizing Porter Tunrer’s lynching, as well as other lynchings that took place in the county. The NAACP is leading an effort to organize events that will include the unveiling of two lynching markers. An EJI lynching monument is also in the works. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

The county’s monument lists the names of Reuben Hudson, who was killed in Redan in 1887, and Porter Turner, the man the KKK murdered in 1945. The victims of the mysterious Lithonia attack in 1892 are marked “unknown.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spent months researching DeKalb’s lynching stories, visiting various archives and searching through old newspaper clippings and books.

Porter Turner’s family didn’t know all of the details about his death, and they had no clue he was a part of the lynching memorial they had already heard so much about.

A couple of weeks before the AJC contacted him, 87-year-old Calvin Turner was watching a television interview featuring the Equal Justice Initiative's founding director Bryan Stevenson. Turner turned to his daughter Celeste and shared a piece of the family history she had never heard.

“I have an uncle that they say was lynched,” he said.

What was his name? Porter Turner.

Celeste Turner made a mental note to Google the name to see if she could add details to an online family history she created years ago. But the busy teacher had not yet found the time when the AJC called.

During these interviews, family members asked to see a reporter’s pictures from the lynching memorial. It was their first time seeing Porter Turner’s name and date of death, which is carved into the six-foot-long piece of steel.

Celeste Turner began to cry for the grand-uncle she had never met, but said she also felt pride knowing that people are working to ensure his death is never forgotten.

“It’s sad, of course, what happened,” she said. “But to know the history is so important, too. And to hear the county is honoring what happened is important, too.”

The first victim

Reuben Hudson is the first known victim of a lynching in DeKalb. His death in 1887 was reported in such vivid detail that it’s almost certain the local newspaper reporter was part of the mob that witnessed his hanging.

Hudson stood accused of breaking into a home and assaulting a young, white housewife. Married himself, he tried to escape the mob by jumping on a Georgia Railroad train back home to Covington. But deputies tracked him down and forced him back to the scene of the crime.

By the time he returned, he was circled by a lynch mob who was ready to punish the “black fiend” for his accused crime.

“Here he comes, kill him!” they shouted.

There would be no trial. And there was little consideration that Hudson may be innocent, as he insisted until his last breath. The crowd grew in size and in anger.

The Atlanta Constitution not only reported his death but illustrated the scene in Redan. There is a drawing of Hudson hanging from a tree. He is blindfolded, his hands are tied behind his back and his head is bowed.

Racially motivated lynchings combine two layers of violence, said University of Georgia Prof. E.M. "Woody" Beck, an expert on the topic. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, mob violence for myriad reasons was culturally acceptable across the United States, especially in the South.

“Now let’s superimpose that with Jim Crow segregation and the need for whites to suppress blacks and control their behavior,” Beck said.

Hudson’s death fits that description. So does the lynching at the Lithonia rock quarry, which occurred after some girls gathering flowers reported that their young friend had been accosted by black men.

The articles don’t indicate that any of the girls were seriously harmed or whether the men who were chased down had indeed been responsible for the assault. Still, newspapers from coast to coast carried the wire report as another example of white men taking justice into their own hands.

When the workers who pursued the black men returned, all they would say is that their targets were “lost.” “What this means is generally understood,” an article in The Morning Post of Camden, N.J., reported.

Even after the Civil Rights Movement brought an end to Jim Crow, American’s towns and cities never circled back around to examine the atrocities of the previous era. Few people were held accountable, and there is no evidence any of the people responsible for DeKalb’s three known lynchings faced any punishment.

There were prominent people in the mob that killed Hudson, including a local doctor who led the charge to lynch him and the law enforcement officers who did nothing to prevent it.

Newell Brown was the postmaster’s daughter and the catalyst for the Lithonia lynching in 1892, even if “a necktie party” wasn’t her and her friends’ intent. They said they were gathering wildflowers near the Southern Granite quarry when men approached them and carried Newell off into the swamp where she was attacked.

Some historical accounts say as many as five black men may have been killed by a white mob as a result.

Atlanta Constitution article about the investigation of the 1945 lynching of Porter Turner in DeKalb County.

Honoring the victims

Since the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in April 2018, it has become a popular destination for people wanting an honest depiction of how racism during Jim Crow caused thousands of deaths.

As visitors walk through the memorial, the floor begins to slope downward. Eventually they are standing below hanging monuments.

“As you’re walking down the incline, it’s almost as if someone is being lynching right in front of you,” said Charles Anderson, a community development volunteer in Lithonia who took his grandkids to visit the memorial.

Members of the DeKalb Chapter of the NAACP traveled to Montgomery in late July. They walked among the pillars, winding through the states and counties until they found the one for DeKalb dangling above their heads.

But there is a second pillar — a duplicate — waiting in the fields nearby. Part of EJI’s vision is for each county or state where lynchings occurred to bring its duplicate monument home to create local memorials.

Members of the NAACP left behind an arrangement of yellow silk flowers on the top of the replica marker for DeKalb, which sits on a corner of the property overlooking a historical church. They returned and began planning to get it home.

With the county commission’s blessing, Smith and members of the NAACP put together the committee that meets each month to plan out the Remembrance Project. Other participants are church leaders, representatives from local colleges and universities, and Lithonia city officials.

At one recent meeting, Smith, who serves as the chairwoman, passed out copies of newspaper articles she found about the lynchings and her colleagues gasped and frowned at the way newspapers covered the killings.

“We want to honor these victims, and we want to bring this memorial home and erect the markers,” she said during one meeting as everyone nodded their heads in agreement. “These people were denied justice while they were alive. We’ll get them as close to justice as we can.”

DeKalb’s lynchings as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Here he comes, kill him!”

A rope was between the prisoner and bailiff. One end was in the bailiff’s hand, and the other was tied to the negro. Side by side the two men walked out of the cut and up the road, the crowd from the train following closely, while the crowd in the village made way slowly for the negro and his guard.

In front of the store in a large, level space, and here the bailiff came to a halt. His face was pale and his lips were trembling. He was cool and brave, and as he stopped he looked around as though expecting aid. Aid was there. As if in response to the look Deputy Sheriffs John G. Kelly and Thompson stepped forward, and with Norton, surrounded the prisoner. The crowd began to press around the officers, and some one set up the shout:

“Kill him!”

“Hang him!” cried a dozen.

“Shoot him!” chimed in a half hundred.

“Burn him!” yelled the entire crowd, now almost frantic.

The mob began pushing up to the guards and the guards, powerless to resist the pressure, gave back first against one wall of the mad humanity and then against another. The negro stood with head bowed, never uttering a word. He heard the abuse heaped upon him and listened to the threats without moving a muscle. This did not please the crowd.

The men wanted to see him suffer and some, more heartless than others, kicked and thumped him. The negro paid no more attention to the licks than the words. He appeared to think that Bailiff Norton would protect him as far as possible and clung to his side as closely as he could. The crowd pushed nearer the prisoner until those on the outside of the throng could not see him.

Cries to put him to death continued, but for a few seconds no demonstrations of an intention to carry out the threats were made. There was no one willing to make the break. Finally, a tall stalwart young farmer elbowed his way through the throng to the prisoner, and laying his hand on him said:

“Your time has come.”

July 28, 1887

There were only eight men at work in the big quarry, it being Saturday afternoon. The other hands were in Lithonia drawing their pay. Above the monotonous sound of the hammer striking the rock, the men were suddenly startled by a child’s shrill cry of alarm.

They looked up and saw the little Phillips girl running toward them.

“They have carried Newell off,” she screamed. “Two big negroes grabbed her and ran into the woods.”

The men did not wait for further explanation. They dropped their tools and rushed toward the thick clump of woods from which the little girl had just come.

It was but a few hundred yards and the swift legs of the stone masons soon covered the distance.

Three of the men ran into the swamp and the others made a circuit of it to see the negroes as they came out.

They had but a few moments to wait. They had gone but a few steps when a big, black negro sprung from the cover of the dense swamp and ran swiftly across the open field.

Then men were almost upon him, and shouting to their companions gave rapid pursuit.

They were quickly joined by other gentlemen, and soon pursuers and pursued were lost in the labyrinth of a neighboring forest.

The news quickly reached Lithonia, and the big crowd of quarrymen lounging about the place made a dash for the scene. They, too, were soon in pursuit of the fleeing negro.

No one in Lithonia who knew the high state of feeling ever expected to the see men return with the negro.

And they never thought for an instant that the determined men would let the black brute escape.

April 4, 1892

With one slaying and a beating already charged to the Ku Klux Klan, secret State penetration agents continued their efforts to blast open the Klan’s inner circles, known as the Kavalier Klub.

The slaying of a Negro taxi driver was pinned on the Kavalier Klub by Asst. Atty. Gen. Dan Duke when he said he learned from confidential sources that Kavalier Klub members had begun boasting about it during one of their so-called secret meetings. Until this break, the taxi driver’s death by stabbing last August had been classified as unsolved.

According to various reports, Duke said, the taxi driver, Porter Flournoy Turner, was found dead about 4:30 o'clock one rainy morning on Oakdale Ave. [other news reports list a different street nearby] in DeKalb County. Turner apparently had been stabbed while still in his cab, had struggled across the street and then died on the law of the home of a physician. Extensive efforts to solve the case were unproductive.

June 8, 1946

The Remembrance Project

The DeKalb County branch of the NAACP has been working with county and city government officials, local colleges and universities, churches and other community organizations to events focused on honoring those who were victims of lynchings.

These events, collectively referred to as The Remembrance Project, will begin later this summer. Tentative plans include essay contests for students, art exhibits, an ecumenical religious service, workshops, concerts and more. There will also be historical markers erected in Lithonia and downtown Decatur to recognize the known lynchings that occurred in DeKalb County.

If you are interested in getting involved in The Remembrance Project, making a donation or if you have historical information about lynchings in DeKalb or connections to victims or anyone involved in the lynchings, contact the DeKalb NAACP.

Website: https://naacpdekalb.org/

Email: info@naacpdekalb.org

Phone: 404-241-8006

How we got the story

After the DeKalb County commission approved a resolution to authorize a lynching marker near the courthouse, the AJC began to research the three known incidents. A reporter combed through newspaper archives, finding articles not only in the AJC but in publications from across the nation about lynchings of blacks in DeKalb.

The reporter also visited the Georgia Archives, the National Archives, the DeKalb History Center and the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library to conduct additional research of birth records, death certificates, census data, history books and archival photos. The reporter also visited sites in Redan, Lithonia and downtown Decatur tied to the known lynchings and efforts to memorialize them.

Through our reporting and with the assistance of the Druid Hills Civic Association, the AJC was able to find the exact location one of the lynching victims was found. With the help of the Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, the AJC made contact with this man’s family and was the first to inform them of various details of his death and how he was being honored in both DeKalb and Montgomery.

Reported lynchings of blacks in Metro Atlanta

Cobb County: 1

Clayton County: 3

DeKalb County: 3

Douglas County: 1

Fulton County: 35

Gwinnett County: 3

Henry County: 1

Source: Equal Justice Initiative’s Memorial for Peace and Justice