Turner, Mary (d. 1918)

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Turner, Mary (d. 1918)

African-American woman whose lynching for "unwise remarks" galvanized efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation. Died on May 19, 1918, near Valdosta, Georgia; married Hayes Turner (died May 18, 1918).

Mary Turner was lynched at Folsom's Bridge over the Little River, in Brooks County, north of Valdosta, Georgia, on May 18, 1918, in order "to teach her a lesson," her offense being that she had made "unwise remarks" by suggesting that those who had lynched her husband Hayes Turner—a man innocent of any crime—should be brought to justice. Mary Turner's death turned the nation's attention to a savage tradition, serving to galvanize efforts to pass federal anti-lynching legislation, and her martyrdom has been commemorated and memorialized in African-American novels, poetry and works of art.

Although African-Americans were legally emancipated from slavery in the mid-1860s, by the end of the 19th century they had once again been reduced to a status of humiliation and bondage. Particularly in the Southern states of the former Confederacy, blacks lived under a regime of Jim Crow segregation that claimed to provide separate but equal opportunities but in reality relegated them to lives of poverty and fear. Soon after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the states of the former Confederacy, quickly establishing a reign of terror over the recently emancipated blacks. Fear of various forms, including lynchings, kept this largely rural population under control so that they could be exploited as field hands and for other menial tasks, as did rural debt peonage and the convict lease system. Starting in 1882, scholars at the Tuskegee Institute began collecting data on lynching in the United States, including every known case of mob execution. African-Americans were not the only victims of lynch mobs; as late as 1892, of the total of 230 victims, 161 were African-Americans. From that year on, white victims of mob execution sharply and steadily decreased, while blacks in the South continued to be lynched in large numbers.

Between 1882 and 1968, 4,742 people were lynched in the United States. Of these, 3,445 or 73% were African-Americans. During the heyday of lynching, from 1889 to 1918, 3,224 were lynched, of whom 2,522, or 78%, were black. Typically, the victims were hanged or burned to death by vigilante mobs, frequently in front of thousands of spectators. In a carnival atmosphere, many of the onlookers would take pieces of the victim's body as "souvenirs" of their participation. Often, photographs were made of the victims, then later sold as grisly postcards and sent through the U.S. mails. In reporting lynchings, local newspapers customarily used sympathetic language in describing lynch mobs while reserving "callous damnation" for the victims. Often, the news stories provided moral, if not legal, justification for the mobs' acts. At the start of the 20th century, even important Southern newspapers like The Atlanta Constitution offered rewards for the capture of African-Americans alleged to have committed crimes, particularly rape, that virtually doomed them to death by lynching.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the South's business elites, including newspaper editors, began to realize that their region's reputation for racial violence brought nothing but scorn from the rest of the nation and the world. In Georgia, which had a horrendous record of lynchings, concern for the state's reputation and the desire to mollify critics motivated newspaper owners and editors to support efforts to suppress lawlessness. The 1915 lynching of Leo Frank (a Jew) gave Georgia a particularly bad name, and the state's economic elite realized the urgency of fostering a new spirit, that of "a New South" based on values of orderliness and social harmony (but not equality) that would encourage economic growth. By 1918, with the United States embarked on a great crusade during World War I to "make the world safe for democracy," several of Georgia's daily newspapers voiced their support for a state anti-lynching law.

Many Southerners justified vigilantism and lynching as a deterrent to the rape of white women by blacks. One Texan explained his position in a 1916 letter to The Nation: "It may be bad to lynch, but is it not far worse for a demonized fiend, swelling with bestial lust, to lay his cursed hands on a pure, defenceless woman to satisfy his animal nature?" In the South, demagogic politicians used these fears to enhance their popularity, as when Georgia's Thomas E. ("Tom") Watson bragged that he would lynch a Negro rapist as soon as he would shoot a dog. Mississippi governor James K. Vardaman's "humanitarian" impulses motivated him to criticize a lynch mob for burning rather than hanging an alleged black rapist, but he easily admitted that as a private citizen he would join a lynch mob, adding, "I haven't much respect for a white man who wouldn't." A 1918 editorial in a Little Rock newspaper observed that while disapproving Northerners "may [hold lynching to be] 'Southern brutality' … in polite circles, we call it Southern chivalry."

In the rural South, violence and lynching were methods of maintaining social control over an impoverished African-American population needed to work in cotton fields and small-town textile mills. Cheap black labor could only be maintained through a regime of oppression and terror, and it was this factor, rather than the oftproclaimed white fear of unbridled African-American male sexuality, that played at least as important a role in maintaining the "hallowed tradition" of lynch justice.

Economic factors underlay much of the race hatreds that often exploded into lynchings. In the 1890s, the Populist movement had attempted to forge a "poor man's alliance" between Southern whites and African-Americans, but not surprisingly the propertied white elements responded vigorously to defend their privileges, unleashing a campaign of white supremacy propaganda, violence, and hate-mongering to crush any potential unity between the exploited and propertyless classes of both races. This assault from all sides of the establishment succeeded in destroying the alliance between poor whites and blacks. As a result of the defeat of progressive forces, the South would remain for several more generations the most impoverished, backward, and violence-prone part of the United States.

Cotton planters, sheriffs, and other members of the rural elite did nothing to stop lynchings, and in fact often played key roles in the violence. Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage has noted that lynchers were not "isolated deviants [but] representative … members of society." Those individuals most likely to be in a position to stop a lynching from taking place—pillars of the community, lawyers, sheriffs, jailers—were often a lynch mob's leaders. On countless occasions, the fact that "respectable" individuals were visible as members of a mob motivated local officials to release prisoners to its custody for "appropriate action."

The great majority of lynchings (more than 75%) were committed not in response to allegations of the rape of white women by black men, but in reaction to black acts of defiance against white abuse, both physical and economic. Although the overwhelming majority of lynching victims were male, in several dozen cases black women were put to death under terrible circumstances. Of the 460 lynching victims in Georgia between 1880 and 1930, 10 were black women (only 19 of the males were white). Outside the South, white women occasionally became victims of mob violence, as is attested to in the 1889 lynching in Wyoming of Ellen Watson .

In May 1918, a veritable "holocaust of lynchings," writes Walter F. White, was unleashed in rural Brooks and Lowndes counties in southern Georgia. In mid-May, Hampton Smith, the white owner of a large plantation in Brooks County, was killed by one of his black employees, Sidney Johnson. Smith had long had a poor reputation in the area because of his harsh treatment of his African-American workers. Johnson, who had been assigned to Smith to work off a fine for gambling, did not show up one day. When Johnson told Smith he had been sick, the latter beat him despite his protestations. Several days later, while sitting in his home, Smith was killed instantly by two shots through the window; his wife was also shot but recovered. As soon as news of the murder reached the community, great crowds of men and boys from Brooks and Lowndes counties hurried to the Smith residence, forming posses.

As excitement rose, the posses searched for Sidney Johnson. There was also talk that there had been "a conspiracy" among a number of African-Americans against Hampton Smith, and that this group had allegedly met at the home of Hayes Turner, another black employee whom Smith had mistreated. Both Hayes and his wife Mary Turner had been beaten in the past by Smith. Hayes had previously served a term on the local chain gang for having threatened Smith after Smith had physically attacked Mary. At this point, frustrated by its inability to find Sidney Johnson, the mob was content to capture any "suspicious" black males they came across, "knowing full well that one Negro swinging from a tree will serve as well as another to terrorize the community," noted one contemporary black observer. On May 17, 1918, the mob captured Will Head and Will Thompson. The same evening, both men—although innocent of any crimes—were lynched near Troupeville, about five miles from Valdosta.

On May 18, Hayes Turner was captured and briefly placed in the Quitman jail. While en route to Moultrie, ostensibly a place where he would be safe from vigilante violence, he was taken out of the hands of the local sheriff by the mob. They lynched him near the fork of the Morven and Barney roads, with his hands fastened behind him. On Sunday, May 19, hundreds of sightseers—white men, women and children—came in automobiles, buggies, wagons and on foot to take a look at Hayes Turner's body hanging from a tree. It would remain there another full day.

On receiving the news of her husband's death, Mary Turner, who was then eight months' pregnant, claimed that he was innocent of the murder and that his lynching was unjust. She also said that if she knew the names of the persons who were in the mob that lynched her husband, she would have warrants sworn out against them and have them duly punished through the courts. Word of Mary Turner's response to her husband's death quickly reached the mob, which determined to "teach her a lesson." Captured at noon that same Sunday, the grief-stricken, terrified woman was taken "down a narrow road over which the trees touch at their tops, which, with the thick undergrowth on either side of the road, made a gloomy and appropriate spot for the lynching."

According to a contemporary account published in The Daily Gazette of nearby Tifton, Georgia, "the people in their indignant mood took exceptions to her remarks, as well as her attitude, and without waiting for nightfall, took her to the river where she was hanged and her body riddled with bullets." What actually happened that day was far more horrible than the local newspaper reported to its readers. After tying Mary Turner's ankles together, the mob hung her from a tree, head downward. Then the pregnant woman's clothes were doused with gasoline and motor oil, and she was set aflame, with her clothes soon burning off. While she was horribly burned but still alive, Mary Turner's abdomen was sliced open by a member of the mob using a knife ordinarily reserved for splitting hogs. An infant fell from her womb to the ground and emitted two feeble cries, whereupon a member of the assemblage crushed the baby's head beneath his heel. At this moment, hundreds of bullets were fired into Mary Turner's body. The rope was then cut, and her body tumbled into a shallow grave at the foot of the tree. Thoughtfully, the mob provided a "headstone" in the form of an empty whisky bottle, quart size, into whose neck was stuck a half-smoked cigar "which had saved the delicate nostrils of one member of the mob from the stench of burning human flesh."

Sidney Johnson, the man who had killed Hampton Smith, was found by a posse in Valdosta. A fusillade of bullets killed him in the house where he had sought refuge. Cheated of its prey, the mob vented its fury on Johnson's body, removing his genitals and throwing them into the street in front of the house. With a rope around his neck, Johnson's body was dragged by a car in open daylight down Patterson Street, one of Valdosta's main business thoroughfares, then out to a place near Barney and near the scene of the original crime. There, Johnson's mutilated corpse was tied to a tree and burned. By the end of the orgy of lynching, a total of 11 African-Americans, including MaryTurner, had been murdered in Brooks and Lowndes counties. In the weeks that followed, more than 500 blacks fled the Valdosta area, a wholesale migration that took place despite the threats of white planters, officials and property owners that any individuals who attempted to leave would indicate by this act alone that they must be implicated in one way or another in the Smith killing. Hundreds of acres of untilled, neglected farmland and dozens of deserted farmhouses gave mute testimony of the response of African-Americans to the lynchings.

In the aftermath of the lynching of Mary Turner and many hundreds of other African-Americans in the particularly violent years of 1917–1919, many blacks were "discouraged and crushed by a spirit of humiliation and dread," as was the Toussaint L'Ouverture Branch of the Red Cross, a Savannah women's organization. Soon, however, a new mood of renewed assertiveness could be discerned among African-Americans and their white friends and allies. In 1920, Leonidas C. Dyer, a Missouri Republican representing a heavily black district on the south side of St. Louis, introduced a bill making lynching a federal crime. Strongly supported by the NAACP, the Dyer bill passed the House of Representatives in 1922, 1937, and 1940, but on each occasion Southern senators invoked filibusters that kept it from becoming the law of the land. The measure was thus defeated by a fatal mix of Southern racism and Northern indifference, and it would not be until 1968 that the U.S. Congress passed a law protecting citizens' civil rights that included de facto anti-lynching legislation.

Meta Warrick Fuller , a prominent sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance, became one of the earliest visual artists to protest the horrors of lynching in her 1919 sculpture Mary Turner (A Silent Protest), currently housed in Boston's Museum of African-American History. The same atrocity was the subject of no fewer than four short stories by Angelina Weld Grimké : "Blackness," "The Creaking," "Goldie," and "The Waitin"; in 1916, Grimké had written a play, Rachel, which is believed to be the first full-length drama on the topic of lynching. Mary Turner's death was also the subject of a poem, "Little Mother (Upon the Lynching of Mary Turner)," by Carrie Williams Clifford , which appeared in her 1922 book The Widening Light. The extreme inhumanity represented by Mary Turner's lynching is recounted through the character of Mame Lamkins in Cane, a novel by Jean Toomer published in 1923. As can be experienced through a thought-provoking installation by Kim Mayhorn , "A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day" (exhibited at the HEREArt Gallery, in SoHo, Manhattan, 1998, and at The Beach Institute, Savannah, Georgia, 2001), the horror of Mary Turner's death remains a subject of deep concern for a nation that has not been able to banish racial hatred from contemporary life.


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——. Papers of the NAACP, part 7, The Anti-Lynching Campaign, 1912–1953, series A, microfilm reel 1, press release dated May 22, 1918 [Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1986?].

Perkins, Kathy A., and Judith L. Stephens, eds. Strange Fruit: Plays on Lynching by American Women. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

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Toomer, Jean. Cane. Repr. ed. NY: Liveright, 1969.

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White, Walter F. "The Work of a Mob," in The Crisis. Vol. 16, no. 5. September 1918, pp. 221–222.

Zangrando, Robert L. The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909–1950. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1980.

related media:

Fuller, Meta Vaux Warrick. Mary Turner (A Silent Protest), sculpture, 1919, on exhibition at the Museum of Afro-American History, Boston.

Mayhorn, Kim. "A Woman Was Lynched the Other Day," installation exhibited at the HEREArt Gallery, SoHo, Manhattan, 1998, and at The Beach Institute, Savannah, Georgia, 2001.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Turner, Mary (d. 1918)

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