Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"The People ... Took Exception to Her Remarks": Meta Warrick Fuller, Angelina Weld Grimke, and the Lynching of Mary Turner

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

"The People ... Took Exception to Her Remarks": Meta Warrick Fuller, Angelina Weld Grimke, and the Lynching of Mary Turner

Article excerpt

Now when I ponder the silences, the voices that are not heard, the voices of those wounded and/or oppressed individuals who do not speak or write, I contemplate the acts of persecution, torture--the terrorism that breaks spirits, that makes creativity impossible. (hooks 7-8)

   it is better to speak
   remembering
   we were never meant to survive

(Lorde, lines 42-43)

THE STORY OF MARY TURNER, KILLED IN ONE OF THE MOST BRUTAL ACTS OF mob violence on record, maps the boundaries of what can, and cannot, be said about lynching. Nineteen years old and eight months pregnant, Turner died during a May 1918 rampage that followed a white farmer's murder in Brooks County, Georgia, and claimed the lives of at least eleven African Americans. A mob went after Turner because she threatened to press charges against the men who lynched her husband Hayes. Before a crowd of several hundred, the same men hanged her upside down, shot her, set her on fire, then removed her fetus and crushed it beneath their boots. One newspaper justified the mob's actions by saying that "the people in their indignant mood took exceptions to her remarks as well as her attitude" ("Her Talk Enraged Them" 2). Writing a few years later, an editor from another paper described her as a "she bear" who deserved to be lynched because she "flew into such a rage and uttered such vile curses upon the women of Brooks County" ("Justice" 2). After permanently silencing Turner for speaking out, the well-connected mob members began broader efforts at damage control. They threatened the lives and families of anyone who tried to cooperate with Walter White's late June investigation for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). By the year's end, all attempts to prosecute failed, even though state and national officials had a list of ringleaders' names. (1) At some point, relevant issues of the Valdosta Times (now the Valdosta Daily Times), the largest of the local papers, disappeared in a mysterious fire. Enforcing a code of silence did not prove too difficult in an area eager to distance itself from a horrific act that many community members found unspeakable. Even today, finding local information about the 1918 lynchings is next to impossible. White residents, even celebrated community historians, claim no knowledge at all. A limited oral history exists among black residents, but few who know the story will talk about it. As one journalist said off record, "it's not the kind of thing you tell the children." His words echo Toni Morrison's in Beloved: "This is not a story to pass on" (275). (2)

The story did get passed on, however--well beyond the local area. News of what happened in Brooks County circulated quickly along national and international wires, prompting an outcry from the black press and civic groups. Organizations from the Anti-Lynching Crusaders to the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC) cited Turner's story in their antilynching pamphlets and other materials. (3) The NAACP used Walter White's findings to persuade President Woodrow Wilson and Georgia's Governor Hugh M. Dorsey to make statements against mob violence. (4) White's published version of his investigative report--"The Work of a Mob," later revised for Rope and Faggot: A Biography of fudge Lynch--remains a key historical document. Turner's story also inspired a host of creative responses: Meta Warrick Fuller's sculpture, In Memory of Mary Turner: As a Silent Protest Against Mob Violence (1919); Angelina Weld Grimke's short story, "Goldie" (1920); Carrie Williams Clifford's poem, "Little Mother," from her collection The Widening Light (1922); Anne Spencer's poem, "White Things" (1923); and the "Kabnis" section of lean Toomer's modernist classic, Cane (1923). The notoriety of Turner's lynching has never waned completely. References continue to appear in creative works by Freida High Tesfagiorgis, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, and Kara Walker, in Internet discussion groups, and on YouTube. …

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