We all know that during the age of lynching, millions of innocent blacks died at the hands of howling racist mobs.
Or rather, that’s the intended takeaway. You probably aren’t reading this blog without knowing that the real history of lynching is somewhat different: A grand total of 3446 blacks were lynched from 1882 – 1968. Nationwide, over 86 years. In other words, roughly the same number of blacks that were murdered during the Dinkins administration in New York City. You are probably are also not unaware that during the same period some 1297 whites were lynched: hardly in proportion, but not an insignificant number.
The purpose of this post, however, is to discuss the matter of the “innocence” of the lynching victims. Don’t misunderstand me: I believe that that the orderly administration of the law is much to be preferred over extrajudicial violence, on the grounds of both providing the best chance of justice (herein defined as seeing the guilty punished and the innocent go free) and protecting American liberty. But that’s not to say that lynching didn’t often accomplish the same purpose, however roughly.
I would like to illustrate this point with the case of George Meadows. Meadows is mentioned on Wikipedia’s page on lynching without any details. This despite a detailed contemporaneous account appearing in the January 16, 1889 edition of the Birmingham Weekly Herald. While a Photostat of the article appears at the link, its text apparently appears nowhere online. As a service to the internet, I will serialize this article over the next several days, correcting nonstandard English as best I can along the way, and providing my own commentary at the end.
The Weekly Herald
Vol. 1 – No. 54.
Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, January 16, 1889
Geo. Meadows Lynched at Pratt Mines, and his body riddled with the bullets from 500 guns.
From Yesterday’s Edition:
All day yesterday, a crowd of several hundred determined looking men stood around a little frame house in the center of the town of Pratt Mines, armed with rifles, squirrel-guns, pistols, knives and, in some instances, old army rifles. A glance revealed the fact that the crowd meant business.
In a little room on the second floor, at the head of a narrow stairway, the coroner’s jury summoned to investigate the death of Willie Kellum, and as a consequence the criminal assault on his mother, was in session. The room contained the coroner, his jury, an Age-Herald reporter and a rather brutish looking young negro about 22 years of age. He was rather below medium height, was heavily built, was of a dark, ginger-cake color, clean shaven, wore a reddish-yellow woolen shirt, and, in short, filled the description of the negro who had so brutally assaulted Mrs. Kellum and her little son on Saturday morning.
His arrest came about in this wise: About 9 o’clock yesterday morning the citizens of the town congregated on the streets determined to prosecute the search for the murderer and rapist. The squads were forming and leaving in different directions, and everybody was on the go. On one of the principal streets a negro was making himself very prominent, and in no small degree disgusting to both whites and negroes. He was flourishing a big pistol, and swearing his fealty to the white men and vengeance on the negro they were after. Some of them recognized the enthusiastic [racial term deleted] as GEORGE MEADOWS, a negro who had lived in the place about two years before, and who bore a very unsavory reputation. Among others who witnessed the suspicious actions of the negro was a young man, only about 18 years of age, a son of the constable of the beat. In addition to the negro’s actions the young man noticed something else, which up to this time, had remained unobserved by the others, and that was that the negro answered the description that Mrs. Kellum gave of her assailant, even to his clothing. The young man walked up to him, too the pistol out of his hands, and marched him to the coroner, who was on the ground. Mr. Babbitt had him taken at once before Mrs. Kellum.
It should be remembered that prior to this, dozens of negroes had been carried before the lady for identification, but she had in each instance very promptly stated, “He is not the man.” When Meadows was brought before her, however, her frame shook, and after the first glance she cried out, “TAKE HIM AWAY! TAKE HIM AWAY!”
After the negro had been removed she told the physicians and some friends that she thought he was the man – that if he was not he was his twin brother.
This latter statement was evidently intended to emphasize the likeness of the man to that of her assailant, abut it latterly developed that George did have a twin brother, Rufus Meadows.
When the crowd heard of the lady’s statement they became almost distracted, and it looked as though the negro’s chances for living were meager. Finally the coroner and some of the cooler heads recommended discretion, and the men all showed that they were willing to give the negro justic3e and the benefit of any doubts the lady might entertain as to his identity with her assailant, by allowing the investigation to proceed before the coroner. They, however, did not abandon their position around the house in which the inquest was being held, and patiently awaited developments.
[Tomorrow: Part II: the Inquest]