AUGUSTA, Ga. — Wanda Cooper-Jones had “The Talk” with her son Ahmaud when he learned to drive. The conversation where Black parents warn their children how to stay safe when encountering law enforcement.
“I didn’t think him jogging, that that would put him in danger,” Cooper-Jones said.
Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot to death Feb. 23 in Brunswick, Georgia. It wasn’t until May, after a third prosecutor and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation became involved in the case, that Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan Jr. would be charged with his murder.
Arbery’s death has been labeled a lynching, which is defined as a killing by three or more people claiming extrajudicial reasons to kill.
The renowned educator, adviser to presidents and first president of Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington, was among the first to document lynchings in the country. He set the standard for Monroe Work, a Black sociologist who documented lynchings between 1881 and 1936.
Lynchings weren’t just hangings. People — the vast majority of whom were Black (94% in Georgia and 96% in South Carolina) — were also shot, beaten, stabbed, drowned, tortured and burned alive. Sometimes all of the above.
There are 4,745 documented lynchings in the collection Work started in 1904. If anything, it’s a vast under-count, said Dana Chandler, associate professor for Tuskegee University Archives, who is in charge of Work’s lynching files at the historically Black university.
A lot more people were carted off in the middle of the night and no one knew what happened, Chandler said.
Lynchings are 'a form of terrorism'
The backstory to many accounts of lynching often boils down to Blacks voting, earning more than neighboring whites or committing perceived slights to white supremacy, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
One of worst times for Black people was after the Civil War, according to a recent study released by the Equal Justice Initiative, “Reconstruction in America.” In 12 years, from 1865 to 1876, at least 2,000 Black people were lynched.
One such incident happened in what is now McDuffie County in November 1868. Perry Jeffreys, his wife and their four sons were lynched after Jeffreys voted, according to Reconstruction in America.
Lynching was used to control people, Chandler said. It was telling people to stay in their place.
“It’s a form of terrorism,” Chandler said.
A year earlier in Edgefield County, six were lynched, and in July 1876, during the Hamburg massacre, six Black national guardsmen were murdered, one tortured, by whites seeking a reversal of the gains of Black citizens. The Meriwether Monument in North Augusta was erected in 1916 to honor the one white man killed in the Hamburg massacre and makes no mention of the other killings.
The U.S. Supreme Court furthered the efforts of whites seeking supremacy over Blacks, finding 12 times that laws passed to protect the rights of Blacks were unconstitutional. Further attempts to empower Blacks ended when Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to pull federal troops out of the South to win the controversial 1876 presidential election.
Between 1885 to 1908, all 11 former Confederate states rewrote their constitutions to restrict voting rights for Blacks. Laws were enacted to control Blacks, as the Jim Crow period had begun.
Emmett Till's lynching ignited a civil rights movement: Historians say George Floyd's death could do the same
The U.S. Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on Crow in an 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson. Segregation was constitutional, the nation’s highest court decided.
From 1882 to 1933, according to research of the lynching archives at Tuskegee University, a total of 94 people were lynched in the Georgia and South Carolina counties along the Savannah River. Only two were white. No jury had convicted the victims of any crime, although several were dragged out and murdered during their trials.
The painful family history of Fannie Flono
Fannie Flono, a former resident of Augusta and a journalist who wrote "Thriving in the Shadows: The Black Experience in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County," is related to two different sets of lynching victims.
The first time it happened in her family was Oct. 25, 1898, when Wash Mackey and James Mackey, her relatives, and Luther Sullivan were dragged to the Republican Church in Edgefield County and murdered. They had been on trial for allegedly killing Mrs. O. Adkinson, a white woman.
Flono is also related to Bertha Lowman, 27, Clarence Lowman, 14, and Damon Lowman, 21, who were dragged out of the Aiken County jail the night of Oct. 8, 1926, after Damon Lowman was acquitted of murder in the shooting of Sheriff Henry Howard.
According to accounts given to Black investigators, a large crowd gathered to watch the executions. The sheriff killed Bertha Lowman when he pressed the barrel of his handgun against her head and fired.
Her family never discussed the lynchings, but her grandparents told stories going back to Reconstruction, Flono said.
The story of what happened to members of her family is not unique in the Augusta area.
In April 1893, John Peterson was accused of rape in Denmark, South Carolina. He fled and appealed to Gov. Benjamin Tillman, who sent him back to Denmark. There, the victim told a mob that Peterson wasn’t the one who attacked her. The mob lynched him anyway.
Dennis Head and Jesse Butler were lynched in Aiken County on July 16, 1903, after they said they didn’t know where a murder suspect was. James A. Nelson was lynched July 12, 1894, in Edgefield County so he couldn’t testify against a white man. On Dec. 28, 1889, in Barnwell County, eight Black men were lynched when a mob took them from the jail.
On Feb. 19, 1933, Herman Jeter was dragged from his Aiken County home in front of his wife and father. He was beaten to death because he was suspected of stealing liquor. The men who dragged him from his home stood trial. They were acquitted.
According to studies by the Equal Justice Initiative and others, 99% of those who took part in lynching were never convicted of any crime.
The 'dark days' after Ahmaud Arbery's murder
The real story of what happened to Ahmaud Arbery didn’t come to light until more than two months after he was killed.
The McMichaels and Bryan told police they believed Arbery had been burglarizing the neighborhood. A video shot by Bryan showed they chased after him in two pickup trucks as he jogged through their neighborhood. They worked to pin him in, and Travis McMichael confronted Arbery with a shotgun. He shot Arbery twice, and then cursed Arbery and called a dying Arbery a racial slur, according to Bryan.
When Cooper-Jones pointed out that George Barnhill, the prosecutor assigned to Arbery’s killing in Brunswick earlier this year, had a conflict, Barnhill took offense. Although he had already told law enforcement Arbery’s death wasn’t a crime, he put Cooper-Jones off, telling her that he couldn’t do any investigation until Arbery’s toxicology report was completed.
He couldn’t have been more nonchalant, Cooper-Jones said. The police wouldn’t answer her telephone calls. No attorney was interested in taking her case.
“Those were some dark days,” she said.
But Arbery's death prompted the Georgia General Assembly to pass a hate crime law this year. Congress nearly passed an anti-lynching bill this year, until Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, refused to support it. It was supposed to be passed by unanimous consent and had the support of 99 senators, but Paul’s failure to support it doomed the bill.
It would have been named for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black child tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after he was falsely accused of affronting a white woman.
Many people, including Chandler, believe Americans need to talk about racial injustice, including what happened in the past. He’s a true believer in Tuskegee’s mission to maintain the lynching archives.
“I want people to know that history can be told without any embellishment ... and it can change people," Chandler said. "It has changed people.”
This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Lynchings are part of Georgia's history — and the state's present