Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Lynching of Willie Earle

64 years ago, the last lynching in South Carolina took place about 10-15 miles from where I live. And next week, after a very long 64 years, there will finally be a memorial on the rural back road where it happened.

[Trigger Warning]

On February 16, 1947, Thomas Watson Brown, a white cab driver, picked up a black man on Markley Street in Greenville, South Carolina. Brown was later found half-dead, his taxi driven off the road in rural Pickens County. He had been beaten, robbed, and stabbed three times.

The Pickens County sheriff reported that muddy footprints at the crime scene led to the house of Willie Earle, about a mile away, where officers reportedly found cash, a blood-covered knife and bloody clothing. (Many of these facts have always been in dispute, but this is what was presented at trial.) Willie Earle, age 24, wasn't at his residence; he was in another cab, driven by a man who would later become one of the 31 defendants.

Earle was arrested and put in the Pickens County second-floor lock-up.

The news of Brown's stabbing traveled like wildfire, as did the news of Willie Earle's arrest. The nexus of unrest was the Yellow Cab office on West Court Street, where Greenville's taxi drivers had congregated in an angry pack, and started passing around a bottle of whiskey.

The Greenville News, recently granted access to some of the trial records and police reports, offers some chilling accounts:

The attitudes of the time are reflected in the casual manner in which one of the defendants, Hubert Carter, explained in his statement to police how he joined the mob.

The 33-year-old driver and father of four called for a ride home from the Cleveland Street taxi stand at 1 a.m. on the 17th, according to the Greenville Police Department file. He was picked up by another defendant, Paul Griggs, who "asked me if I wanted to go with the others to get the Negro being held for stabbing Mr. Brown.

"I told him I'd go along with the crowd," Carter said in his statement.
And so, in a tableau reminiscent of the famous scene in To Kill A Mockingbird (and perhaps it was an inspiration for it), the taxis all lined up in the early morning hours and drove in formation out to the Pickens County jail, maybe 20 miles away. It was February 17th.

I have often re-imagined the striking sight of the line of yellow cabs driving down the old rural road I have traveled down so many times myself. Did other people see them? They must have. Did the onlookers know where they were going? Did they tell their wives or girlfriends first?

And there was, sadly, no Atticus Finch to stand by the door. Instead, there was a jailer named Gilstrap, who suddenly had two shotguns pointed in his face. He didn't argue.

The mob took Willie Earle from the jail.

A call to Greenville's black funeral home, notified authorities of where the body was.

Thomas Brown died six hours later.


The first lynching since 1912, the murder of Willie Earle became big news. The trial was biggest lynching trial the state had ever seen. Most lynchings had never even been investigated, while this one had then-Governor Strom Thurmond threatening to put the perpetrators away (yes, you read that right). Time magazine sent reporters, and The New Yorker sent no less than Dame Rebecca West to cover the event.

From Time magazine:
Somebody "pulled the Negro out of the car by his belt." The drivers ''hit him several times with their fists and knocked him to the ground." One of the drivers pulled out a knife. "Before you kill him," he said, "I want to put the same scars on him that he put on Brown." Said Jessie Lee Sammons: "I could hear the tearing of clothing and flesh."

Then the drivers "beat the side of his head with a shotgun." Said Marvin H. Flemming's statement: "I could hear some licks like they were pounding on him with the butt end of a gun. I heard the Negro say, 'Lord, you done killed me.' " Finally, said Charlie Covington, he heard Roosevelt Carlos Hurd Sr., a Blue Bird cab driver, cry out: "Give me the gun and let's get this over with." Just then, "a tall, slender boy with bushy hair hit the Negro in the mouth and knocked him down. The Negro started to get up when Mr. Hurd took the shotgun. He shot the Negro in the head. He unloaded the gun and called for more shells. . . . Mr. Hurd shot the Negro two more times." The tissue of Willie Earle's brain was left hanging on the bushes. The lynchers went back to Greenville and drank coffee.
Of course, it was an all-white jury. Of course, they offered no defense at all. And of course, they were acquitted.

Of the acquittal, Dame Rebecca West wrote:
There could be no more pathetic scene than these taxi-drivers and their wives, the deprived children of difficult history, who were rejoicing at a salvation that was actually a deliverance to danger. For an hour or two, the trial had built up in them that sense of law which is as necessary to man as bread and water and a roof. They had known killing for what it is: a hideousness that begets hideousness. They had seen that the most generous impulse, not subjected to the law, may engender a shameful deed. For indeed they were sick at heart when what had happened at the slaughter-pen was described in open court. But they had been saved from the electric chair and from prison by men who had conducted their defense without taking a minute off to state or imply that even if a man is a murderer one must not murder him and that murder is foul. These people had been plunged back into chaos.
Chaos is the word. Chaos was the state of race relations in the south until the Civil Rights movement, when the chaos was at last addressed.

Next week, after many long decades, the spot where Willie Earle was murdered will be officially and historically marked. Future generations will not be like me, driving by a rural place in the road without knowing whose blood was shed there. We will see, and we will know.

Tessie Robinson, Willie's mama, died 8 years ago. I am so sad she will never see the memorial to her son.

For black people, a memorial and a reminder of what they already know and do not have to be told. For us white people, a souvenir of our savagery, and the cover-up of that savagery. Which is why the memorial has taken 64 years.

Rest in Peace, Willie Earle.


crossposted at Womanist Musings.


JoJo said...

Wow what a horrific and gruesome story. I'm glad that a memorial is finally being placed at the site, but it sure took 'em long enough.

John Powers said...

You're a really good writer. It's taken me a couple of days and I still don't know what to say about your post. I'm happy you've drawn attention to this important history.

The enthusiasm for Strom Thurman is hard for people outside South Carolina to understand, and his opposition to lynching a part of that puzzle.

It turns out that because we get the New Yorker in the mail, I can access the digital edition--I didn't know that. Anyhow read Rebbeca West's "Opera in Greenville" for the first time. Holy smokes! I presume you read her account in the magazine replete with Black cartoon figures selling liquor?

I was a boy when I lived in Greenville. It's strange that I got radicalized as far as race goes then because there sure wasn't peer support for it.

West made a good observation about the local reaction to her and by extension Yankees, remarking that it was like the curtain between the Irish and the English.

Way OT, but following from that "curtain" Walter Russell Mead annoys me, in a way that I think sometimes I annoy you. Anyhow his recent post The Birth of the Blues made me think about the curtain between Yankees and Southerners.

Anonymous said...

The story is fine but did Mr. Willie Earl stab and rob the taxi driver or not?

Your narrative sounds like a spin to reverse the facts and a romanticized version.

We don't know what really happened. I don't want to fall into this 'hate' mentality and blame-game.

Anonymous said...

Does the victim get a memorial? We have lost sight of him.

Anonymous said...

LOL Liberalism is a mental disorder and this blog proves it. Delete my comment if you want, I don't care in the slightest, but you are absolutely NUTS!

DaisyDeadhead said...

The white supremacist website STORMFRONT (not linking) has linked this. They love what happened to Willie Earle and think lynching is great. That's where all the gutless "anonymous" posters are suddenly coming from.

Anyway, proud as hell that white supremacist swine think I'm crazy. THANK YOU, what a nice thing for kkk-wannabes to say.

I am carefully clocking all of the hits and all of these comments, so be advised. BTW, I get regular hits from the Dept of Homeland Security, who also think I am crazy... so if you want trouble, keep it up and I will print your IPs so Uncle Sam can clock your worthless racist asses too. In fact, depending upon your ISP, they might be able to track you right to your house. :)

Have a nice day, scumbags.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Hey, hope yall enjoy my superstar turn in this film clip (page down to bottom of this post). I am at approx 3:18-3:40... and make sure you watch the whole segment, it has a real bang-up finish! :D

Anonymous said...

Ok gotcha, Stormfronters bad, racists bad, vigilante mobs bad.

Still, what about the robbery and beating of Thomas Watson Brown? Was Willie Earle responsible?

DaisyDeadhead said...

Anon, post your name, a link, email, etc and I may consider replying. I don't usually waste my time on scared, cowardly chickenshits who 1) post anonymously because they are skeeeeeeered and 2) wear white sheets because they are skeeeeered.
Show some guts and I might deign to reply. Probably not though.

Now, fuck off.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DaisyDeadhead said...

I have deleted several comments from the Black Helicopter Faction already. I have now placed all ongoing comments on moderation. I shall tend to this thread in the (late) morning. Until then, kkk-wannabe trolls!

spencer iowa news said...

very informative and interesting blog.
Thanks for sharing:-)

cynthia said...

wow ... I clicked over here to read your shirtless women post and noticed a few post about Nicki Haley. Wondered why anyone outside of SC would be writing about her, kept reading and find out we share stomping grounds! I grew in Greenville and still live close enough to call it home as most of our time and money is spent there.

Re: this post.

Sadly, and it breaks my heart to admit this, my great-uncle was involved in that lynching. He was the one who said that he wanted to put the same scars on Willie Earle. I never knew my great uncle. He died before I was born. Consequently, I never knew the connection until just recently. I think it was a few years ago when the paper was running a large article about the lynching.

When I sat in on the conversations about it and realized that my own great uncle was involved, I was shocked. But not as shocked as I was to hear the justification from my family.

I came home that night and told my children about it. This is such a foreign concept to them but I want them to be aware how recent it has been, how close the connection is. Only in knowing our past can we do better in the future.

I am going to subscribe to your blog. It's good to know that there are others hippies out there ... you say you are a redneck but with these progressive ideas, I don't know if you can claim that title.

muebles las rozas said...

Quite useful material, thanks so much for the post.

update said...

Photos of the historical marker

Anonymous said...

Where In Greenville is the memorial? I my self being as Ihave lived her my whole life would like to know I live off of old bramlett rd where they say the body was found and gave always been curious . Please email me at.
thank you

DaisyDeadhead said...

Hey Monkey's Mom, sent you an email, but also linking to the map of the marker HERE.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

nohatred said...

I have a couple of comments. First of all, "The Lynching of Willie Earle", was a horrible, horrible thing that goes against every-thing I was raised to believe in. Second of all, why is there not a memorial for Thomas Brown? It appears to me that he is the true victim of a senseless crime. It seems Willie Earle has been revered because he has been the, "last lynched", in SC, but nowhere in that memorial does it state that he killed a man to have that plaque set on a pedestal to get it. I am the late Thomas Brown's great-granddaughter, the true victim of this crime. The grandchild of Thomas Brown, one of my parents, raised me to be non-racist, despite the fact that they lost they're dad at the age of 1 by a black man in 1947. When is everyone going to see that obviously, Thomas Brown, was a very loved and respected man with-in the community? And when is everyone going to see that maybe, the person who committed this senseless crime would've suffered the same fate if he would have been white?

The great-granddaughter of the late Thomas Watson Brown...the TRUE VICTIM.

DaisyDeadhead said...

no hatred,

Since Willie Earle was denied his right to due process, we do not know if he was guilty or not. I strongly believe in our American system of "innocent until proven guilty", and he was never tried, so he is still, officially, not guilty. I do not share your certainty that he killed Brown, and I don't simply take the word of a racist mob. Not sure why anyone else would.

I almost didn't publish your comment, but decided to go ahead. Please think long and hard over the logic of believing an angry, drunken, probably-kkk-inspired mob.
I agree that Brown was a victim, but I also know how easy it would have been for the true killer to simply whip up a mob, thereby successfully deflecting the attention from himself. No DNA or forensics in those days. We will never know the real answer... and since we don't, I am giving the other victim the benefit of the doubt.

In fact, since Earle's punishment was SO extreme and the mob SO whipped into a frenzy (and who brought the whiskey bottle that night?), I will always wonder if one of the instigators was the true murderer.

Anonymous said...

When I was a paperboy, the newspaper came out with this story, I think some sort of healing. I had never heard of it. It was an eye opener to me, a young boy who read everything in the paper (at that time). Many people wrote in objecting saying why must we once again revisit this ugliness in our past. Personally, I see no reason to hide the truth.
And as for those immoral scumbags who commented above, the question of whether or not Willie Earle was guilty or not is not the issue. The fact is that he never got a trial. that, due to close-minded, ignorant racist who acted without compassion.

Anonymous said...

My greatgrandfather, Woodrow Clardy, drove Willie Earle from jail to his death that night. He was one of the men drinking coffee before and after that murder. Beat that one. Anyone wishing to know more, without automatically going to the word "lynching" is free to contact me.

Lucy BH said...

Daisy, I am working with a co-writer to produce a play. Have you ever found the transcripts of the court case? May I ask what part of the country you are in? Perhaps we can find a way to exchange email addresses in private.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Lucy, the Greenville News (where I am), ran a segment about the court case (w/partial transcripts) in (I think) 2007. The best place to find things would be in the Greenville News archives, since it happened here, or Pickens County. Also, Rebecca West's coverage in the New Yorker.

I am at