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The Lynching Project: Oglethorpe County

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Oglethorpe County, GA:
A History of Black Murders

The Treaty of 1773 paved the way for the birth of Oglethorpe County. The land, long inhabited by various Native American tribes, was “surrendered” to the colony of Georgia, and by 1777 had become Wilkes County. In 1793, Oglethorpe County was created out of the western portion of Wilkes, named after an English philanthropist and founder of the Georgia Colony, James Edward Oglethorpe.

Georgia itself has a long history of rampant lynchings that went unpunished and often unrecognized for the inhumane and violent acts that they were. The ones I will explore within this exhibit are the murders of Obe Cox, Bob Collins, and Ross Griffeth. I will describe, in detail, the crimes in order of the year they occurred.

THE LYNCHING OF ROSS GRIFFETH… JULY 9th, 1887

Ross Griffeth (sometimes spelled Griffin) was a black man who lived in Lexington, Oglethorpe County in the 1800s. Unfortunately, much about Griffeth’s life prior to his brutal death is undocumented, beyond the fact that he was around twenty-three years of age and was married but had no children.

Although it should be taken with a grain of salt, a few individuals who commented on his character stated that he did not have the best reputation in Lexington, and an individual named W. G. Johnson went so far as to say, though only in his employ for one year, Griffeth was a "mean and desperate negro". 

In July of 1887, Griffeth was accused of the attempted rape his employer’s sister, Fannie Sallie Shackelford, reportedly around midnight. According to Shackelford's account of the incident in a lengthy in-depth article by the Weekly Banner-Watchman, "she was aroused from her sleep by the dim outlines of a man standing by her bedside" and, when she asked who it was, she was "seized by the throat".

What followed, Shackelford claims, was a five-minute struggle, during which she clawed the assailant on the face, the breast, and tore the front of his shirt open. Although she claimed to have never fully seen the attacker enough to recognize him, she believed the man to be Ross because she felt "side-whiskers" when she scratched his face.

Within a few hours, the local Sheriff, Maxwell, had gathered a few men, and they rode out to Griffeth's home. Once there, they demanded Griffeth confess to the crime and ransacked his house in search of evidence. Before the night was over, Griffeth had "confessed" to the crime and was arrested and taken to the Oglethorpe jail.

The news spread fast and, as was quite common, a mob of whites formed and stormed the jail, and seized Griffeth. The mob tied a rope around his neck, dragged him along a road, and beat him senseless around a ring with a buggy trace.

Interestingly enough, however, as he was about to be hanged, Griffeth began begging for a time to pray, so as to save his soul, and it worked. In fact, it worked long enough for Sheriff Maxwell to arrive, who then succeeded in calming the crowd, and safely transporting a severely beaten Griffeth to the Lexington jail.

At the Lexington jail, Griffeth was actually interviewed by a reporter from the Weekly Banner-Watchman, where he again confessed to having plotted the attack for weeks and described how he went about executing his plans. 

On the night of July 9th, a mob of whites broke Griffeth out of jail once more, and this time he was murdered, and his body was found "hanging from the old, Jones Gallows about a mile from Lexington", and his neck was broken, according to the Weekly Banner-Watchman. 

The editor of the Oglethorpe Echo, a local newspaper, wrote that the mob was not a mob “in the real sense of the word” and, furthermore, described the lynching itself as a “meting out of justice at the hands of an outraged community” (Harris 67).

What followed his murder, however, was a widespread panic that blacks were planning to take “revenge” on the whites who committed the lynching, so much so that “Whites Take Up Arms” was the headline for an article of the Morning News, dated July 22nd, 1887.

The article makes mention of a “James Sanders” of Lexington, who, along with two “notorious negro politicians from Athens”, made speeches which supposedly called on the blacks living in Oglethorpe at the time to “defend themselves and their rights and revenge on the wronged member of their race”.

Allegedly, Sanders even went so far as to state that the twelve prominent citizens of Lexington, who the blacks of the area knew were instrumental in the lynching, should be assassinated. The plan allegedly included a proposal to burn down Lexington.

Unfortunately, some of the blacks at the meeting, who the article refers to as a better class of “law-abiding blacks who wanted to preserve harmony between the races” informed the whites of Oglethorpe. Afterward, every white man in Oglethorpe County was “summoned to appear armed at the courthouse”, with a number of rifles and cartridges formerly used by the Athens Guard being shipped to their location.

Nothing ever came of the supposed attack that was to occur, however, but the blacks of Lexington did gather “sufficient evidence” that a black man named Prince Williams was one of the men who told whites of the plan, according to the Weekly Banner-Watchman dated August 2nd, 1887. Those men then took Prince, gave him a severe whipping, and planned to “visit the same punishment” on a number of others they believe started “such reports”.

 

Works Cited

The Morning News. (Savannah, Ga.) 1887-1900, July 22, 1887, Page 2.

The Weekly Banner-Watchman. (Athens, Ga.) 1886-1889, August 2, 1887.

The Weekly Banner-Watchman. (Athens, Ga). 1886-1889, August 16, 1887.

Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation By J. William Harris

Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 by William Fitzhugh Brundage

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THE LYNCHING OF BOB COLLINS… February 9th, 1894

Bob Collins, sometimes referred to as Robert, was a black male who lived on the property of Dave Gaulding, a prosperous white farmer. In an article dated February 23rd, 1894, Collins was described by Fayetteville News as "an old and peaceable negro".

Allegedly, Collins was infamous for “enticing” other black servants away from Gaulding’s plantation. According to numerous rural newspapers, he often created conflict and strife between the black farm hands and their employers. Interestingly enough, Collins never stood accused of raping or assaulting anyone. He never even stood accused of theft.

Collins was charged with the “crime” of enticing servants and arrested by Morgan Gaulding, a nephew of Dave Gaulding. The older Gaulding paid Collins’ bond and soon had him released. Within a few days, Collins was dead.

According to the Athens Weekly Banner, on the night of February 9th, 1894, Collins, his wife, and another black man named Cal Goosby, were at home when a white man came to the door “all muffled up” and knocked. When Collins opened the door, the white man seized Collins “by the collar and dragged him out”. Collins’ wife and Goosby were so terrified that they did nothing.

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Collins was dragged into the woods, tied to a tree, and then beaten and whipped with an unknown instrument, speculated to be a buggy trace, by four white caps. The “white caps” are an infamous group of white domestic terrorists who engaged in lynching’s and lawlessness, similar to the Ku Klux Klan. An unconscious Collins was then taken back home but was so severely beaten that he succumbed to his injuries and died just a few hours later.

According to J. William Harris, Dave Gaulding pushed for an investigation, and within a week “four prominent young white men had been arrested, jailed, and charged with the murder” (67). Surprisingly enough, according to the numerous rural newspapers, such as the Waycross Weekly Herald, there was widespread indignation at the lynching, and the white caps themselves were denounced.

Collins’ landlord and employer, Dave Gaulding, publicly declared that “Collins was the best negro on the place and that he was always peaceable and good-natured”, which seems to contradict other sources, but speaks to Collin’s character all the same.

The committal trial took place that following Monday, at Crawford, and at the coroner’s jury, Goosby said that Irvin Salmon was the white man who had dragged Collins out of the home. Ultimately, four whites came to be charged with the crime: Morgan Gaulding, Ed Shaw, Irvin Salmon, and Will Thompson. Unfortunately, the men denied all of the charges, and the prosecution dropped the case.

 

Work Cited

Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation By J. William Harris

A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930 by Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck.

The Weekly Banner. (Athens, Ga). 1891-1921, February 27, 1894.

Waycross Weekly Herald. (Waycross, Ga.). 1893-1900, February 17, 1894.

The Morning News. (Savannah, Ga.). 1887-1900, February 21, 1894.

Americus Times-Recorder. (Americus, Ga.). 1891-1894, February 16, 1894.

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THE LYNCHING OF OBE COX… September 10th, 1919

Obe Cox was a black male who lived in Oglethorpe County in the early 1900s. Much about Cox’s life is undocumented.

In September of 1919, Cox was accused of the murder and rape of a white woman, who was the wife of a prominent farmer, with a garden hoe, according to the Daily-Times Enterprise, dated September 9th, 1919.

An armed posse of more than one thousand white men began searching for Cox. Before they could capture and kill him, however, he had attempted to escape detection by hiding out in the fields of Charles Sims, underneath a fig tree, and was successful until Sim’s fourteen-year-old daughter discovered him. She received a five-hundred-dollar reward for revealing his location to the mob.

Following his outing, Cox was captured, taken to the scene of the alleged crime, and shot to death. He was then burned at a stake. According to the Times-Enterprise Semi-Weekly Edition dated September 12th, 1919, thousands were present to witness the lynching.

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Now, interestingly enough, according to the Barrow Times, dated September 25, 1919, “a meeting of the colored people was held, and a committee composed of six of the leading colored men” wrote a public letter condemning Cox and his crime, even referring to him as a “brute”. They also thanked the whites for taking the law into their own hands, even going so far as to

The Chicago Defender caught wind of this letter and penned an angry article stating that “members of race turn traitors and uphold brutal acts of whites who burned men to death”. No one was ever charged with the murder of Obe Cox. As far as the motive for the letter, as Brundage states, he believes that the letter was a “thinly viewed plea that the lynching not be used as a pretext to terrorize the black community.

Works Cited

Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 by William Fitzhugh Brundage

Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage

The Times-Enterprise Semi-Weekly Edition. (Thomasville, Ga). September 9th, 1992

The Times-Enterprise Semi-Weekly Edition. (Thomasville, Ga). September 12th, 1992

The Barrow Times. (Winder, Barrow County, Ga.) 1919-1921, September 25th, 1919.

Americus Times-Recorder. (Americus, Ga.) 1917-1922, September 11th, 1919.

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Contextualization of Black Murders… 2019 & Onward

Although the murders of Ross Griffeth, Robert/Bob Collins, and Obe Cox were the only in-depth lynchings I could find, this does not mean that theirs were anywhere near the only ones that occurred in Oglethorpe, nor the worst. Pictured above, is a news clipping from the Waycross Journal, dated November 11, 1910, that references a "Jack Napier" and "Bob Bryan", both black, who were both lynched near Oglethorpe county. The two were alleged to have killed a "Marshal Bush" and, as a result, were hung, and their bodies riddled with bullets. 

Although grateful to uncover documented lynchings, and thus learn the names of the forgotten, I remain steadfast in the belief that each article, written statement, and accused crime must be taken with a grain of salt and with a great deal of contextualization.

For example, the response to the Obe Cox lynching, at a glance, can seem counter-intuitive and downright confusing. Local blacks banding together in support of the lynching is the kind of action likely to fuel misinformed and dangerous rhetoric about what these times were like.

That same action, contextualized to include that it is very likely the blacks in the community were terrified of further, retaliatory lynchings on more blacks (as was common) and so "approved" of the lynching, can help make one understand a potential reason why they may have done such a thing.

Even the Bob Collins story, in which a friend and Collins' own wife did nothing to help save his life, can be contextualized to include that the two were obviously very frightened for their own lives. 

As the nation trudges through the decades it is important to still take note of when black murders occur and to then go beyond a hashtag. It is important to research, weigh the facts of the case fairly, and make an informed decision on if the black murders at the hands of police or otherwise, still occurring around us every day, are modern-day lynchings.