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The Lynching Project: Oconee County

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Georgia Lynchings: A Brief Overview

One of the leading Southern states that had the highest record of lynchings was Georgia. In Georgia alone, there were 381 lynching incidents between 1882 and 1930. The total number of victims were around 458 victims and 95% of them were black. We tend to forget how many prominent Georgians such as politicians, journalists and newspapers used to defend lynching as a positive good. Newspaper writers, for example, describe lynching as something normal for people to do. Bill Arp, wrote in a 1902 column: “As for lynching, I repeat what I have said before, let the good work go on. Lynch 'em! Shoot 'em! Hang 'em! Burn 'em!” This news was being published everywhere and it makes seem lynching was an acceptable act of one human by another. Some prominent Georgians open fought the passage of antilynching legislation during the twentieth century. Among them was the esteemed U.S. Senator and former governor, Richard B. Russell, Jr.

Lynchings Oconee County and Clarke County

The earliest documented lynching in Oconee County happened on June 29, 1905. It was one of the worst lynching incidents in the area at that time. Eight prisoners were taken out of a jail and shot to death. Twelve years later, in September 1917 another incident happen that could have been a lynching. The last lynching was recorded on December of 1921. Murderers killed where two victims in Oconee County.

“A Most Horrible Affair”

On June 29, 1905 people of Watkinsville claimed shock at learning that several African Americans and a local white man had been lynched by a mob supposedly from other counties. Locals pointed to two events that they say provoked the mass killing. Sandy Price, a black male, had allegedly assaulted a white woman identified as Mrs. Weldon Dooley at her home in Watkinsville. At some point, Mr. Price was apparently chased by a crowd of locals who began shooting at him. It is unclear if witnesses claimed he was discovered near Dooley’s home or elsewhere. Evidently he managed to escape from the shooting crowd but was soon captured and placed in a jail cell. As in the case of many lynchings, rumors began circulating about Price’s alleged crime, and interested citizens from other counties began making plans to travel to Watkinsville and murder Price. They had already been feeling resentful at what they perceived to be an unsatisfactory response to second incident: the murder of the Holbrooks, a white couple, allegedly by a number of black men at the instigation of a local white man.


Upon reaching Watkinsville after learning of Price’s arrest, a mob of approximately 100 stopped at the home of L.H. Alken, the marshal of the local jail. They demanded that he come out and provide them the key to the jail. When he refused, they grabbed him by the neck and held him at gun point. They forced him to get dress and they followed him to the jail. The mob made its intentions clear. Members intended to clear the jail of everyone locked up.


Alken begged them not to hang Lon J. Aycock, a white man who was being detained for planning the murder of F.M. Holbrook and his wife, but the mob ignored Alken. Aycock and eight African American men were taken from their jail cells and tied to fence posts in three lots. (Some of the black men had been charged with carrying out the murder of the Holbrooks. The rest had been charged with other murders.) According to two eyewitness accounts included in the Atlanta Constitution’s account, Richard Allen and Lewis Robinson were tied to the first post; Rich Robinson, Sandy Price and Eugene Yerby were tied to a second post; and Aycock was tied to the third post with Claud Elder, Joe Patterson and Bob Harris. Then the execution began. The killers raised their pistols, shotguns and rifles and fired upon command, shooting each victim multiple times. The mob then left town, riding off in different directions.


The only one who did not die was Joe Patterson. Although he was shot in the head and twice in the torso, he was found still breathing by a crowd. The only black man in the jail to avoid being taking out of his cell and tied to a post was Ed Thrasher.


The Atlanta Constitution speculated that he was spared because he was in a section of the jail where misdemeanor offenders were detained. It appears as if the mob overlooked him, although it was quite possible that they were focused solely on the alleged killers of the Holbrooks and the alleged assailant of Mrs. Dooley.


According to the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, the day after the eight lynchings, the House of Representatives of Georgia passed, a curious resolution condemning the June 29, 1905 lynching incident. It refers to the mob as “masked murderers,” decries “the bloody injuries inflicted upon the unfortunate victims of this crime,” and describes the mob's killings as “cruel, barbarous, and inexcusable.” Yet the resolution, in also “condemning the crime[s] with which the prisoners were charged,” appears to presume the guilt of the eight murdered men. The resolution also ends in a whimper, stating semiapologetically [sic] that the representatives were being “forced to condemn the action of the mob.”

Rufus Moncrief Killed in 1917

During the early morning hours of September 18, 1917, an unspecified number of individuals noticed a black male body “tied to three trees and riddled with bullets.” His murders had tacked a note above his head: “You have assaulted one white girl—but will not another.” The victim was Rufus Moncrief, whose age was given as either 27 or 30 years old, depending on the newspaper source. He had 15 bullet holes in his body, which was located in a wooded area off Whitehall Road, not far from the Oconee County line. According to the Athens-Banner, his body was found on the Oconee side. Shell casings discovered on the ground indicated that the bullets came from three different guns, two .32 caliber pistols and one larger weapon. Residents near the murder scene claimed to have heard approximately two automobiles drive up and immediately thereafter a round of gunfire began. According to these individuals, this occurred just after midnight.

There was considerable conjecture about the circumstances of Mr. Moncrief’s murder, with some guessing that the murder resulted from a gambling dispute because the victim had allegedly participated in a “skin game.” Some speculated that Mr. Moncrief had been killed elsewhere and subsequently brought to Oconee County and hanged from a tree. Others concluded that he had in fact been lynched for precisely the accusation mentioned in the note. The circumstances of the murder were consistent with the ritualistic overkill of a racially motivated lynching.

The 1921 Oconee Lynchings of Aaron Birdsong, West Hale and George Lowe 

The lynchings of Aaron Birdsong, West Hale and George Lowe are regarded as the last of their kind in Oconee, although this is difficult to confirm.  All victims were African American men.

During the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1921, a posse of white men including a local deputy sheriff chased Aaron Birdsong into a gully near a spot known as Sloan’s Mill, which was located four miles from Watkinsville. The mob believed Mr. Birdsong to have broken into the home of white farmer E. Lovern with the intention of assaulting his wife and daughter. The men had initially approached Birdsong at his home. They pretended to be hunters in search of directions. Birdsong was not fooled. He shot one of them through a window and immediately fled his house. The mob gave chase and tracked him down at Sloan’s Mill.  As the white men began shooting in his direction, he returned fire. During the frantic gunfight, Birdsong’s assailants succeeded at killing him, but not before he injured the deputy sheriff and critically wounded another member of the mob, Fred Dooley, who took shots to the face and head. After killing Birdsong, the men pumped a fusillade of shots into his body. They then set his mutilated corpse on fire.

Immediately following Birdsong’s gruesome murder, authorities turned their attention to Mr. West Hale and Mr. George Lowe. They were accused of having provided Mr. Birdsong with ammunition and other help as Mr. Birdsong sought to get away. A group of white men formed and went after Mr. Hale and Mr. Lowe. They found them six miles outside Watkinsville and took them to the location of Mr. Birdsong’s murder. Before shooting Mr. Hale, they put his feet in a fire and watched them “roast.”

In January of the following year, four white men were arrested for the murder of Mr. Lowe and Mr. Hale. Only one would face trial, but he would be acquitted after a 45-minute jury deliberation.

"The Last Lynching in Athens"

The murder of John Lee Eberhart was among the most widely publicized lynchings in the state of Georgia prior to World War ll. The details of his dramatic kidnapping and grisly demise reverberated throughout the state, drawing the attention and concern of many high profile officials, including David C. Barrow, President of the University of Georgia at the time. It was a stark example of “vigilante justice.” While it has been dubbed "the last lynching in Athens," the jail breakout and kidnapping took place in Athens but the actual murder was completed in Oconee County. Most compiled lists of Georgia lynchings do not record any lynchings in Athens before the late 1880s.


Eberhart was an African American farm employee of a prominent Oconee couple, Ida D. Lee, 25, and her husband Walter M. Lee, 31. Around 8:00am on February 16, 1921, Mrs. Lee had just completed her morning chores of milking and feeding her cows when she was hit by two shotgun blasts from behind. She died instantly. Authorities immediately suspected Eberhart but were unable to locate him right away at his home. They received word that he may have gone to Athens to meet a friend who worked at the Lamba Chi Alpha fraternity house on the University of Georgia campus. Joined by Eberhart’s father, the police arrived at the fraternity house, but there were still no signs of Eberhart. They received word from the friend that Eberhart was in fact at the fraternity house and wished to turn himself in. Sometime after 2pm that afternoon, the authorities met Eberhart at the house, where they arrested him. Allegedly in his possession was a gun owned by Mr. Lee. Clarke County Sheriff Walter E. Jackson decided to detain Eberhart at the Clarke County jail instead of taking him back to Oconee County. He assumed that Eberhart would be safe there. Emotions were running high and investigators were not the only ones interested in finding Eberhart. Rumors circulated wildly, including the one about Eberhart’s alleged confession.


By early evening, hundreds of residents had gathered from numerous counties—Clarke, Oconee, Oglethorpe, and Jackson. Newspaper reports described the scene in vivid detail. Hordes of people had arrived by car, horseback and on foot. According to a Clarke County grand jury report, the crowd reached a size of approximately 3,000. A good many of them were spectators. Among the larger crowd was a more menacing mob hell-bent on breaking into the jail. Eberhart was being held on the top floor, another precaution taken by Sheriff Jackson.


After 8pm, the mob moved on the county courthouse, for its way through the larger crowd of spectators. The angry men began unleashing their wrath in the lobby, where they smashed glass windows and broke down doors. Armed with sledgehammers, chisels, and an acetylene torch, they made it to Eberhart’s cell. Sheriff Clarke made a futile attempt to block the cell door with this body. The men of the mob overtook Jackson. They grabbed Eberhart from the cell, chained him up and dragged him down the stairs and out the back entrance of the courthouse. They threw him into a waiting automobile that immediately sped off.


The men arrive at the location of Mrs. Lee’s murder in Oconee County. It was a wooded area. Others were already waiting when the car carrying Eberhart had arrived. The members of the mob chained him to a tree. They stacked wood and kindling at his feet and lit a fire. They pretended to hold a trial. They insisted that Eberhart confess. He refused. He insisted on his innocence until his last breath. The fired consumed him as the mob stood and watched.


No one went to jail for the murder of Eberhart. This is believed to be the last lynching in Athens, but we cannot be sure.

The image to the left above is a photo of the former home of Ida D. and Walter M. Lee. It was still standing and located at 8441 Macon Highway, according a 1997 story in Flagpole. Eberhart was murdered in a wooded area directly across the road from the home. 

Sources

“‘Bloody Injuries:" The Lynchings in Oconee County, 1905-1921.” Flagpole Magazine, 24 June 1998.

CHARGED WITH MURDER FOUR MEN ARRESTED IN OCONEE COUNTY. (1890, Jun 27). The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945) Retrieved from http://proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu:80/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu/docview/194041339?accountid=14537

Reed, T. W. (1905, Jun 30). FEELING IS INTENSE OVER MOB'S MAD WORK. The Atlanta Constitution (1881-1945) Retrieved from

http://proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu:80/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu/docview/495993408?accountid=14537

"Negro Found Yesterday Morning, Tied to a Tree," The Athens Banner, September 19, 1917.

"Bullet-Riddled Negro Found Hanged to a Tree," The Atlanta Constitution, September 19, 1917.

"One Burned Two Riddled With Bullets," The Athens Daily Banner, December 6, 1921.

"Four Arrests Made in Oconee Lynching Cases," The Athens Banner, January 26, 1922.

"Trial of Four Men Charged with Murder Begins in Oconee Monday," The Banner Herald, January 29, 1922.

“The Last Lynching in Athens.” Flagpole Magazine, 10 Sept. 1997.

"Murdererr Suspect of Mrs. Lee Burned at the Stake," The Athens Banner, February 17, 1921.

"Mob Raids Jail And Burns Negro at Crime Scene," The Atlanta Constitution, February 17, 1921.

“Lynching Database.” Remembering Mary Turner, www.maryturner.org/database.htm.