The Time of Lynching; It Happened Here, Too
By Sam Avalos
The scenes are all too familiar, even in the 21st Century. Men and women dressed in their Sunday best, gathering around a tree from which the body of an African American man hangs by a rope and noose. Thanks to the Internet, graphic photos of lynchings are readily available for viewing, a grim reminder of a time and place when rowdy mobs made themselves judge, jury and executioner.
In Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, chronicles the deaths of hundreds of men and women who were killed by lynching. Large metal slabs hang from the rafters of a large building; each slab featuring the names and death dates of those whose lives were taken. Tennessee counties are, unfortunately, well represented at the memorial.
According to the Tennessee Encyclopedia, the state has documented 214 lynchings, roughly one a week between 1882 and 1930. One hundred and seventy-seven were black and 37 were white. Tennessee is ranked sixth in the nation for the number of lynchings, behind Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana.
In Tennessee, a lynching took place in 70 counties, with Shelby County having the worst record, 20, followed by Obion, with 18.
Rutherford had four lynchings. This is the story of one of them.
“I have been told by word-of-mouth, that the last extra-judicial execution in Rutherford County was in or about 1908 near the Murfreesboro railroad station. I have not been able to corroborate this story. Notwithstanding out-of-town newspaper assertions, these incidents were not common in Rutherford,” said Gregory Tucker, Rutherford County historian.
Eighteen-year-old George Johnson was one of the 177 African- Americans lynched during 1882-1930.
“This is the first lynching that has taken place in the town in about 20 years,”
according to the original 1908 article from TheTennessean.
It was the summer of 1908 when Johnson was taken out of his cell in the county jail by an angry mob of thousands and hung from an oak tree for the alleged attempted rape of a teen named Maude Morris. Morris was 16-years-old and her grandfather was a respected farmer in the county. Morris claimed she and a friend were parting ways on their walk home when Johnson appeared and grabbed her arm. She let out a scream which caused him to run off.
As the teenager recounted her story to adults, many in the white community seethed with anger. Dozens turned into an angry mob of what the newspaper described as “thousands,” as they searched for Johnson. Authorities found Johnson first, however, and he was arrested after allegedly admitting his attempted assault on Morris. The mob, however, was determined that Johnson pay for his actions. Chants and cries from the mob were heard from the inside of the jail for him to be released to them.
Jailer James A. Primm announced to the crowd that Johnson would not be turned over to them and sent out an alarm for him to be transferred to another jail for safekeeping. The jail staff tried to fool the mob by dressing Johnson in a dress and wig. But the jailers were overwhelmed and the mob grabbed Johnson and took him back to town.
“White folks, all I ask is that you don’t hang me, but send me to the pen,” was Johnson’s plea to the mob, according to the newspaper article. Soon, Johnson said no more. The body was left hanging until the following morning.
"There was a placard on the body directing it would be permitted to hang until 10 a.m.tomorrow and giving warning of the same fate to all the negroes guilty of a like crime,” The Tennessean reported.
Authorities ruled Johnson was hung by parties unknown, a typical answer to a lynching for that time, and he was buried at the colored Benevolent Cemetery in town.