All of us know about the horrid history in this country of slavery, racism, white supremacy, Jim Crow and the types of discrimination that persist to this very day. Violence was at the core of those systems. Without violence, those systems couldn’t exist. Far from being passive or willing subjects, African peoples and their descendants fought back in myriad ways (so did Native Americans). That’s why slave rebellion plots were often dealt with by using ever-increasing levels of depravity, such as burning bodies and cutting off heads.
The practice of lynching is what I call the original American brand of terrorism. I see a clear difference in these types of murders; they were meant to send a message to the community and to elicit a set of behaviors that maintain white rule. This is evident in the detailed files on lynching that the NAACP kept (and their subsequent push for legislation), as well as the efforts of brave journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It must have been a frightening time in general, but especially to our ancestors who risked their lives to try to vote, buy land, educate blacks or any of the other things that whites believed looked too much like being an actual citizen. I am glad I live in a time and place where I can have friends and family of all colors, ethnicities, religious beliefs and pretty much anything else.
Early in my research, oral history from Tennessee ancestors noted the lynching of one of my Holt ancestors. Never did I think I would find documented proof, but I did. The local paper, which in the 1880s and 1890s was replete with mentions of race riots and lynchings in other parts of the country wrote the following in May, 1887:
“George Holt, col., who lived near Sibley met his fate by the rope route last Friday.”
I was shocked by the sarcasm and brevity of it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They had the audacity to write “Suicide” as the header, which of course it was not. George, I later discovered, was the brother of my gggrandfather John W. Holt. He owned hundreds of acres of land at the time of his death, and he had a young wife and children. This was a rural West Tennessee community that never had a large black population. Though slavery and racism existed, this small African-American community must have been rocked and terrified y the act of terror. The reasons for the lynching are lost to time, although some of George Holt’s descendants believe it had to do with a dispute over his land.
Did he know his assailants? How did his family go on after that? I don’t know how. Do you leave the area? How do you rebuild? Is revenge ever an option? His brother John W. became one of the most prominent blacks in the county– land wealthy, a merchant and former Postmaster. But even his own brother was not untouchable. How did John react? I am in awe of their strength and endurance.
These are questions for which I’ll never know the answer. Our ancestors take many of their secrets with them, never to be discovered. Years ago, while searching through the local black cemetery in the community, I dug through the bushes and came face-to-face with George Holt’s headstone. I remember the vines and roots had come out of the ground and were wrapped around the headstone, eerily reminiscent of the way he died. I got chills up my spine. When I find that picture (one of those prehistoric pre-digital pictures) I will post it here.
Today, I am remembering George Holt and all the others, named and unnamed, who met their fate “at the hands of persons unknown.” May they rest in eternal peace.
PS—Check out the Project HAL database—Historical American Lynchings