Mayor Teresa Tomlinson declines to issue official apology for 1896 lynching

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comJune 10, 2013 

A group raising awareness about an 1896 lynching at the corner of Broadway and 11th Street is seeking an official apology from the Columbus Consolidated Government.

The two black men killed at the intersection were Jesse Slayton and Will Miles, both in police custody for alleged offenses against white women. They are buried in unmarked graves at Porterdale Cemetery, according to community organizers.

At a recent meeting of Columbus Council, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said the memory of the lynching "sickens the soul," but she declined to issue an official apology and council took no action.

Curators of the Columbus Black History Museum say that histor

ical records suggest official culpability in six areas:

• The amount of time given to Slayton to prepare his defense;

• The "calling off" of security by city officials;

• The refusal of the jailer to protect the prisoners and utilize available military security;

• The presence of what appear to be police officers in three photos of the lynching;

• The negligence of the city coroner in the official "inquest";

• The negligence of the current City Council to properly read history.

The curators released the list following a May 28 City Council meeting where they asked for a city resolution apologizing for the lynchings.

Lakesha Stringer, who made the formal request, also asked the city to help place a historical marker at the intersection as restitution for the men's deaths. Stringer said the marker would cost about $2,500. She was accompanied by Johnnie Warner, director of the museum, and Jerome Lawson, another curator. The group also organized a June 1 memorial service for Slayton and Miles on the 117th anniversary of their deaths.

At the council meeting, Tomlinson said she received a letter from Warner on May 14 about the lynchings and responded in writing May 17. She read the letter at the council meeting.

"It sickens the soul to recount the evils of lynching mobs and justice subverted through illegal, murderous conduct. The fact that acts such as this ever took place in this country is a tragic history, indeed," the letter said. "Though we all wish to forget such evils of man, we know we must not. I commend your efforts to preserve history, even this chilling history, so that we may never forget the battles waged on the road to the civil security we enjoy today."

While Tomlinson expressed regret for the lynchings, she would not agree to an official apology. The mayor said newspaper accounts of the 1896 incident documented public officials' attempts to resist the angry white mob.

"Apology assumes there's official culpability of over a hundred years ago," the mayor said. "And if the city, any city, was in the position of apologizing for all the evils of man, they would do nothing else."

As for the request for a marker, the mayor said the city doesn't have a historical marker program and referred the group to the Georgia Historical Society and the Historic Chattahoochee Commission.

"There are no words that can ever undo those things, but a historic marker may well be appropriate," she said.

The only city councilor to comment on the issue was Evelyn "Mimi" Woodson, who said she would be willing to help with the project. But she suggested the group first meet with Richard Bishop, CEO of Uptown Columbus Inc., to find out what needs to be done to erect a marker at the location. She said it's important to get others in the community involved.

"I'm not against you," she told the group. "I'm with you. We just have to see how we can do it."

In recent interviews with the Ledger-Enquirer the curators said they still want an official apology. They point to a June 20, 1896, article where then-Gov. William Yates Atkinson criticized Columbus officials for their handling of the lynchings. The article, printed in the Richmond Planet, was found on a Library of Congress website. In the quote, originally printed in the Atlanta Constitution, the governor offered a $5,000 reward "for the arrest and conviction of the first ten lynchers." He said he was shocked by the lynchings that occurred in broad daylight.

"What astonished me more was that not a single shot was fired, or, so far as I can learn, not a single attempt was made by the officers to defend the prisoner or see that the laws of the state were properly executed," the governor was quoted as saying.

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