John Land wasn’t present when a white mob lynched T.Z. McElhaney, a 14-year-old black boy, on Wynn’s Hill in Columbus 102 years ago. But on Wednesday he stood before a small group at the Columbus Black History Museum and atoned for the alleged sins of his forefathers.
Land, who is a history enthusiast, said he doesn’t have any personal knowledge of the events, other than what he has read in the media and public records. But he believes some of his relatives were among those who committed the crime. He said he was only speaking for himself, and not the entire family.
“Three of the four men accused and tried for this murder were my kinsmen — my great-grandfather, Brewster Land, and two of his double first cousins, Will Land and Ed Land,” he told the group. “Based on what I’ve read about these events, I suspect that my kin were indeed involved. And while a jury of their peers found them not guilty in this matter, I cannot say I have a great confidence in that trial or in the justice system within which it was conducted because I feel they were probably biased and in favor of these white men with some means of influence in the community.”
Land made his remarks in commemoration of the anniversary of the incident, which occurred Aug. 13, 1912. Prior to the lynching, McElhaney had been charged with the murder of Cedron Land, a 12-year-old boy who was the son of Will Land and belonged to a prominent farming family.
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At first McElhaney claimed to have no knowledge of the shooting, but he later confessed, saying that a gun accidently went off while they were playing. He said he didn’t admit to the killing sooner because he was “just a little black nigger” and was afraid the boy’s father would kill him, according to a lynching series published in the Ledger-Enquirer in 1987. The series was written by Billy Winn, the paper’s former Editorial page editor who made a surprise visit to the black history museum Wednesday to hear Land’s atonement.
A jury convicted McElhaney of involuntary manslaughter. But a mob intervened and abducted McElhaney from authorities. They commandeered a street car and took him to Wynn’s Hill, where his body was riddled with about 50 bullets. The four men were indicted for his murder, but later exonerated.
According to an article written by Winn, the sheriff and deputies who testified in the case divulged very little information during the trial and the case was soon forgotten.
Also present to hear Land’s speech on Wednesday were Johnnie Warner, director of the black history museum; Richard Gardiner, assistant professor of teacher education at Columbus State University: J. Aleen Hud of Project Rebound Inc.; local media; and museum supporters. When it was over, the group drove to the intersection of Wynnton Road and Bradley Drive and laid a wreath at the site of the lynching, which occurred just behind where the Columbus Museum now sits.
Warner described Land’s atonement as a cleansing for the community. He said black history is incomplete without an understanding of the spiritual realm, and he referred the audience to Leviticus 26:40-41, where God promises to reward those who confess to the sins of their ancestors.
Winn, who was asked to make extemporaneous comments, thanked Land for his atonement.
“It’s long overdue, not just for the Land family, but for all the white families who lived at that time, including mine,” he said. “So I’m proud to be a part of this celebration.”
He said racism continues today through the state-rights political movement, which has been used to disguise prejudice for generations.
“You can’t understand white racism if you don’t understand history, and you can’t understand history if you don’t know history,” Winn told the group. “One of the sins of our forefathers and of the present educational system is that we no longer teach history and we never did teach this history, the history of racism.”
Jarnetha Lewis is a mom who brought her three children to the ceremony. She said it was a special moment for her family.
“This is making history for us and our children to see that races can come together,” she said.
A public apology
Land, who moved to Columbus four years ago, said his parents grew up and married in the area, then moved to Dallas before he was born. But they knew nothing about the lynchings until he brought it to their attention after reading Winn’s series.
While growing up in Texas, he said he had very little interaction with most of his Land relatives, except on occasions when he came to Georgia for reunions and to spend summers and holidays with his grandparents. He said he began researching his family history about 25 years ago, and he has also been involved in preserving historic cemeteries in the area. During his researching, he said he found out that some of his relatives were slave owners, and his grandfather was active in the Ku Klux Klan.
Land said he’s related to the late former Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Henry Land, who was his grandfather’s youngest brother, and current U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land, who is a cousin.
Clay Land’s brother, Ben Land, who is a local attorney, described John Land as a distant cousin who he has only spoken to a couple of times. He sent an email to the Ledger-Enquirer responding to Land’s atonement.
“I have no knowledge of (and certainly no control over) what happened in Columbus over 100 years ago and, for that reason, do not feel I can atone for the actions of people I never knew,” Ben Land wrote. “What I can say, without hesitation, is that lynchings (indeed, all acts of racism) are an abomination — not only in the eyes of the Lord but in my eyes and those of my family.
“Fortunately, our society has taken great steps forward over the last 100 years, and the vestiges of racism, while not completely gone, continue to fall away,” the statement continued. “Rather than looking at the actions of people a century ago, I prefer to focus on the present and the future. In this regard, I think the real story here lies in my family’s actions over the course of my life and not in any ceremonial offers of atonement for events from long ago. From the color-blind example set by my parents to the close relationships I have today with many members of the African-American community, I think you will find that true reconciliation occurred long ago.”
John Land said he decided to make a public statement about the lynching after having lunch with Warner two weeks ago. He had contacted the museum curator to research another possible lynching.
They went to lunch, and Warner asked him what were his feelings about the lynching involving his family. He told Warner he felt bad about it, and Warner asked him if he would be willing to make a public apology. Land said Wednesday that he couldn’t apologize for something he didn’t participate in personally, but he would do everything in his power to reconcile the black and white communities. He said he and other white Americans have benefited from a social order that gave them an unfair advantage.
It’s time to acknowledge the sins of the past so the community can heal, he said.
“It is not enough for us as a society to say lynchings were bad and should not be allowed to happen anymore. It’s not sufficient to say, ‘Well, it’s too bad that happened in 1912, but it wasn’t us who did it. It’s in the past, so we should just forget about it,’” he said. “When there’s a lack of acknowledgement, a lack of contrition, a lack of reconciliation, these old incidents are like wounds that have never healed and fester underneath the surface and beg for amelioration.”
Land said it’s the community at large that ultimately allowed the murder to go unpunished and to be forgotten. He said everyone bears some responsibility.
“This is our shared legacy as a community,” Land said. “All around us we see the residue of the past, including slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and inequality in education, employment and housing, lingering and festering in parts of our community. We cannot retire these injustices of the past to history because the fruit borne of these wicked trees can be witnessed today.”
Land said high rates of black incarceration and Saturday’s controversial police shooting of a black teen in Ferguson, Mo., are also examples of societal injustices that stem from the country’s racist history.
He said he doesn’t want to judge his ancestors, because they were human and molded by the prejudices of their time. They probably felt a sense of loss when Cedron Land was killed, he said, and weren’t satisfied with the manslaughter conviction. But that doesn’t excuse the lynching, he said.
“There is no question that the abduction and murder of T.Z. McElhaney that day was wrong, not only a great injustice, but a tragic loss for his family and for the community,” Land said. “It does not mean that the men who perpetrated this crime were evil. But they certainly did a despicable thing, a crime for which they were not duly punished.”