A group of local leaders erected two blue wreaths at a median at 11th Street and Broadway Monday to memorialize the 1896 lynching of two black men by an angry white mob.
Dave Gillarm, grand historian for the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Georgia, said the wreaths were standing at the very location where Jesse Slayton and Will Miles were killed. Also erected at the site was a photo from the 1896 event. It shows the two men’s bodies dangling from a tree at the intersection, surrounded by a predominantly white crowd. One white man is perched in the tree, holding up Mile’s head.
“This picture was actually a post card,” Gillarm said. “And this picture, this postcard, was circulated to show the public that we do not care about black lives. ‘We had no trouble doing this with them. And we’ll have no trouble doing this with you all.’ And that was to instill fear into the black community.”
Monday’s event, organized by the Columbus Black History Museum, drew a small group to the site. In addition to Gillarm, the speakers were Johnnie Warner, founder and director of the Columbus Black History Museum; Paul Voorhees, a volunteer chaplain from the Marshal’s Office and Alfonza Whitaker, the museum’s board chairman and associate minister at Rose Hill Memorial Baptist Church.
Slayton was arrested four days before the lynching for allegedly assaulting a white woman, according to an 1896 article. Though local authorities feared a riot, the first night passed without incident, according to an 1896 article in The Enquirer-Sun. By the next night, Gov. William Yates Atkinson had sent the Columbus Guards and Browne Fencibles to control the situation. However, on Saturday, it was determined that the guards were no longer needed, and Slayton was left unprotected. The morning of the lynchings, Slayton was in court and proceedings were interrupted.
“During the trial an angry mob with Winchesters, shotguns, pistols and a noose, burst through the double doors and dragged Jesse out of the courtroom with the noose around his neck,” Gillarm said. “At the top of the stairs Jesse was shot dead. From Broadway and 10th Street to Broadway and 11th Street, the mob fired hundreds of bullets into his dead body as it whirled through the dust of the street.
“At Broadway within a few feet of the 11th street sidewalk, they stopped and threw the end of the rope around a limb of a tree,” he continued. “Just a few seconds later, Jesse was swung into the air and they continued to pour shots into his body. As horrible as this was, something even more tragic happened. A shotgun went off and shot off Jesse Slayton’s face.”
That same day, Miles, who had been acquitted several times, was wrested from authorities at the city jail and hung at the same site. He was shot repeatedly.
Signs were hung on both bodies saying, “Any Negroes who committed a similar crime would be treated likewise!” Both victims are buried in unmarked paupers’ graves in Porterdale Cemetery.
The governor offered a $5,000 reward for anyone who led to the arrest of men involved in the lynchings, Gillarm said, but no one was ever apprehended.
In 2013, Warner and other museum representatives went before the Columbus Council requesting an apology and a marker of retribution for local officials’ alleged failure to protect Slayton and Miles. But Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, while expressing outrage for the lynchings, said the city was not responsible. She referred the group to the Georgia Historical Society and the Historic Chattahoochee Commission for a possible marker.
Voorhees, who is white, said it’s an embarrassment how Slayton and Miles were killed. But he said there were more white people lynched in that time period than black people, and it’s just an example of people’s need of Jesus.
“I agree at that particular time in our history black lives had no value, hardly any,” he said. “I will say this has been a tragedy in a lifetime that I wish I could say was gone. But the big problem is that black people now don’t value black lives. That’s our biggest problem, because in 2009, there were more black people assaulted by black people than anybody. And I’m just going by the statistics in the country. And I’m sure it’s that way now, we need to be very careful (that we teach) our children to respect any life.”
Voorhees said the community has to be vigilant so it never gets back to such atrocities.
“We should never get back to this,” he said, pointing at the photo. “It’s like the holocaust with the Jews. We see now with ISIS it can happen again.”
Voorhees' perspective was backed by Warner, who is black and also pointed out the black-on-black crime statistics. However, Whitaker, who is also black, said he was concerned about Voorhees’ comments.
“It’s that type of mentality that contributes to the circumstances that lead to lynching and racial unrest in the community today,” he said. “Certainly Jesus is the answer, but we have institutionalized racism that contributes to the inequities, the disproportionate numbers of blacks incarcerated, being on the lower economic rung of the economic ladder as far as promotions and other things, as well as in health care.
“I am hoping that the people of Columbus will recognize that this happened here,” he said of the lynchings. “This is not something they read about, or saw on TV. Or this is not something that happened in Mississippi with Emmett Till or anybody else. This happened in Columbus. These men were denied justice; they were denied life, liberty, which is what we allege when we pledge allegiance to our flag.”
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.