Fair warning: this story will disgust you.
But this week – Saturday, to be exact – marks 100 years since a singular act of barbarism in tiny Valdosta, Ga. And the tale of what happened there demands to be recalled.
It began when somebody killed Hampton Smith, a white plantation owner. Suspicion fell on Sidney Johnson, an African-American worker said to have had a wage dispute with Smith. A vengeful white mob, unable to find Johnson, killed other black people instead, including a man named Hayes Turner. His wife, outraged beyond self-preservation, loudly vowed to swear out a warrant against the murderers. So the next day, they came for her.
Mary Turner was maybe 20 years old. She was eight months pregnant.
They strung her up by her ankles in a tree. They doused her with gasoline and motor oil. They set her afire. But that wasn’t the worst of what they did.
NAACP official Walter White, a pale African-American man with blonde hair and blue eyes whose appearance allowed him to interview lynch mob members firsthand, left a chilling account in his 1929 book, “Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch.” (Note: though now used primarily as an anti-gay slur, “faggot” – the modern spelling has one “g” – also means a bundle of sticks).
Wrote White: “Mocking, ribald laughter from her tormenters answered the helpless woman’s screams of pain and terror. ‘Mister, you ought to’ve heard the nigger wench howl!’ a member of the mob boasted to me a few days later… The clothes 1 / 8having 3 / 8 burned from her crisply toasted body in which, unfortunately, life still lingered, a man stepped towards the woman and, with his knife, ripped open the abdomen in a crude Caesarean operation. Out tumbled the prematurely born child. Two feeble cries it gave – and received for answer the heel of a stalwart man, as life was ground out of the tiny form.”
The baby died without a name. History does not even record its gender. The mob buried it with its mother in a shallow grave. As a “headstone,” they stuck an empty whiskey bottle in the ground with a half-smoked cigar poking up out of the neck.
I told you you’d be disgusted. And maybe you’re wondering why I felt the need to share such a grisly tale.
Call it a reminder. In a time when we see tribal hatreds rising with renewed vigor all over the world, a time when fascism is on the march in Charlottesville and on the ballot in Slovakia, a time when neo-Nazis spread terror from Athens, Greece, to Charleston, USA, a time when seven police cars and a helicopter are deployed because a white woman sees three black people checking out of an Airbnb, a time when former presidential counselor Steve Bannon advises the far right to wear accusations of racism “as a badge of honor”… in such a time, it is useful – indeed, critical – to be reminded that we’ve seen this movie many times before and we already know how it ends, what inevitably happens when some of us declare others of us less human than the rest of us.
It is a lesson we’ve been taught too many times, a lesson learned in the blood-stained machetes of Rwanda, in screams rising over the streets of Nanking, in flakes of black ash swirling from a crematorium chimney in Poland, in the tear-gassed lungs of a dead baby in Gaza, in the broken body of a baby crushed into Georgia mud 100 years ago. It is a lesson we too often swaddle in euphemism and myth. So the harsh truth of it cannot be repeated often enough.
You hated that story, yes. But you won’t soon forget it. It will trouble you for a long time.
Maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.