Mary Turner

Saturday was my son’s eighth birthday. To prepare for his birthday dinner I stopped by Amish market after work on Friday and dropped 25$ on pickles as part of his hamburger bar toppings. I also picked up some chocolate covered bacon as well because well, it’s chocolate covered bacon and it was in the same place as the pickles and I am in impulse consumer with very little will power.

After working my second job at the liquor store till 10:30 and then going shopping at Wegmans after that I was exhausted. I came home and fell asleep. It seemed like 30 seconds later, although the clock told me it was 8 hours, and Saturday morning was here. It was time to go coach basketball. Being my son’s birthday and the fact that I have an addiction to bagels, we stopped and grabbed some delicious pork roll, egg, and cheese bagel sandwiches topped with ketchup and hot sauce. The day was going well.

Practice ended and it was time to clean the house and get it ready for the birthday dinner. This means that headphones go on and I clean for about six straight hours. I started cleaning the kitchen and all was going well. I had a clean dishwasher ready to be loaded and the pots and pans were soaking. Motown was blaring in my ears and life was moving along.

I moved upstairs to clean the bathroom and I switched over to Audible and continued listening to #ClearTheAir book of choice White Rage. I had already learned about Reconstructing Reconstruction and was now learning about Derailing the Great Migration. The book is hard to read (listen to) because it shows how black people have been systematically kept down every time it looked like there would be progress. I am ok with hard. Then it became unbearable.

WARNING: The historically accurate narrative I am about to relay is brutal and may cause an intense emotional reaction. The rest of the blog is emotionally charged as well.

Dr. Anderson, the author of White Rage, recounts the tale of Mary Turner. The story starts out explaining just how horrible of a human being Hampton Smith was. Smith was a plantation owner who abused his workers to the point that he couldn’t pay any more people to work on his farm. “Smith often had to resort to the debt peonage system as a way to find workers for his farm. Back then, it was common for cops to arrest black people on frivolous charges, then give them fines they couldn’t pay. But employers like Smith could pay off those fines, then force the black arrestees to work off their debt—a system that took the place of slavery in many parts of the South.” (link)

One day Hampton Smith had the tables turned and he was shot by 19-year-old Sidney Johnson after he had beaten him for not showing up to work because he was sick. It didn’t matter that Johnson had already paid his debt back and was in no way shape or form obligated to work for Smith. Days later Sidney Johnson grabbed a shotgun and killed Hampton Smith. “The following week Brooks County saw a mob driven manhunt which resulted in the lynching of 13 people including some who were in the local jail.” (link) Sidney Johnson was one of the 13 people killed.

There was no evidence that any of the other people killed had anything to do with the death of Hampton Smith. One of the other men who was hung was named Hazel “Hayes” Turner. Turner had a wife named Mary who was 8 months pregnant. She denied that her husband had been involved in Smith’s killing, and threatened to have members of the mob arrested. What happened next is one of the most brutal things I have ever heard.

“According to investigator Walter F. White of the NAACP, Mary Turner was tied and hung upside down by the ankles, her clothes soaked with gasoline, and burned from her body. Her belly was slit open with a knife like those used “in splitting hogs.”[11] Her “unborn babe” fell to the ground and gave “two feeble cries.”[11] Its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel, and the crowd shot hundreds of bullets into Turner’s body.” 1

“In their mind, they’d taught her a lesson, made of her an example. And despite the fact that a full report, including the names of instigators and over 10 participants, was given to Hugh Dorsey, the governor of Georgia, no one was ever charged with the murders.” 2

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hazel_%22Hayes%22_Turner
2 https://verysmartbrothas.theroot.com/sayhername-100-years-ago-mary-turner-was-lynched-1826019454

There have been not been many times when I had to stop reading or listening to something because something shook me to my core. This was one of those times. I started to take long deep breaths. Tears flowed from my eyes. I had to sit down in the bathroom. I paused the book and opened up my Voxer and tried my best to explain to the book chat just how hard that was to read.

I imagined what it was like for Mary knowing the mob was looking for her, what she felt when they found her, and the sheer fear and terror of being tied upside and have gasoline poured on her. She had other children who had just had their father taken from them. She had a baby in her stomach. She knew that she and her baby were going to die a painful excruciating death. The scene played out in my head and I just sat there all sort of shook. It took a good 10-15 minutes for me to get up and start cleaning again.

How do we get people, specifically our students, to understand exactly how brutal it was for black people? Obviously, we aren’t going to unleash this emotional fecal bomb on elementary or middle school students. We teach about slavery, lynchings, and poor conditions for Black people yet I never understood exactly what that entailed. They were words or phrases that did not paint a very clear picture in my head. It took me seeing pictures to truly understand what a lynching was. How do we shield our children from the trauma of understanding rape, hangings, and physical abuse yet expose them to the truth about just how sickening those things really are on a level they can take meaning of?

Speaking as a parent, I want to shield my kids from this; yet I feel a responsibility that they fully grasp what our country legally sanctioned. They need to understand the true history of our country in order to grasp the conditions that exist for Black people today. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Mary Turner and her child were executed in the worst possible way only 100 years ago. I don’t have any answers for this. I don’t know how we have people grasp the depth of the brutality of the history of the United States. I do know that I will always err on the side of giving too much information to my children instead of too little. At some point, my children will learn about Mary Turner from me and I will be there to hold them as tears flow from their faces.

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