A reminder of a terrible history

At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America by Philip Dray. Random House, 2002.

Philip Dray, co-author of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Shwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi, has brought to life the tortures and torments, hopes and aspirations of people of color, in his latest book.

At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America is an amazing work of historiography and a stark reminder of America’s terrible history, told in a highly readable and informative fashion.

In the chapter titled “A Negroes Life is a Very Cheap Thing in Georgia,” Dray depicts in vivid detail the lynching of Sam Hose in 1899. Hose, 21, was a farmhand in Coweta, Georgia. He was accused of murdering a Mr. Cranford and then raping his wife.

Dray, relying on contemporary sources, shows the state and local governments’ contempt for due process of the law when it came to people of color. From Rep. James M. Griggs to Gov. Allen D. Candler, not only was lynching was condoned but it was accepted and looked upon favorably by local politicians.

The Georgia Constitution described Hose in bold type on its front page, offering a $500 reward for his capture. In addition, Gov. Candler offered $500, Coweta County $250, the town of Palmetto $250 and a Mr. Jacob Haas $100 – a total of $1,600, a small fortune in 1899!

On April 22, 10 days after the alleged crime Hose was apprehended by two men and taken to the Newnan, Ga. sheriff. It was agreed between the two men and the sheriff that Hose would be locked up “for a moment” and then released to the mob, ensuring that the two men would still receive their reward.

Hose was taken to the pinewoods beside Palmetto Road, tied to the trunk of a tree, tortured and then kerosene was dumped on him and he was set on fire.

The detail in Dray’s research adds new depth to the barbarity of this horrendous act by making clear the profit motive of some that participated and are just as guilty. The Atlanta and West Point Railroad announced two “special” excursions to Newnan. People in the surrounding communities, by the thousands, loaded the trains, “clambered on board” and climbed in the windows.

Local shopkeepers and businessmen sold sandwiches and coffee to the horde as they waited to see the “spectacle lynching.”

Following the murder, mementos such as ears, fingers, teeth and genitals were sold as keepsakes. Hose’s knuckles were for sale in a grocery store. Even the wood used to burn him alive was for sale.

It is almost impossible, and to some too painful, to go into the horrific details of our past. But to truly understand the pain and suffering that was felt, and to better learn and build fostering relations with people of all colors, we should all look into this past.

At the Hands of Persons Unknown contributes so much. To many it can be a first step in the direction of understanding what racism has meant and still means today.

– Tony Pecinovsky