How a Hurricane’s Trailing Winds Retold Willie Earle’s 1947 Mass Lynching

A lynch mob, with police, following the mob's unsuccessful attempt to lynch CY Winstead, who was in the county jail, Roxboro, North Carolina, August 19, 1941. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

In this haunting essay at The Bitter Southerner, Josina Guess confronts South Carolina’s violent racist past.

When an Autumn hurricane’s trailing winds disturb old newspapers stored in her shed — blowing them around to lodge and rest in various places across her yard — the old sodden papers revealed themselves over time to tell her the story of Willie Earle’s 1947 lynching and the subsequent acquittal of all 31 accused, a pivotal event that marked a change in public opinion in South Carolina and the South against unchecked mob violence.

When my family and I started to settle into our northeast Georgia farmhouse two years ago, we found a box of Athens Banner-Heralds and Atlanta Journals and Atlanta Constitutions from the mid 1940s through the early 50s. I pored over the brittle yellow papers, a time capsule of this region’s attitudes on race, gender, economics, politics, and agriculture. I wondered at the treasures hidden in those stacks, and what coverage, if any, I might find of some of the racialized terror and lynchings of those waning days of overt American apartheid.

During a blustery autumn storm, the tailwinds of a hurricane, the wind whipped through the woodshed and stirred up some of the papers, littering them around the property. Each day we would pluck a few – a strange harvest of stories. Opinion columns about communists clinging to the blueberry bushes; by the smokehouse, a story of a man dying because a segregated hospital refused him treatment; in the kale I found the price of cotton: 36 cents per 1-inch middling. I would nibble on these stories, roll them over in my mind, then bury their empty husks beneath a pile of oak leaves.

Then a keeper appeared to Michael in the grass between the old well and the pecan tree. The front page of the Athens Banner-Herald from May 16, 1947 read, “State Seeks Death Sentence For All 31 Lynchers.” He lifted the dampened page and laid it to dry on the dining room table. The article gave graphic details and ample evidence, including confessions and incriminating accusations from the taxicab drivers who killed Willie Earle to avenge the fatal stabbing of a cab driver named Thomas Brown. Arrested, then almost immediately kidnapped from jail, Earle had no opportunity to stand trial – his guilt or innocence never proven.

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