Courthouse represents dark page in history

buildings civil rights historic


The National Register of Historic Places classifies structures in three categories: important to the nation (Fort Sumter or Mount Vernon, for example), to a state or to a locality.

While more than 30 Greenville buildings are listed on the Register, only one, the old Family Court Building on South Main Street, has a statewide designation.

It is significant because it was the scene of a 1947 landmark lynching trial that brought Greenville international notoriety and marked the end of an era.

The controversial trial of 31 white men for the brutal lynching of Willie Earle, an unemployed black laborer, on the night of Feb. 16, 1947, was held in the impressive courtroom of the County Courthouse, later the Family Court Building, the following May.

It was covered by Life Magazine, the New Yorker, the Christian Science Monitor, Tass (the Soviet news service), in addition to the black press, news services and every major newspaper.

More than 50 years later, it remains a scar on Greenville's history.

On the night of Feb. 15, Willie Earle hired white taxi cab driver Thomas Brown to drive him to his mother's home near Liberty in Pickens County.

At about 10 p.m., Brown, bleeding from a deep knife wound, was found a few yards away from his wrecked taxi on the Pickens-Liberty Highway. He was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Greenville.

Pickens County police officers fanned out in a search for the attacker. Shoe tracks led them to Mrs. Earle's house, about a mile distant. There they found Willie Earle, who was drunk, and they found a bloody knife and a blood-stained leather jacket. They arrested him and placed him in the Pickens County Jail.

In Greenville, many local cab drivers visited Brown at the hospital, where he was near death. That evening they met at the Bluebird Cafe and planned a trip to Pickens.

In the early morning hours, some 15 off-duty taxicabs headed to the jail. The men told the Pickens County jailer that they had come for "the Negro." Without argument, he opened the cell door. The drivers placed Willie Earle in the back seat of a cab and took off for Greenville.

At 6:25 a.m., Earle's mutilated body was found off Bramlett Road. He had been a victim of the mob's stabbing, beating, kicking and shotgun fire.

Six hours later, Thomas Brown died at St. Francis.

News of the lynching spread from the community to state and national government and media.

In Columbia, Gov. Strom Thurmond promised to "exert every force at my command to apprehend all persons engaged in such a flagrant violation."

Six law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, investigated. Within days they had arrested 28 taxi drivers and three businessmen, all white males. Lengthy confessions were taken, witnessed and recorded. Several statements named Roosevelt Hurd as the person firing the fatal shot, but Hurd denied the charge.

In Pickens, the coroner's jury determined that Willie Earle was responsible for Brown's death. The six jurors, sympathizing with Mrs. Earle, gave her their jury fees, amounting to $3.

On March 12, the Greenville grand jury indicted all 31 of the accused on four counts of murder and conspiracy.

The Greenville Ministerial Association deplored the "lawlessness" of the lynching, but local sympathy was with the defendants. Mason jars were placed in mill-village stores to collect money for their defense; "street talk" was that the state would never get a conviction.

Circuit Judge Robert Martin tried the case; Greenville Solicitor Robert Ashmore, assisted by Spartanburg Solicitor Sam Watt, prosecuted. Defendants' lawyers were among Greenville's most distinguished: Thomas Wofford, Benjamin Bolt, John Bolt Culbertson and P. Bradley Morrah Jr.

When the jury of 12 white males (nine textile workers, one farmer and two salesmen) filed into the hot, crowded courtroom on May 12, 1947, they heard defense attorneys argue that the defendants' confessions had been taken under duress, that the "meddler's itch of the FBI" was intolerable, and that Northern interests were trying to dictate local affairs.

Prosecutors argued that there was hard evidence that a conspiracy had existed and that the confessions had been obtained legally. "The majesty of the law had been trampled upon," they said; the mob had "spit in the law's face."

No defendant testified.

On May 19, both sides concluded. Judge Martin acquitted three defendants for insufficient evidence and reduced the charges on seven others from four to two. Two days later he delivered a 20-page charge to the jury, later called "a model of clear, legal language."

He instructed the jurors to ignore racial issues, disregard any acts of Willie Earle as justification for the murder and not to use the defendants' lack of testimony against them.

After deliberating for five hours, the jury returned to the courtroom. The clerk of court read steadily for seven minutes through 96 separate verdicts of "not guilty."

While there was a national outcry about the outcome, some media saw hope in the trial itself. The Christian Science Monitor headlined an editorial cartoon showing a Southern mansion and an acorn with the words "a seed has been planted in Greenville."

Willie Earle was the last man to be lynched by a South Carolina mob.

When President Harry S. Truman set up the United States Civil Rights Commission the following November, he referred to the lynching as one of the outrages that had to stop.

The anger in the black community led to Greenville's first biracial study committee two years later and the first attempts by both black and white citizens to make facilities, if not yet justice, equal for all.

The old courthouse is indeed a South Carolina landmark.

Judith Bainbridge