South Carolina's last lynching foreshadowed changing times

anniversary civil rights historic

THE GREENVILLE NEWS / File

The scene of the crime.


By ones and twos, the coupes and sedans, taxis and private cars eased out of Greenville, unnoticed in the chill darkness of the wee hours, some edging along West Court Street where sheriff's deputies came and went from their first-floor headquarters.

They would assemble at the Saluda River Bridge on what is now State 124, bolster each other's courage one last time, then cross into Pickens County on a mission of retribution.

It was 4:35 a.m., Monday, Feb. 17, 1947.

South Carolina's last lynching was less than an hour away.

Thirty-one white men -- 28 taxi drivers, a cafe operator and two young businessmen, members of prominent local families -- would be arrested or awaiting murder charges within 30 hours.

White men in a Southern state had been speedily tracked down and charged with lynching a black man.

That was news.

"Exactly," said Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston. "It was a significant departure from past practice in South Carolina and perhaps, possibly, (then-Gov.) Strom Thurmond sent a positive enough signal such that it was the last one to occur."

It launched Greenville's civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and gave Greenville a national reputation.

A.J. Whittenberg, the Greenville activist who died last year, attended the trial and said in a 1972 interview, "If it had not happened, I probably would not have been so eager to work for the betterment of blacks. It was the fertilizer for growth."

Files revealed

Case files of the FBI and the Greenville Police Department, obtained by The Greenville News under state and federal Freedom of Information acts, provided investigative details, defendants' and witnesses' statements and the atmosphere of the era.

Life proceeded at a postwar pace for Greenville's 35,000 mostly home-grown citizens.

Downtown, men could get their felt hats cleaned for 45 cents by Tip Top Cleaners on Washington Street and families could buy a $95 piano at Payne's.

Vaudeville, with three live stage shows daily, was the fare at the Center Theater's "Flying High Revue." Two- and three-bedroom homes in town could be bought for less than $4,000. Furman University still overlooked the Reedy River at downtown's edge.

There were as many Main Street department stores -- five -- as movie theaters. The former had "White" and "Colored" water fountains; the latter were equally segregated, with balconies for blacks only.

It was also a time when white mobs could administer street justice to blacks by rope, gun or fire, for offenses real and imagined, with scant fear of legal consequences.

Cabbie's nightmare

It began as every cabbie's nightmare.

Around 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, Yellow Cab driver Thomas W. Brown, a disabled veteran whose mother, Alice, had died just two weeks earlier, picked up a fare on Markley Street in Greenville for a run to the Liberty area in neighboring Pickens County. Some accounts would indicate he picked up one black male, others two.

At 10 p.m., Herbert Newell of Liberty found a profusely bleeding Brown at the side of the old Liberty-Pickens Road, 1 1/4 miles north of Liberty. Near death, he had been beaten and stabbed three times. His wrecked cab was off the road 500 yards away.

While an ambulance was en route, Brown was able to give officers an account of the attack and a description of his passenger or passengers. The robbery-assault netted the assailant $40, a ring and a watch.

"He took my cab and my money," police records show Brown told Liberty policeman Gen. Merck.

Pickens Sheriff W.H. Mauldin said later that footprints led from where Brown was found to the dilapidated Earle house, a mile away. There, officers said they found some of the money taken from Brown and a leather jacket that had been washed, but still bore bloodstains. Earle's shoes, with a distinctive "Suprex" heel, matched the tracks, Maulden said. Earle carried a large, bloodstained knife.

"We had good reasons to believe that Earle was the man," Maulden said in a newspaper interview at the time.

Earle wasn't home.

He was in another taxi, reports showed.

It was driven by Walter C. Gravely, a Pickens cabbie who would alert Greenville drivers to Earle's arrest at 10 p.m. Sunday when his shift was over. He would be among the 31 defendants, police records show.

By noon, Earle was lodged in a dank, filthy second-floor cell at the county jail in Pickens. Deputies headed out to tie up loose ends.

Drivers react

Gravely's information galvanized Greenville's cab drivers.

By 3:30 a.m., Hendrix Rector would tell arresting officers, dozens of men milled about on West Court Street outside the Yellow Cab office, fuming and calling for action.

"The men chipped in and I went to the Poinsett Hotel and bought a quart of whisky. We drank the whisky on the street," Rector said in his statement.

The lynching expedition was hatched in a West Court Street taxi office and cafe that faced each other behind the courthouse, which housed the Sheriff's Office, several defendants told investigators. Above was the courtroom where they would be tried.

Calls flew back and forth from the city's various taxi offices. From the staging area on the county line, they would go to Pickens, seize Earle and take him away.

There would be little doubt going in how the morning would end.

The attitudes of the time are reflected in the casual manner in which one of the defendants, Hubert Carter, explained in his statement to police how he joined the mob.

The 33-year-old driver and father of four called for a ride home from the Cleveland Street taxi stand at 1 a.m. on the 17th, according to the Greenville Police Department file. He was picked up by another defendant, Paul Griggs, who "asked me if I wanted to go with the others to get the Negro being held for stabbing Mr. Brown.

"I told him I'd go along with the crowd," Carter said in his statement.

"This was part of the fabric of life, something no one really thought about," historian Powers said. "These things had been done (with impunity), it seems, forever."

Whether the unusual sound of so many vehicles at 5 a.m. awakened jailer J.E. Gilstrap, 62, at the red-brick, turreted jailhouse is not known, but he responded to the pounding on the ground floor apartment's door.

He would tell the sheriff that many wore caps like those of cab drivers and the street was filled with taxis, according to police records.

They wanted the man who cut Brown. Gilstrap, in his nightclothes, unarmed and faced with at least two shotguns, gave him up.

An hour later, an anonymous call to a black funeral home in Greenville announced the whereabouts of a "Negro's" body on Bramlett Road, an isolated, unpaved road west of town. The mortician relayed the information to Coroner J.O. Turner, who found the body.

It was still warm.

Tom Brown would outlive his alleged assailant by 6 1/2 hours.

Earle had been beaten, slashed and shot, at least twice, by shotgun blasts.

First since 1912

It was the first lynching to begin in Pickens County since Brooks Gordon was hanged and shot in 1912 after an all-white posse took him from the sheriff's buggy, according to published reports from witnesses. Gordon, who was black, had been identified as the man who shot a young white woman with birdshot after allegedly trying to molest her.

There was never an investigation and no arrests were made.

Accounts vary as to how many men were in the mob that took Earle and how many cars formed the caravan.

One thing is clear: More were on hand for Earle's death than the 31 who were charged.

Statements by 26 defendants indicated 40 to 50 or more, while the number of vehicles ran up to 15 or more.

The case immediately attracted interest in Columbia and Washington, from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Assistant U.S. Attorney General T. Lamar Caudle of Wadesboro, N.C., according to the bureau's file -- approximately 400 pages -- on the case, obtained by The News. At midafternoon, agents were ordered in.

Thurmond issued a statement that morning, a rare denunciation from a Southern governor: "I do not favor lynching, and I shall exert every resource at my command to apprehend all persons who may be involved in such a flagrant violation of the law."

He ordered investigators from the State Constabulary, the forerunner of the State Law Enforcement Division, into the case. Capt. G.R. Richardson, a former acting Greenville sheriff, headed the team.

Hoover received teletypes from key agents at least once a day in the run-up to the trial and during it.

Police and FBI reports show authorities immediately formed a multijurisdictional task force. Despite Hoover's later complaints that the bureau didn't get proper credit, its own reports and the local case files suggest that while federal agents provided additional manpower and logistical support, their role was peripheral.

The first break came in the opening hours of the investigation, when a confidential informant tipped Greenville detectives Avery Turner and C.W. Rickard about three prime suspects.

"It was the first information we received on this case," Turner wrote in a March 2 memo now in the case file in Greenville's police archives.

The roundup began early on Feb. 18, and in the coming hours and days, 26 of the 31 defendants signed confessions. Bloodstains and fiber evidence analyzed at the FBI lab were traced to some of the vehicles and defendants.

Roosevelt Carlos Hurd, 45, of Conestee, a cab dispatcher and the second oldest of the defendants, was identified in five confessions as the triggerman. He denied it, records show.

'Give me the gun'

Earle was sandwiched between two abductors in the back seat of a cab driven by Woodrow Wilson Clardy, 30, which led the caravan to the killing scene after one stop near the Saluda River to beat a confession from him, according to statements by defendants who said they were in the car. Along the way, Clardy fretted to Hurd about getting blood in his cab," they said.

The end came near the Southern Provision Co. packing plant not far from the railroad crossing on Bramlett Road, Charles Maurice Covington, a 19-year-old Mississippi native, said in his confession.

"(Hendrix) Rector then pulled the Negro out of the car by his belt and took him behind the car. Rector and (Paul) Griggs hit him several times with their fists and knocked him to the ground. Then (Marvin "Red") Fleming began beating the side of his head with the shotgun."

Covington continued: "Hurd said, 'Give me the gun, let's get it over with.' And as he was on the ground leaning on his elbow, Hurd shot him once, reloaded and shot him again. He asked for another shell but nobody gave him one."

Jesse Lee Sammons told officers he heard "the cutting of cloth and flesh" but no sound from Earle.

Some confessions quoted Earle as saying before the fatal shots, "Lord, you done killed me," and "I'm dying now."

Most of the 26 defendants said they heard but didn't see the shots.

Each was released on $2,500 bond.

After the March 4 inquest, jurors donated their 50-cent fees to Earle's 38-year-old mother, Tessie. It was $3.

Trial was set for mid-May before Judge J. Robert Martin Jr.

Just as Greenville business interests worry today over the image of the County Council decision not to approve a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, so too did local businessmen fret in 1947 over the potential for damage that the verdict could inflict.

Schaefer B. Kendrick, then a young attorney, later said that "the real concern, deep down, of the white group, of which I was a part, was the effect the Earle lynching and resulting trial would have on Greenville's image as a progressive, growing city of the New South," wrote Furman University professor and Greenville historian A.V. Huff.

Local business leaders were preparing a blueprint for the future, aiming at new business-industrial development.

"The handling of the Willie Earle lynching ... was an indication that even in a segregated society, some things would no longer be tolerated," Walter Edgar, the University of South Carolina historian, wrote in his 1992 "South Carolina in the Modern Age."

Two funerals

Brown was buried in West Greenville's Graceland Cemetery, not far from the scene of Earle's murder. Friends described him as a slight man who shunned alcohol and tobacco, possessed of a life view such that he would have sought to dissuade his colleagues from their act of vengeance.

He had lived in Greenville for 25 years and had driven a taxi the last few years. Brown was born in Franklin County, Ga.

Earle, a sturdily built six-footer, worked odd jobs in construction and as a plumber's helper.

He was buried near twin cedar trees on Feb. 21 in the cemetery at Abel Baptist Church, between Clemson and Liberty, overlooking State 93. The old cinder block church where the funeral was held remains, but a newer brick church now dominates the site.

The grave, between two cedar trees at the back of the cemetery, remained unmarked at least into the 1970s.

Now, a low, granite marker notes:

Son | Willie Earle | May 25, 1922 Feb. 17, 1947 | In Loving Memory

The nation and the world were watching. Greenville, with its progressive image, was on trial, too.

"It was a media event before we knew what they were," Edgar said.

Center of attention

The trial, Edgar said, was a media sensation "simply because it happened at all."

Press tables overflowed with reporters from Europe, major U.S. newspapers, national magazines, radio networks and wire services. From coast to coast, it was front-page news.

For a Southern lynch mob to be investigated, its members arrested and tried, was a reflection of a South where the power structure, if not the man on the street, was turning its back on a practice that had almost been institutionalized since Reconstruction.

Furman historian Huff wrote in "The Emergence of Modern Greenville," that the arrests were "a setback for the old order."

Author Rebecca West, in "Opera in Greenville," a novella-length article in The New Yorker magazine, said the "lynching trial in South Carolina and its sequels were a symptom of an abating disease."

There were 4,742 lynchings in the U.S. from 1882 to 1968, Richard M. Perloff wrote in the 2000 Journal of Black Studies, using figures from Tuskegee University. Of those, all but 518 occurred before 1919. Some 73 percent of those lynched were black.

"Today, the average white would take offense, recognizing that the threat to the liberty of one person is a threat to all people," historian Powers said.

Not everyone cheered the arrests.

Red-bordered, five-by-two-and-a-half-inch cards solicited $1 "Donations For Cab Drivers/Who are accused of lynching a negro in Greenville County."

J. David Robertson, who told reporters he was co-chairman of the defendants' legal defense fund, said by March 15, approximately $2,000 had been collected from jars labeled "Taxi Drivers Fund."

Nine prospective jurors were dismissed when they admitted donations.

The trial begins

The defense team consisted of Thomas Wofford, a former assistant U.S. attorney; John Bolt Culbertson, a flamboyant Detroit native known for espousing union and black causes; P. Bradley Morrah Jr., a state House member; and Benjamin Bolt, a veteran criminal lawyer.

Morrah represented only John B. Marchant, described in a front-page article in The New York Times on the trial's opening day as "the nephew of a wealthy textile mill official and well known in local society."

Prosecuting the case were Solicitor Robert Ashmore, chief prosecutor for Greenville and Pickens counties for 15 years and a future congressman, and Spartanburg Solicitor Sam R. Watt, who brought a 95 percent-plus conviction rate to the trial.

Martin, a 37-year-old Circuit Court judge and former state House member, was known for running a tight, no-nonsense courtroom.

A seat in the steamy courtroom was the hottest ticket in town. Some days, numbers of spectators held their seats during the lunch recess.

The major legal battle of the May 12-21 trial came early and was a defeat for the defense when Martin allowed the statements of 26 defendants to be read and entered as evidence.

A statement by Charles Maurice Covington, 20, another driver, held that when Earle denied killing Brown, Ernest Stokes, 35, a former deputy sheriff, opened a pocketknife and said, "Before you kill him, I want to put the same scars on him that he put on Brown." Another statement, by defendant Marvin H. Fleming, 31, quoted Stokes as saying he knew "how to get a confession from a Negro," records show.

'They meant business'

Covington's statement alleged that Clardy, driver of the cab carrying Earle and four abductors, warned, "Get him out of my car if you're going to kill him."

Jailer Gilstrap, heavy-set and white-haired, was among the first witnesses.

Testifying in a quavering voice, he said the mob "asked me if I had a Negro there for stabbing a cab driver and said, 'We've come to get him.' I knew they meant business."

Newspaper accounts described many defendants as sitting impassively, some chewing gum. One, wearing mismatched trousers and shirt, held his chubby baby daughter on his lap.

The defense strategy was to put the investigation, the FBI and Northern interlopers, on trial and subtly -- against Judge Martin's specific edict -- inject race. The cross-examination of investigators consumed much of the time.

Wofford denounced Northern interference in local affairs and exulted, "There's no cure for it except a verdict by a jury of this kind -- to acquit these boys and show them there's no use meddling."

Seeking to raise doubts about investigators' tactics, he said, "Why, you would have thought it was a new atomic bomb. All it was was a dead Negro boy."

In his summation, Culbertson referred to Earle as "a mad dog" and wished "more like him were dead." The comments brought a firm rebuke from the bench.

Martin then dismissed the charges against three defendants, citing insufficient evidence.

Of the remaining 28, 21 were charged with murder, seven with being accessories before the fact.

Under the law at that time, a jury's verdict of guilty without recommendation of mercy would have made execution mandatory.

FBI's Hoover irate

Ashmore's approach didn't win accolades from Hoover who, from the moment he was informed of the lynching, kept close taps on the trial and its principals, according to the bureau's case file.

Hoover heard of some of Martin's rulings, courtesy of A.B. Bull, a "close friend" of the judge, the report showed.

In a May 10, 1947, memo to his Charlotte bureau chief, Hoover wrote that "from the beginning, it has been apparent that Mr. Ashmore was not going to prosecute this matter aggressively. (He) apparently has been trying to feel the public pulse in each move he has made."

When Ashmore requested that all agents involved in the case be on hand in Greenville during the trial, Hoover erupted, telling Bills, the Charlotte special agent in charge, in a memo that "this action of massing agents in courtroom was most ill-advised (underlined). Just who runs our service -- some little state dist. attorney. It is outrageous. H."

Martin gave the defense a resounding victory in his charge to the jury, ruling that the 26 confessions -- as each related to co-defendants -- could not be considered in their deliberations, voiding the state's corroborating evidence.

The case went to an all-white male jury of nine textile workers, two salesmen and a farmer at 3:20 p.m. Martin's charge included another admonition against letting race become a factor.

With a spring rain pelting down outside, jurors began deliberation. At 8:33 p.m., after five hours and 15 minutes, including dinner, they buzzed bailiffs to signify a verdict had been reached. Martin delayed its reading until he returned from dinner.

The verdict

With more than 500 people in the courtroom, verdicts were read beginning at 10:23 p.m.

Not guilty, on all counts.

Beyond South Carolina, the reaction was mixed.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune editorialized that "This was a Southern matter and right poorly was it dealt with."

But The New York Times said: "There has been a victory for law even though Willie Earle's slayers will not be punished."

For some, it wasn't over.

Editorialists and private citizens elsewhere demanded federal action.

Gerald Andrews of Albany, Ore., wrote Hoover on May 29 to ask why no federal charges were filed. Hoover replied that the case lacked interstate transportation of the victim, ignoring the possibility of civil rights charges.

U.S. Department of Justice officials deliberated for weeks whether to charge them with civil rights violations. They didn't.

Reaction mixed

In a 1972 interview with The News, Ashmore, then in private practice, said the trial established that "people could no longer take the law into their own hands."

Morrah said the trial had a positive affect on law and order, although the state "had a very weak case, founded principally on statements by the defendants and nothing else."

In July 1950, Greenville County sent Earle's widowed mother, Tessie, a check for $2,000, the minimum amount state law authorized for survivors of a lynching victim.

John Sexton, a local filmmkaer now in final stages of completing a movie on the lynching, said that all of those charged in Earle's death are deceased. The last to die, in November 2000, was George R. McFalls, at age 77. Sexton's grandfather was a Greenville police officer at the time of the Earle investigation.

The Pickens County Museum now occupies the red brick, castle-like old jail from which Earle was taken, but there is no collection to shed light on the incident.

Curator Ed Bolt said one is planned, but so far the only artifact is a copy of Life magazine.

SEQUENCE OF EVENTS

  • Saturday, Feb. 15, 1947: Taxi driver Thomas W. Brown picks up Willie Earle and perhaps a second fare -- accounts differ -- at the corner of Markley and Calhoun streets for a run to Liberty.

  • 10 p.m.: Brown, stabbed three times but still alive, is found on a road near Pickens. His cab is 500 yards away.

  • Sunday, Feb. 16, 12:30 p.m.: Pickens authorities take Earle into custody and hold him in the local jail.

  • Monday, Feb. 17, 5 a.m.: A group of men, many wearing taxi driver's caps, take Earle from his jail cell.

  • 6 a.m.: Anonymous call to a black-owned funeral home in Greenville reports the location of a body on Bramlett Road.

  • 6:50 a.m.: Greenville Coroner J.O. Turner arrives at the scene and finds Earle, dead from a beating and one or more shotgun blasts.

  • Midmorning: Local, state and federal authorities launch investigation.

  • 11:40 a.m.: Brown dies at St. Francis Hospital.

  • Tuesday morning, Feb. 18: Authorities begin rounding up the first of what will be 31 men to be charged in Earle's death.

  • Monday, Feb. 24: Judge George B. Greene sets bond at $2,500 for each defendant. All but three are taxi drivers. All post bond.

  • Monday, May 5: Circuit Judge J. Robert Martin rejects defense attorneys' motion to delay the trial.

  • Tuesday, May 13: Jury selection begins and is completed the next day.

  • Wednesday, May 14: Judge Martin overrides defense objections and allows the prosecution to enter into evidence the confessions of 26 of the defendants.

  • Thursday, May 15: Statements of five defendants are read. Each names one defendant as the triggerman. Another statement in which that defendant denies firing the fatal shots is read.

  • Friday, May 16: Reading of statements continues. Defense lawyers cross-examine investigating officers on the methods used to obtain the statements.

  • Monday, May 19: The state rests. Judge Martin issues directed verdicts of acquittal for three defendants on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The defense rests without calling witnesses.

  • Tuesday, May 20: Closing arguments. Judge Martin's charge bars the use of race and any acts by Earle as justification for his death.

  • Wednesday, May 21, 3:20 p.m.: The case goes to the jury.

  • 10:30 p.m.: The jury returns verdicts of acquittal for all of the remaining 28 defendants.

Dan Hoover