The chain of events that led to the lynching of Mary Turner started in May of 1918 on Hampton Smith’s plantation in Brooks County, Georgia. Smith, a 31-year-old White man, was shot and killed by one of his Black workers named Sydney Johnson.
After the slaves’ emancipation, many plantations in the South began to experience labor shortages. Like many other plantation owners, Hampton Smith turned to the debt peonage system of the day to find a ready labor pool. He took advantage of that system by bailing people out of jail and having them work off their debt (the bail money) to him on his plantation.
Smith was known for abusing and beating his workers, and 19-year-old Sydney Johnson was one such unfortunate victim of Smith’s violence.
After only a few days of work on Smith’s plantation, Johnson was refused his earned wages and beaten by Smith for not working while he was sick. As a result, Sydney Johnson shot and killed Hampton Smith.
The death of a White man at the hands of a Black man, sent the surrounding area into a frenzy. A mob was formed to search for Johnson and others, thought to be involved in his decision to kill Hampton Smith.
That manhunt lasted for more than a week and resulted in the deaths of at least 13 Black people. One of the unfortunate victims of this mob was Mary Turner, her husband, and her unborn child.
At the time, Mary Turner was twenty-years-old and 8-months pregnant. Mary’s husband, Hazel “Hayes” Turner, had been caught by the lynch mob and killed. She publicly objected to her husband’s murder. Upon hearing of her husband’s murder, Mary threatened to swear out warrants for those responsible. Those “unwise remarks,” as the area papers put it, enraged locals.
Hearing news of the rampaging mob’s intent to punish her for her remarks, Mary Turner tried to flee for her life. She was caught and taken to a place called Folsom’s Bridge, on the Brooks and Lowndes Counties’ shared border.
To punish her, the mob tied Mary Turner by her ankles, hung her upside down from a tree, poured gasoline on her, and set her on fire. While still alive, one member of the mob then cut her stomach open and her unborn child spilled out onto the ground, where it was reportedly stomped on and crushed by a member of the mob. Finally her body was riddled with gunfire from the mob and left hanging.
Later that night, Mary and her baby were buried ten feet away from where they were murdered. The makeshift grave was marked with only a “whiskey bottle” and a “cigar” stuffed in its neck.
A few days after the murder of Mary Turner and her baby, three more bodies were found in the area. Sydney Johnson was killed in a shoot out with police on South Troup Street in Valdosta, Georgia. Once killed, it is reported that a crowd of more than 700 people watched as his genitals were cut off and thrown into the street. A rope was then tied to his neck and his body was drug for nearly 20 miles. What was left of his body was then burned by the mob.
More than 500 Black people fled the areas of Lowndes and Brooks Counties during and shortly after this chain of events.
Mary Turner’s story and the stories of so many others like her, should never be forgotten. These types of acts, remain some of the most gruesome cases of racism and racial terrorism in this nation’s history. Yet they have been white-washed from main stream history books and teachings. Mary Turner’s murder remains one of the most horrific crimes committed against a human being in this nation’s history. The horrible conditions so many of our ancestors were forced to live through should never be forgotten or ignored. It is a part of our history – American history.