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‘Bulloch Bears Witness’ acknowledges lynching and legacy of racial violence
Coalition launches campaign of remembrance, atonement
pastors Frankie and Jean Owens of the Original First African Baptist Church pay tribute to African American spiritual music during the “Bulloch Bears Witness: Music, Memory, and Moving Forward” program hosted by the Statesboro-Bulloch Remembrance Coalitio
Pastors Frankie and Jean Owens of the Original First African Baptist Church pay tribute to African American spiritual music during the “Bulloch Bears Witness: Music, Memory, and Moving Forward” program hosted by the Statesboro-Bulloch Remembrance Coalition and Equal Justice Initiative at Georgia Southern University's Carter Recital Hall Wednesday, Jan. 4.

Lynched in Bulloch County: Jake Braswell, July 15, 1886; Kennedy Gordon, April 11, 1901; Paul Reed and William Cato, Aug. 16, 1904; Albert Roberts and another Black person, name unknown, Aug. 17, 1904; Sebastian McBride, Aug. 27, 1904; Thompson Gilbert, Feb. 18, 1908; Henry Jackson, April 21, 1911.

These are nine human beings of color who were lynched – savagely murdered by crowds or groups of white people – within Bulloch County, Georgia, as identified by the Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI. Their identities and dates of death are embossed on a six-foot, suspended corten steel column dedicated to this county within the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Statesboro-Bulloch Remembrance Coalition, Wednesday during its first public event, “Bulloch Bears Witness: Music, Memory and Moving Forward,” set out the ugly historical truth of lynching, related it to later and continuing forms of racial terror and injustice, and outlined a campaign of truth-telling and atonement.

Adrianne McCollar, one of two current co-chairs of the local Remembrance Coalition, read aloud the identities of the nine EJI-confirmed Bulloch County lynching victims as she and Dr. Laura Milner, a coalition founding member and past co-chair, explained the occasion from the stage of the Carter Recital Hall on the Georgia Southern University campus.

“It is not easy to turn toward that which is painful or unsettling – in ourselves, our families, our communities,” Milner said. “Yet, we know from experience that turning away, refusing to acknowledge and take responsibility for harm done in our shared past or present, allows wounds to fester. Habitual turning away leads to unconscious repetition of harm.”

Meeting quietly, doing research and in contact with the Equal Justice Initiative since 2019, the local group had been waiting for the right time to make its mission known and was delayed somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic, Milner explained in an interview.

She and Ressie Fuller were the original co-chairs. The current co-chairs are McCollar and Dr. Patrick Novotny. It is a coalition of black and white, and others, together.


Truth telling

Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who wrote “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” asserts that Americans must learn the full history of their towns, study it deeply and understand it, Milner said.

“We have to stand up,” she quoted him as saying. “We have to have truth telling. We can’t get well if we don’t diagnose the disease.”

The EJI, based in Montgomery, established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice there.  It contains 800 of the suspended columns, one for each of the counties in the United States where lynchings are documented to have occurred. According to EJI, more than 4,400 Black people were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

In Georgia, 595 lynchings during that 73-year span, the second most of any state, after Mississippi, were enumerated by EJI’s research.

The memorial in Montgomery also stores a separate copy of each county’s monument column, and EJI challenges counties to “bring home” their monument by completing certain local projects for remembrance and reconciliation.

These include collecting soil from each known lynching site, to be placed in a memorial container, erecting one or more historical markers about lynchings, and holding an essay contest for students in public schools.

The Statesboro-Bulloch Remembrance Coalition has or is creating committees for each of these projects, and also planning a spring trip for youth to the EJI’s museum and memorial in Montgomery.


What is a lynching?

A lynching does not necessarily involve hanging, but it is an extrajudicial killing. Dr. Chris Caplinger, a Georgia Southern assistant professor of history, said historians and social scientists generally define lynching as interracial murder, always occurring outside the legal system – though often with the knowledge and approval of legal authorities – committed by a group and justified by the perpetrators with an appeal to justice or tradition.

“The victim might not be accused of an actual crime at all, but they were always accused of violating some sort of powerful community norm,” Caplinger said. “In the South, lynching victims were almost always African American, and they were almost always accused of violating the tradition of white supremacy.”

The best-known victims of lynching in Bulloch County were William Cato and Paul Reed, who had been accused and convicted of the murders of a white family, Henry and Claudia Hodges and their three children, whose remains were found in their burned home in late July 1904.  Juries returned guilty verdicts against Cato and Reed on Aug. 15 and 16, and Judge Alexander Daley sentenced them to die by hanging, setting Sept. 9 as the date of execution.

Accompanied by Georgia Southern University associate dean JT Hughes, assistant professor Dan Larkin, front, performs Blind Willie McTell's Statesboro Blues during the “Bulloch Bears Witness: Music, Memory, and Moving Forward” program hosted by the Statesboro-Bulloch Remembrance Coalition and Equal Justice Initiative at Georgia Southern University's Carter Recital Hall Wednesday, Jan. 4.

But a white crowd infamously “overpowered” guards at the Bulloch County Courthouse and an entire regiment of state troops the afternoon of Aug. 16, 1904, hauled Cato and Reed to a wooded area about a mile north of the courthouse, tied them to a stump and burned them alive. That much is well known, but as Novotny, a GS political science professor, noted in his remarks, other Black citizens were also murdered by groups of white people that month.

Albert Roberts was shot by a large crowd of men who gathered at his home in Register later that same day and died on Aug. 17. The EJI’s monument also lists Aug. 17, 1904, as the date the unknown person was lynched. Sebastian McBride, of Portal, was killed by a group at his home Aug. 27, 1904.

The individuals killed and their family members were not the only victims, as racial terror served to make Black people “hesitant to stand up for their civil or even their basic human rights,” Caplinger said. “The victims were really the larger community.”


Continuing violence

The Rev.  Francys Johnson, Statesboro civil rights attorney and minister, noted that the EJI traces a continuum of racial violence from the extermination of indigenous Americans through the lynching of African Americans and on to “the New Jim Crow in the system of mass incarceration.”

He called police killings of civilians a current form of “extrajudicial violence.”

Johnson, a past Georgia state NAACP president, noted that in 1918, the first president of the Savannah Branch of the NAACP went to Congress to argue for passage of a federal anti-lynching bill. But the idea languished unrealized for more than a century. A law making lynching a federal crime was enacted in 2022.

“We cannot tuck this history away as if it was something in the past,” Johnson said.

Jonathan McCollar, who said he was putting away the “mayor” title to speak as “just Jonathan” related the lasting effects of racial violence to his experience growing up in Bulloch County, where he has family roots going back 200 years. His great-grandmother, Estella McClouden, brought him up along with his mother, who was 14 and unmarried when McCollar was born.

“I was raised by a woman who was born in 1910,” he said. “Over the course of her life, the things that she had seen within this community always left her in a perpetual fear for the lives of her children, but in particular her male children, whether they were her born-of-nature, her grandchildren, her nieces, her nephews. It was always being raised by the fear.”

Those “raised by the fear” can either by frozen by it or “turn it into fuel for courage,” and he has chosen to do the latter, said McCollar, elected in 2017 as Statesboro’s first African American mayor.


For the children

Adrienne McCollar said her desire for courageous discussions of the past is grounded in hopes for the future.

“I don’t want our children to inherit the exact same problems that we’re dealing with,” she said. “I just challenge them to be better, and I know that in order for them to be better, we have to have overcome some things, so I pray that this next generation that we’re raising, they’re even more courageous and more prepared.”

Statesboro High School student Erin Shen recited “The Lynching,” a 1922 Poem by Claude McKay, from the stage. After a scheduled local vocalist was unable to perform, a video of Billie Holiday herself singing “Strange Fruit,” played on screen and sound system. But there were also some live musical performances and a question-and-answer session during the event, with an audience of about 100 people.

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