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Confronting the past in black and white
Researcher does not dwell on lynchings, but finds them and more in Bulloch newspapers from 1894-1903
Debbie Lee Gaskin, Georgia Southern University public history graduate student and Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center intern, talks about her study of "African Americans in Bulloch County Newspapers, 1894-1903." - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

Racism necessarily emerged in the historical picture when researcher Debbie Lee Frankenthaler Gaskin examined news about "African Americans in Bulloch County newspapers, 1894-1903."

Both a Georgia Southern University graduate student and an intern with the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, Gaskin shared findings from her project of that title on a recent Saturday morning at Willow Hill. She has undertaken the research, and creation of a detailed catalog of the articles, as her non-thesis project toward a Master of Arts in history with a certificate in public history and from Georgia Southern.

Gaskin is not African American but noted that she has Jewish roots, as well as Christian, and both Southern and Northern family connections. She did not dwell on stories about lynching but found 43 articles about lynchings and mob violence among the 328 news stories and opinion pieces she identified in local newspapers during the 10 years she studied.

"I shied away from including a lot of articles on lynching in the presentation. ... ," Gaskin said. “My reason for not including more is that to me, you know, lynching is an important part of African American history, just like for the Jews the Holocaust is, but at the same time I feel like it's hallowed ground."

So her Nov. 9 presentation was “not a de-emphasis on lynching,” but rather “an emphasis on some of the other historical injustices that came to light,” she said. 

Gaskin accessed historic newspapers, now digitally archived, through the university’s online resource, A search for “Bulloch County newspapers,” followed by selection of “full year files” leads to the chronological listing. The three newspapers extant and available for various years during the decade were the Bulloch Times, 1893-1898, the Statesboro News, 1901-1903, and the Statesboro Star from 1894 and 1899.

But Gaskin found almost all of the material she cited in the Statesboro News, 1901-1903. Some of the articles were reprinted from other newspapers, at a time when newspapers were the only source for most news, world, national, regional, state and local.

Mob violence

The first article she noted, reprinted in the Statesboro News June 28, 1901, was about a lynching, in Benton, Louisiana, by a mob of “about 200 men” of two black men – “Prophet” Frank Smith, identified as a leader in the “Church of God movement” and F.D. McLand – for purportedly having murdered a white man, John Gray Foster.

“This one was a little bit unusual where blacks were lynched preventatively,” Gaskin said. “I don't think they had even been tried yet. But they were looked at as threats to the white community."

The last sentence in the news item was, “The lynchers claimed that the execution was necessary to the preservation of the lives of the white men in this locality.”

Gaskin apologized for the use of the terms “colored” and “negro” during her presentation, but these were the terms most commonly used to refer to African Americans at the time. She found the stories by using a combination of the database’s keyword search feature and “human scanning” with her own eyes.

The 43 Items about lynching and mob violence comprised 13% of all the articles involving African Americans, making this the third most common topic in Gaskins’ classification system. 

Her study stopped with the December 1903 newspapers. The most infamous period of lynchings within Bulloch County followed the murder of five members of the white Hodges family the next summer and began with the extrajudicial killings, by burning alive, of Will Cato and Paul Reed. This was outside the scope of Gaskin’s research. 

But articles found in her search showed how openly and readily the white-run Statesboro News suggested violence against black people. An Oct. 18, 1901 one-paragraph item was headlined, “Run Over.” It stated in its entirety: “A child of Mr. Jaeckel was run over by a careless negro driver last night and severely hurt. The chaingang or a buggy whip is necessary for some of our reckless drivers.”

The Statesboro paper had carried stories that May and August about the “Cochran case” in which seven white men were found guilty, and three sentenced to life terms, for lynching a black man named Stirling Thompson. It was the first known prosecution for lynching in Georgia.

Criminal ‘justice’

In the available papers from 1894-1903, the most common topic of stories about African Americans, by Gaskin’s count, was “crime, law enforcement, court proceedings,” represented by 85 articles, or 26% of the total.

“Race relations” was the second most prevalent, with 53 articles, or 16%. In the category “African American:  social, health” she counted 32 articles, or 10% of the total. The 24 stores about legal and legislative subjects and the 23 about “labor and commerce” were each about 6% of the total.

Fifteen articles about “prisons and criminal justice” made up 5% of the articles, as did 15 others about “politics and voting.”

In the “prisons and criminal justice” category, she started counting  all of the stories about punishment and prisons – whether they specifically mentioned black people or not – after reading research indicating that 90% of the people incarcerated in the South  at the time were African American.

“So it has ended up being a focus on criminal justice and legal rights, mainly, and these are still current issues with collateral consequences in our country,” Gaskin said. “The precursors for them are attested to in Bulloch County papers around 1900, and that’s why I picked them out.”

After the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves left the South with a labor shortage. News items from 1901-1903 show chain gangs and “convict camps” being used as sources of labor, and the Statesboro News more than once editorialized that black people were playing sports or “loafing” when they should be  working.

A June 28, 1901 editorial suggested, “Put the loafing negroes on the chaingang, or run them out of town and the county. They (are) a menace to the whites, to the good negroes also.”

Voting rights

Meanwhile, in May and June of 1901, the Statesboro News reprinted several stories about Alabama’s convention to amend its state constitution. Its central aim was to deny African-Americans the voting rights they had received with the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

A June 7 story acknowledged that many of the Alabama delegates “would willingly disfranchise the negro as a negro,” in other words because of race, but could not because of the oath state officials had taken to support the U.S. Constitution.

So, as reported June 21, 1901, the Alabama delegates instead sought to deprive of voting rights “those who are bastards or loafers or who may be infected with any loathsome or contagious disease” or had “cast an illegitimate ballot” or not paid a poll tax, as well as those convicted of  a list of crimes.

“Was this where it all began?” Gaskin asked, referring to this as her own editorial comment. “I have read secondary sources, articles, one was a dissertation, on how voting rights (barriers) that are still present in our day actually all started here because they came up with this idea to use convictions and other things to disenfranchise African Americans.”

Throughout the United States, 2.2 million ex-felons who are African-American remained without their right to vote as of 2018, Gaskin added. She cited the Washington Post, the Sentencing Project, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Marshall Project as sources.

“Now these are ex-felons, who have already served their time as well as their parole and probation, so I’m getting on my soapbox a little here,” Gaskin said. “Many had drug convictions with no accompanying offense or violence.”

‘With truth and clarity’

Her title page stated that the views expressed were hers and not a reflection of Georgia Southern University or the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.

But she spoke while standing near a photo, in the center’s collection, of the Ku Klux Klan’s 1946 burning of a cross on the Willow Hill School grounds in an effort to intimidate black would-be voters.  While the Willow Hill Center has emphasized overcoming, its collection also documents abuse and violence African Americans encountered locally, even in efforts to establish schools and churches.

“We feel that it’s important for Bulloch Countians to know about the rest of the story,” said Dr. Alvin Jackson, president of the center’s board. “There’s another part of the story, and that story has to be told with truth and clarity, and that’s how we will eventually arrive at where we need to be.”

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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