“There Is Always More We Can Learn”: Jefferson County Memorial Project Finds More Lynching Victims, Documents Systematic Racial Oppression

The Jefferson County Memorial Project dedicated a historical marker in honor of lynching victims Tom Redmond and Jake McKenzie. (Source: Cheryl Slocum)

The Jefferson County Memorial Project on Tuesday released “Jefferson County’s Broken Systems,” its second report about lynchings that took place in Jefferson County between 1883 and 1940.

The report provides more details about the history of Jefferson County’s 30 documented lynching victims who are memorialized at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, discovered four more lynching victims and examined what systems allowed racial terror to continue.

“There is a larger system of terror that institutions from government to law enforcement to business were complicit in. What this report tries to do is to draw out that larger picture of how an entire community is implicated in this system of racial terror,” said Abigail Schneider, JCMP director.

JCMP’s 2019-2020 fellows, 25 students enrolled in Jefferson County-area colleges and universities, conducted the research for the report. The previous year’s report was based on research conducted through digital national archives. This year, the fellows each tracked a local newspaper for a full year that a lynching took place and wrote about their findings for the report.

Read Jefferson County’s Broken Systems, a report by the Jefferson County Memorial Project

Some of the local newspapers examined included The Bessemer Workman, Birmingham Iron Age, Birmingham World, Jefferson Enterprise, The Warrior Breeze, Montgomery Advertiser, The Goldsboro Headlight, The Bessemer Weekly, The Weekly Times Democrat, The Hummingbird, The Birmingham News, The Lineville Headlight and The Labor Advocate.

Some fellows uncovered additional information about the 30 documented victims, but one important discovery was information about four more lynching victims: Otis Brown, Tom Edmunds and Fred Spencer and Jim Hatter.

Schneider said that JCMP also sent the information on the newly found victims to University of Georgia professor E.M. Beck, who spent four years compiling information on lynchings in the United States and helped the EJI collect its initial archives.

Four New Victims

Otis Brown was killed by a mob near Five Mile Creek in Jefferson County. He and another man were accused of robbing a white man of his wallet. The mob of about 25 men with bloodhounds found Brown hiding in a cave and shot him. He was killed before an arrest, trial or conviction occurred.

Tom Edmunds was allegedly killed by three white men who shot into a group of black men at a train station. A trial was held and eyewitness testimony was provided by several black witnesses. Three white witnesses who testified, however, provided alibis for each of the three accused men, and they were released the next day.

Fred Spencer got into a drunken fight and shot a woman. He faced off against a mob and then fled, and in the process he killed a deputy sheriff. A manhunt ensued, but he was not caught. Three months later, a body that had been shot repeatedly was found floating in a creek near Mulga. The coroner said the body was likely Fred Spencer.

Jim Hatter was dragged from his home and killed in connection with the search for Fred Spencer.  He was accused by a white mob of having given Spencer aid. His body was found covered with bullet holes.

These accounts and the others with updated information were written from the fellows’ perspectives. Schneider said that, while the challenge of putting a cohesive document together from the personal research of 25 different people is a challenge, the integrity of the information was a top priority.

“I tried to let students use their writing however they chose. We ensure that the primary sources and facts are secure and fact-checked,” said Schneider, “and we also do allow space — usually in the conclusion — for personal opinion to come through as well.”

Black Activism and Systematic Oppression

The report also looks at cases of black activism, detailing two accounts of situations in which black groups were not always passive when faced with incidents of racial terror. In one case, an armed group protected a black man who was on trial on accusations of assaulting a woman. In another, the fellows found a report of 100 black residents taking up arms and threatening violence in retaliation for racial terror.

Read More About the JCMP: Jefferson County Memorial Project Efforts Continue Into the Next Decade

Examining the media’s role in racial terrorism of the time, the report provides examples of reporter bias, careless reporting and articles that normalized racism and racial violence.

One newspaper reported lynchings in the “Happenings” section of its newspaper. Another included a statement that the best way to elevate the Negro was “by the aid of the rope,” and it was positioned next to everyday announcements about new businesses, christenings and the sale of mules.

One story was published about a sheriff who stopped a lynch mob, which the report says helped to dispel the idea that law enforcement and government were powerless to stop mobs from such actions.

Another story documented a police officer who killed two black men in separate incidents, in both cases claiming the victims had attempted to take his gun. In neither case was the officer held responsible for the deaths. In one case, a woman was imprisoned for 20 years rather than the 20 months to which she actually had been sentenced.

The report offered this and other examples of impunity for police violence to explain that police brutality was acceptable against people of color.

Businesses also were complicit in racial terror, according to the report. Two of the examples provided involved instances in which a business tricked blacks to move from Birmingham to Mexico with the promise of land and jobs, only to be sold into indentured servitude. The other example discussed was one in which prisoners were forced into labor for private businesses. Convict leasing, used in Alabama from 1825 until 1928, was one of the main sources of labor for Pratt Mines, which used approximately 800 convicts during its time of operation — paying between $9 and $18 per month for each convict.

Schneider explained that the reports are an on-going project.

“When we started with the second group of fellows, some people kept asking, ‘What are we going to do next? Your first year fellows’ research was comprehensive and really tells who these 30 individuals were,’” said Schneider.

“There will always be more parts of our history that will be helpful for our community to re-examine,” she said, “This report emphasizes that there will be always be more that we can learn.”