The Last Lynching Victim in South Carolina

Pond in Pickens County, South Carolina (Flickr: Martin LaBar)

In They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina’s Last Lynching Victim, William B. Gravely, professor emeritus at the University of Denver, explores the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle in South Carolina, the criminal investigations and trials that followed, and the memory and legacy of those events. The product of some forty years of research, the book builds upon an impressive evidentiary base, including newspaper coverage by the Black and white presses, interviews with participants and witnesses, and letters and a notebook regarding the trial proceedings written by the British novelist Rebecca West, who was in attendance. Unfortunately, he notes, “no library, private holdings, attorney files, court records, or archive has a transcript of the trial” (168). Although a second-grader in Pickens County at the time of the lynching, Gravely first learned of the case during a 1978 conversation and soon turned his attention toward researching the incident. Given his insider status, Gravely gained access to many of the central players in the incident: “My first foray yielded contacts with the jailer’s daughter, Willie Earle’s mother, two defense attorneys from the trial, two journalists … , the prosecutor, a law associate of the special state prosecutor, and two Black civil rights activists affected by the lynching,” he writes (xvi-xvii).

In February 1947, an unknown Black assailant robbed and murdered a middle-aged white taxicab driver and World War I veteran, Thomas Watson Brown, on the outskirts of Pickens in a crime that outraged white townspeople. Following the arrest of Willie Earle, who denied any involvement, a mob of cabbies, determined to avenge the death of their colleague, seized Earle from the jail, drove him to a secluded spot outside of Pickens, and executed him in an orgy of stabbing and shooting. In the immediate aftermath, local and state authorities, including Governor Strom Thurmond, denounced the violence as an assault on law and order. For the most part, their opposition to the lynching was predicated on a desire to protect the reputation of their state and to forestall federal intervention into their affairs. After a “whirlwind-like dragnet” in the days after the killing, officials rounded up thirty-one white men suspected in the crime (xiii).

Not surprisingly, however, many white South Carolinians supported the lynching. While their overt support remained somewhat muted in the earliest days of the investigation, shaded behind the anti-mob statements of the governor and law-enforcement officials, it soon spilled into the open. Many whites, locally and across the state, seethed with anger over the condemnation of the mob violence by Northern commentators like Walter Winchell, a New York columnist. “Winchell’s intrusion made Columbia’s afternoon paper, the Record, livid. Its writers particularly objected to the timing just prior to the probe into Earle’s death” (67). Simultaneously, “the sentiment to lessen punishment for the cabdrivers was channeled into a fund to help pay their lawyers,” Gravely finds. Tellingly, this fund “extended across the upstate, over into Georgia and as far down as the state capital. More than 150 gas stations, country stores, pharmacies, barbershops, groceries, and automobile-repair businesses displayed glass fruit jars to aid the cabdrivers” (70). As the news of the incident spread across the country, the author notes, the Earle lynching became a major media event.

Although some of the law-enforcement officials and prosecutors vigorously pursued their responsibility to uphold the law — even if most of them displayed little concern about the racism embodied in the case — the trial itself was little more than a farce where confessions from most of the defendants, secured shortly after the lynching, were disallowed as evidence but assertions by the lynchers that Earle had confessed to murder passed muster. “By inference, at least, Earle was put on trial and his killers’ statements, otherwise disallowed by the court, would qualify as evidence against him. Given that logic, the entire fiasco was a waste of time” (147). After a short deliberation, the jury of twelve white men returned a verdict of not guilty for each offender. “Now freed, the men with their families created a celebrative outburst that turned into ‘orgiastic joy,’” writes Gravely. Beaming with satisfaction, noted a contemporary observer, the acquitted men “‘were kissing and clasping their wives, their wives were laying their heads on their husbands’ chests and nuzzling in an ecstasy of animal affection, while the laughing men stretched out their hands to their friends, who sawed them up and down” (166, 167).

They Stole Him Out of Jail provides a comprehensive account of one of the most significant lynchings of the postwar era, an incident that served as a precursor to the more widely investigated lynching of Emmett Till in 1955. Gravely provides a lively and readable account, particularly in the second half of the book. His analysis of the experiences of Rebecca West during the trial and of her writings about the case are particularly insightful. He also details the efforts of African Americans at the local, state, and national levels to protest the lynching and its disgraceful conclusion in the courtroom, drawing attention to the journalists, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and civil rights figures like W.E.B. Du Bois. Similarly, he provides an insightful analysis of the determined efforts of Tessie Earle, the mother of the lynching victim, to achieve justice for her son, a campaign that included an (eventually successful) lawsuit against Pickens and Greenville Counties. “There were prior civil lawsuits mounted by the families of lynch victims, but none took so long as Tessie Earle’s case against both counties from 1947 to 1958” (226).

Like many lynching case-studies, this one contains an extensive cast of characters, making it difficult at times for the reader to keep track of these personalities across a lengthy narrative. In addition, the narrative contains in places a surfeit of local detail, which for the general reader may have benefited from some pruning. More importantly, even though Gravely provides an extensive bibliography and grapples with the insights of lynching scholars such as Christopher Waldrep, he does not engage the work of many of the principal theorists in the field over the past two decades. If he had engaged with those like Ashraf H. A. Rushdy and Tameka Bradley Hobbs who have wrestled with some of the major themes of his book, including meditations on what he calls “the conclusion of lynching,” Gravely might have been able to elevate the significance of his findings for the historiography more generally (xiv).1 He may also have been more cautious about his assertion that the Earle lynching was the last one in the history of South Carolina, an assertion that may not survive subsequent investigation.

Nonetheless, They Stole Him Out of Jail is an important book and a significant contribution to the scholarship on lynching, one that offers new insights into the transformations in racist violence in the years after World War II.

  1. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, The End of American Lynching (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012); Tameka Bradley Hobbs, Democracy Abroad, Lynching at Home: Racial Violence in Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015).
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Brent M. S. Campney

Brent M. S. Campney is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He is the author of This Is Not Dixie: Racist Violence in Kansas, 1861-1927 (University of Illinois Press, 2015) and Hostile Heartland: Racism, Repression, and Resistance in the Midwest (University of Illinois Press, 2019).