When confronted with complaints from Blacks about the violence directed at them, the ordinary white person is quick to point out that the black victim may have done something to provoke the authorities, which is usually the police.
As a result, there is a discussion that if Blacks dressed better or were more submissive, white bullies, including some in police uniforms, would be less aggressive, but the facts do not support such statements.
A cursory examination of hanging Blacks in the United States and other reports reveals that the majority of them were dressed in suits or overcoats and that they died while going about their business until a white person decided to have some fun with their deaths. Even babies were not immune to the whims of fate.
In the case of John Hartfield’s lynching by a white mob on June 26, 1919, he was hanged, shot numerous times, and then burned, with his body dissected and shared by the onlookers who took his parts home as trophies.
Hartfield relocated from Ellisville to East St. Louis in search of a better life. He had managed to keep a secret relationship with his lady-love Ruth Meeks, a white woman, but when he returned to Ellisville in 1919, the relationship was discovered by some white males.
It didn’t matter that these men weren’t acquainted with Ms. Meeks; Hartfield was sentenced to death for being a Black man who was intimate with a white woman of a race they felt was superior.
The perpetrators needed something to blame on him so they could inflict damage on him, so they said he raped Meeks, claiming she was 18 when she was actually in her mid-twenties.
Sheriff Allen Boutwell in Laurel solicited funds to support a hunting party with Bloodhounds at the behest of Sheriff Harbison, and Hartfield managed to avoid the filthy thugs baying for his life for several weeks to protect his increasingly perilous life.
Now a wanted man, Hartfield was captured on June 24 while attempting to board a train and handed over to Sheriff Harbison, who placed him in the custody of a deputy and departed town. He was promptly released to a mob by the deputy.
“John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville mob at 5:00 this afternoon,” according to the Jackson Daily News, the New Orleans States, and other newspapers, with additional text that “The officers have agreed to turn him over to the people of the city at 4 o’clock this afternoon when it is expected he will be burned.”
It was a clear indication that the lynching was institutional, and that whites who might have found it abhorrent and didn’t appear to be enthusiastic about it risked harm.
Another oddity of Hartfield’s lynching was that he had been wounded in the shoulder during his detention, but guess what, a white doctor, A. J. Carter was sent to heal his wounds in order to keep him alive long enough to be slain.
As a result, on June 26, 1919, at 5:00 p.m., a large applauding audience gathered to see Hartfield’s deliberate murder. Mississippi’s governor, Theodore Bilbo, did nothing. A throng of up to 10,000 people watched as Hartfield was hanged, shot, and burned, with pieces of his body hacked off and sold as souvenirs, thanks to the murder being publicized a day in advance in major newspapers.
Hartfield was shot and burned after being hanged from a gum tree near the railroad tracks. White men, women, and children had traveled from all over the state to witness his brutal assassination. Following the lynching, commemorative postcards of the event were printed and sold.
“This is a white man’s country, with a white man’s civilization, and any dream of the Negro race to enjoy social and political equality would be smashed in the end,” Governor Bilbo said.
Those who witnessed Hartfield’s lynching characterize it as a terrorist act intended to terrorize the whole black community, prompting many to leave in dread for their lives.
Hartfield’s age when he died is uncertain because he was originally a slave and never acquired a birth certificate.
We commemorate an ancestor, and may he rest in power, a century after he was desecrated for no criminal action nor for overthrowing a country, but for daring to love without color bias.