It has been one hundred years since the lynching of Mary Turner, a young pregnant black mother of two, by a white mob on May 19, 1918, just a day after her husband, Hazel Turner, was killed.
Turner was killed beside a river in Georgia, between Lowndes and Brooks counties, for opposing the lynching of her husband, who was killed during a raid by a white mob after a white plantation owner in Brooks County was murdered by one of his black laborers.
The lynchings and racially motivated violence perpetrated by whites against black people in the American south peaked around this time. Thousands of black people were lynched, including women.
Mary Turner’s ordeal began with the assassination of Hampton Smith, a 25-year-old abusive farm owner who owned the Old Joyce Place, a big plantation outside Morven, Georgia, in Brooks County.
Smith is infamous for abusing his employees, notably Mary Turner, whose husband was condemned to a chain gang by an all-white jury for threatening his wife’s abuser.
After undergoing a series of brutal abuses, one of Smith’s laborers, Sidney Johnson, a convict supplied by the state to Smith for a price to work on his farm, shot him and his wife through a window in their house.
Before exiting the scene, Johnson killed Smith and injured his wife. While he was hiding in Valdosta, Georgia, a massive manhunt in Brooks County resulted in the deaths of at least 13 black persons over the course of two weeks.
Mary Turner’s husband was among them, having been apprehended for his earlier meeting with Smith. Hazel Turner was imprisoned and eventually released to the mob while being transferred to another prison. His body was left hanging from a tree along the Okapiloo River in Brooks County during the weekend after he was lynched.
Mary Turner, who was eight months pregnant, became enraged and vowed to have the crowd jailed. After hearing about Mary’s protest against her husband’s death, the crowd turned against her.
The mob, which was made up of hundreds of white individuals, kidnapped Mary Turner and brought her to a riverbank in Brooks County.
“Mary Turner’s garments were doused with gasoline and burned off her body as she was chained and hung upside down by her ankles. Her stomach was sliced open with a knife similar to those used for hog splitting. Her unborn child collapsed to the ground and let forth two weak cries. A mob member crushed its head with his heel, and the throng fired hundreds of shots into Turner’s body.” — Walter F. White, an investigator for the NAACP, recalls.
Mary Turner was eventually taken down and buried with her child near the tree from where she had been hanging. Her tomb was marked with a whiskey bottle.
Will Head, Will Thompson, Julius Jones, Eugene Rice, and Chime Riley were among those lynched in the region.
After reaching Valdosta, Georgia, Sidney Johnson, the sought black man who killed Smith, was murdered in a firefight with authorities. When a mob learned of his arrival, they disfigured his body and carried it behind a car in a procession. They burned his body after hanging it from a tree.
The lynchings drew national attention and were a focal point of the NAACP’s efforts to persuade Congress to establish anti-lynching legislation.
Georgia governor Hugh Dorsey provided identities of two instigators and 15 participants in the lynching to Walter F. White, who was also the NAACP assistant secretary. No one was ever charged with Mary Turner’s murder.
The Mary Turner Project was founded in 2008 to educate schools and communities about the lynchings of May 1918 and racial injustice. A memorial to Mary Turner and the Lynching Rampage was unveiled at the lynching site in Lowndes County in 2010.
On May 19, 2018, a group of Turner’s relatives and descendants gathered hundreds of others in Georgia to sing and laud her life.