The murder of the prosecutor, lynchings, and the Eutaw Riot
In February, as we celebrate African-American history, we will reflect upon events and the contributions of African-Americans, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and Patton’s Panthers during World War II, the struggle for Civil Rights and the martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Jimmie Lee Jackson and many others. We will remember those who were enslaved in this land for generations over a period of 246 years, forced to live in abhorrent conditions and subjected to constant brutality for the purpose of enriching their oppressors. However, we often overlook those who came in between, those who lived through the transition from slavery to freedom, albeit a freedom consisting of strict boundaries, rights that existed only on paper, systematic violence and a justice system rigged against them.
In his 2013 documentary Many Rivers to Cross, Dr. Henry Louis Gates made a passing reference to four black men killed in a political rally in Eutaw, 1870. This incident is also described with the same brevity on the Eutaw page of the Encyclopedia of Alabama. I thought that this incident should be taught as a part of our history curriculum at Greene County High, but to do that, a great more detail was needed. The story that unfolded proved to be more complex than I originally anticipated and provides us with a glimpse of how this community must have been a century and a half ago. But before exploring those events, an understanding of Antebellum Alabama and of Greene County is necessary.
According to the 1860 census, the population in Alabama totaled just under a million. Of those, over 40 percent were black slaves. Fewer than 34,000 whites are listed as slave holders. The richest of these, known as Planters, owned slaves in numbers ranging from 20 to hundreds. Throughout the Black Belt, slaves outnumbered Planters and poor whites combined. The population of Greene County, now less than 9,000, at the time was more than thirty-thousand. Eutaw was a Planter town where the rich built their mansions while the surrounding cotton fields provided enormous income. At its peak in the 1850’s, Greene County produced more than 59,000 bales of cotton per year, creating a local gross domestic product of more than $100,000,000 in today’s money.
The political parties of the 1860’s bear little resemblance to today’s Republicans and Democrats. The Civil War started after the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln. The planter class sided strongly with the Democratic Party. Following the Civil War, black men in the Republican Party won elections to the U. S. Congress. Under the Reconstruction Act, federal troops ensured that black men in Alabama could freely exercise their voting rights in 1867.
In Eutaw, the Republican ticket won by more than 2200 votes in the 1867 election, due in large part to the votes of black men. A few months later a local constable arrested one of the black men organizing voters in Union, Nelson Harris, and charged him with having relations with a white woman. Supposedly, men took Harris from the constable. Harris’ mutilated remains were discovered the next day, as was the body of a white man named Palmer. An elderly black man name Sam Colvin reported to Judge William Miller the name of a man that he saw with Harris shortly before the lynching. A grand jury failed to indict the man and no further legal action resulted from the deaths of Harris or Palmer.
December, 1869; a young white man named Samuel Snoddy was robbed and his throat cut. The sheriff quickly arrested three black men; Henry Miller (former slave of Judge Miller), Sam Caldwell (Caldwell being his former master’s name) and his father Sam Colvin (the witness in the Harris murder). Solicitor (meaning attorney; in this case the elected county prosecutor) Alexander Boyd received word of the arrests. Attorney John Jefferson Jolly, 32, a graduate of The University of Alabama and former Confederate lieutenant colonel, was assigned to represent the men. Henry Miller and Sam Caldwell were held for trial in the death of Dr. Snoddy. However, according to the local authorities, the two escaped before trial. Rumors spread that the two were actually turned over to the Ku Klux Klan and executed. Then Miller’s body was discovered. Following a hearing, Sam Colvin won his release in early 1870, only to be murdered shortly thereafter.
Upon learning of the death of Colvin, Solicitor Boyd launched a one-man investigation. A few weeks later, in March, he spread the word around town that he knew which Klansmen murdered Colvin and would soon impanel a grand jury and secure indictments. On March 30, as the clock neared midnight, approximately two dozen men rode their horses into Eutaw. Wearing gowns of varying length, hoods and masks (one with horns), they rode in double-file military formation. After surrounding a hotel named Cleveland House, across from the courthouse, while the others stood watch, six men dismounted on command, entered the establishment, inquired as to the whereabouts of Mr. Boyd, ascertained his room number and proceeded to break down his door, drag him from bed and execute him on the spot. After the shooting, the men returned to their horses. Then, according to witnesses, the entire unit of Klansmen rode around the courthouse square in a sort of victory procession before riding off in the direction of Union. In Union, they rode to the house of James Martin, a black man, and shot him dead.
Sheriff White arrived at the Cleveland House promptly, examined the remains of Mr. Boyd, reportedly the recipient of two gunshot wounds to the head and many more to the torso, and determined that there was nothing to be done. He did not organize a posse at the time and there is no indication that he undertook a serious investigation afterward. Officials would later float the notion and convince a Greene County grand jury to concur, that the Klansmen came from Pickens County, but were never able to explain why anyone in Pickens would trouble themselves to murder Mr. Boyd. A grand jury in Pickens County disagreed with the finding.
Local planters attempted to paint Boyd as an unsavory character. In the 1850s, Boyd, in his early 20’s killed a man named Charner Brown in a fight near Union. The story was that after serving a year in the county jail, Boyd “ran off to Louisiana or Arkansas” and did not return to Eutaw until 1867. Colonel Jolly, when repeating the story to a congressional committee stated “[Boyd] was obnoxious generally to our people”, an apparent reference to the planters of Greene County. In fact, during most of the years that Boyd was absent from Greene County, records show that an Alexander Boyd served as a Confederate artilleryman in the Mobile area, obtaining the rank of sergeant before the end of the war. Also, as one member of the select committee opined, Boyd was apparently popular enough to be elected solicitor of Greene County. His headstone in Mesopotamia Cemetery still legibly proclaims “Murdered by Ku Klux”, inscribed at the behest of his uncle, Judge William Miller.
In June of 1870, Guilford Coleman participated as a delegate in the Republican state convention, casting his vote in support of Charles Hays of Greene County, the incumbent U. S. Congressman and Governor Smith. A few days after Coleman returned to Greene County, masked men abducted him. He was never seen again.
Eutaw Riot: On Oct. 25, 1870, Greene County’s Republicans, including more than a thousand black men, gathered for a public rally and speeches on one side of the courthouse square, at the same time that Democrats congregated to hear speeches on the other side. Scheduling both parties to meet at the same time and place appears to have been no error. The Republicans posted notice of their intent to rally and hear the speeches of the current governor, Hugh Smith, former Democratic governor turned Republican Lewis Parsons, and Senator Willard Warner (a former Union general) more than a week prior to the posting by the Democrats. The Democratic flyer included the names of speakers, such as the Democratic nominee for governor, Robert Lindsay. The state’s prominent Democrats were actually otherwise engaged that day.
Prior to commencing the rally Congressman Hays and some of the visiting Republicans expressed concern to Greene County Sheriff White and General Crawford, commander of the federal troops. The sheriff insisted that he would maintain order and possessed sufficient manpower to do so. General Crawford dispatched Major Leighton with a small platoon to stage two blocks from the courthouse. The Democrats arrived prior the Republicans, so the Republicans requested to occupy the opposite side of the courthouse. The sheriff opened the doors of the courthouse and men removed a table from within and set it just outside the doors for speakers to stand upon, that they may be seen by the fifteen hundred or so (mostly black men) congregated on the lawn. The Republican leaders sent a note to the Democratic leaders, asking if they wished to engage in a debate in front of the audience. Col. J. J. Jolly and Mr. John G. Pierce signed the reply, stating that there was nothing to be discussed.
The Democratic rally, which included an audience of less than 200, concluded first. Many of those attending the Democratic rally moved to hear the Republicans, some by standing along the walls of the courthouse, very close to the speakers. Senator Warner, first among the prominent Republican speakers, concluded prematurely due to heckling, which continued throughout the speech of Governor Smith and reached a crescendo as former Governor Parsons spoke. City Clerk Arthur Smith later testified that during Parson’s speech Deputy Hugh L. White (unknown the relationship to Sheriff White) warned him that he was to see “the damndest row here, in a little while”. As the governor spoke, according to Smith, Robert Hamblett drew a derringer and said “Let me kill the old s—o—b—“, and was restrained by the men around him as one said that it was not yet time.
Major Charles Hays, a local planter who became a Republican and a U. S. Congressman after the Civil War and championed the cause of the freed slaves, stepped onto the speaking table. Pierce (the democratic leader previously mentioned) testified that he was then speaking to Governor Smith, imploring him to ask Hays to refrain from speaking on that occasion, fearing that he would enrage some of the intoxicated young white men. As they spoke, men rushed Hays, two pulling him down as others tipped the table. Several of the black men came to his defense, opening their pocket knives as they surrounded him, scattering his attackers. Senator Warner told them to close their knives and that the matter was under control, as Hays’ attackers withdrew. A shot went off and Pierce later reported that it left a hole through his pants pocket without causing injury. That shot appeared to be the cue, as a fusillade of pistol fire erupted from inside the open courthouse. More men with pistols came around the building as someone (by some accounts, Col. Jolly), shouted to them that it was their time. Pierce testified that he assumed all of the shooting to be directed into the air and found the sight of all of the fleeing “negroes” amusing and doubled over laughing, until he noticed a black man lying on the court house lawn, his femur shattered by a bullet.
Sheriff White scuffled with one of Hays’ attackers. As the gunfire started, the sheriff and the senior Republicans began calling for the firing to stop, as they stood between some of the white democrats and the fleeing black men. As the firing died down, one of the men stated “I want to kill him anyhow” as he fired at Congressman Hays. The shot missed and Sheriff White tackled him before he could fire again. Some of the Democrats who had not been armed ran into a couple of shops and emerged with shotguns to pursue the fleeing men. A small number of the black men, being armed, stopped and fired back, providing cover for their escaping friends. Major Leighton arrived with his detachment, immediately moving to cut off the pursuit of the black Republicans. The firing ceased.
The local newspaper, the Eutaw Whig and Observer, proclaimed that four black men lay dead and more than 50 injured. A larger paper in Meridian picked up the story and it began to spread. Three days after the riot, Samuel B. Brown, a young attorney and disabled veteran who lived with the family of the previously mentioned attorney S. W. Cockrell, filed a criminal complaint in the federal court in Demopolis accusing attorney John Jefferson Jolly and 19 other white men from the “Democratic rally” of instigating the riot and perpetrating the violence. The twenty men were indicted and ordered to appear in federal court in Mobile and numerous witnesses to the riot subpoenaed. Samuel W. Cockrell and his son William were among those who travelled by steamboat from Greene County to Mobile, only to find the preliminary hearing postponed. On the return trip, the boat made a stop south of Eutaw and a man identified as “Reynolds” boarded. He and another man found and severely beat Samuel Cockrell. Judge Smith and his brother, the Circuit Court Clerk Arthur Smith also journeyed to Mobile to testify. Meanwhile, an arsonist’s blaze consumed the cotton gin on Judge Smith’s plantation.
In the summer of 1871, the Joint Select Committee on the Conditions in the late Insurrectionary States (a committee of the U. S. House of Representatives) held hearings to investigate the “Eutaw Riot”. Col. Jolly, attorney John G. Pierce, Circuit Court Clerk Arthur A. Smith, Eutaw planter James Blair Clark, Judge William Miller and William Cockrell testified and their testimonies filled hundreds of pages of the Congressional committee’s record. The committee appears to have worked diligently to uncover the truth about the incident but could not ascertain the exact number killed and wounded. It is certain that many of the black Republicans suffered injuries, possibly as many as the fifty-four stated in the news. Reports on the number killed range from zero to five, but no names of deceased are recorded.
Throughout what must have been hours of congressional committee testimony, Jolly denied any knowledge of the existence of the Ku Klux Klan in Greene County. He was pressed several times concerning events surrounding the death of Boyd, during which Jolly claimed to be in Mobile. The implication by one congressman who raised repeated questions concerning the military discipline of the Klansmen who murdered Solicitor Boyd could not have been lost on the young lieutenant colonel who had served as third in command of the 43rd Regiment, Alabama Infantry.
In addition to the murders of the six black men listed, Solicitor Boyd and the unknown victims of the riot, many other instances in Greene County came into the light during the committee’s hearings,. Reverend Hill received a beating after he dared to teach at the “Colored school”, which was twice burned to the ground (1869 & 1870) and the previous white teachers coerced into leaving town. The circuit court clerk, Arthur Smith, testified that many more beatings were reported, but not acted upon. In one such instance, Smith himself made an armed intervention to prevent the murder of Pierce Burton, as he lay on the ground, unconscious from an assault. Burton, publisher of the Demopolis newspaper The Republican, made the mistake of walking down the street in Eutaw unescorted. Judge Miller received a beating reportedly from Reynolds, the same man who initiated the attacks upon Burton and Cockrell. Judge Davis, a Greene County Republican also became the victim of an assault. During this same period of three years, four white men, Samuel Snoddy, James Carpenter, John Carpenter and “Mr. Palmer” were also murdered in separate incidents. Only one of these murders even resulted in a trial and ended in a hung jury. Col. Jolly described these years in Eutaw as the most peaceable that he could recall.
The precipitating event in the wave of violence in Eutaw appears to have been the 1868 election in which Republicans won by more than 2,000 votes, a majority of which were cast by black men. The murders of the six black men and Solicitor Boyd, the beatings, arsons and the attack on the Republican rally resulted in the effect that the terrorists sought; the suppression of the black vote. In the 1870 election, most of the black voters avoided the polls and the Democrats won by less than 50 votes. The suppressed black vote in Eutaw could have changed the results of the race for governor. Several prominent Republicans claimed voter fraud, but the results stood. In his Congressional testimony, Congressman Hays urged the committee to take no further action. The defeated Hays expressed the belief that if he and the other Republicans in Greene County would stop voicing their opinions, refrain from prosecuting past atrocities and allow the Democrats to run everything, the violence would stop.
Judge Miller left Greene County for a position in Mobile, shortly before his nephew’s murder. Circuit Court Clerk Arthur Smith also left the county. Both men stated that they feared for their safety if they remained. No serious consequences of the federal indictment resulted for Colonel John J. Jolly. Three years later, he won an appointment as the first city attorney for Birmingham. Mr. John G. Pierce became mayor of Eutaw.
Congress would go on to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875, meant to protect blacks from the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan and others. However, following the election of 1876, federal troops and the protection that they afforded were withdrawn. Supreme Court cases eroded the impact of the Civil Rights Act. Many of the planters continued to thrive with slave labor replaced by sharecroppers; blacks and poor whites working and living in the same conditions as medieval serfs. Between 1880 and 1968, more than 5,000 Alabamians (two-thirds of whom were black) were lynched. For decades to follow, the rights and protections of the 14th and 15th Amendments did not, in practice, extend to most black people.