Memorials to Mark South Carolina's Last Lynching

2:26 PM, Jan 30, 2011   |    comments
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Greenville, SC (The Greenville News)--Old Bramlett Road leaves little room for cars to pass, a semi-rural passageway paved over to bridge the once-wild with the civilized. Here, on a forgettable road, a young, black Willie Earle lay beaten, muti­lated and shot to death at the hands of an angry posse of white Greenville cab drivers.

It was1947, South Carolina's last known lynching.

More than half a century lat­er, what little is left of Earle's family can't forget both what happened to him and what didn't happen to the 31men charged in- but ultimately acquitted of- his savage killing.

They want the story told, they say.

A group committed to remembering Ear­le's death plans to do just that.

On Feb. 24, a coalition of local civil rights activists will unveil memorials along Old Bramlett Road near the Parker community and at the downtown courthouse to describe a deep and sparely spoken of scar.

"We need to talk about it," said Xanthene Norris, a Greenville Coun­ty councilwoman and member of the W illie Earle Legacy Committee. "I think we can bring some reconciliation to Green­ville, because most people don't want to talk about it. A lot of people say, 'Who was W illie Earle? Did it really happen?'" It was a Monday - Feb. 17, 1947 - and dawn wasn't far from breaking.

A group of taxi drivers in downtown Greenville grew into a mob as their tempers flared over what had hap­pened earlier in the eve­ning, accor ding to a 2003 examination of the case by The Greenville News, which obtained FBI and local po­lice investigation files.

One of their own, Yellow Cab driver Thomas W. Brown, a disabled veteran, had picked up a fare at about 9 p.m. earlier in the evening on Markley Street for a r un to the Liber ty area in Pickens County. An hour later, Brown was found alongside the old Liber ty-Pickens road, bleeding after being robbed and stabbed three times.

Brown lay dying in a hos­pital as the group - all but three of them taxi drivers - worked up the courage to exact their own justice.

Footprints led from where Brown was found to the dilapidated Earle house a mile away, where police said they found some of the money, a bloodstained jacket and knife. Earle was ar rested and housed in the Pickens County jail.

The taxi drivers' anger swelled at the West Cour t Street taxi of fice and cafe that faced each other be­hind the cour thouse. They assembled at the Saluda River Bridge on what is now State 124.

At about 5 a.m., Pickens jailer J.E. Gilstrap said he awoke to find a mob of men wearing mostly taxi driver caps and pointing guns at him, demanding he hand over Earle, which he did.

An hour later, a black fu­neral home in Greenville received an anonymous call saying a body could be found on Bramlett Road.

The 24-year-old Earle had been beaten, his flesh mutilated, and shot in the head with a shotgun.

The following day, 31 white men were charged in the killing.

Gov. Strom Thur mond issued a denunciation: "I do not favor lynching, and I shall exer t ever y resource at my command to appre­hend all persons who may be involved." The trial attracted an in­ter national audience.

The judge r uled 26 con­fessions - each of them pointing blame - couldn't be considered in the all­white jur y's deliberations, which took five hours be­fore a not guilty verdict was handed down on all counts. The trial was a tur ning point for the mere fact that there was a trial at all.

Relatives remember

Tessie Robinson was ster n, says James Sidney Robinson, whom Tessie claimed as an infant and raised as her son 10 years after Earle's death.

She was 38 when her son was lynched. She passed away eight years ago.

"She was a tough lady," Robinson said. "There wasn't too much cr ying that we ever saw. If she cried, it was behind closed doors." Janet Lounds - Earle's niece, now 47 - remem­bers her as "Grandma." "She never did get over it," said Lounds, who has grandchildren of her own. "All her life she'd talk about it." Lounds' mother passed away three years ago. Her brother, Renee Lounds, was gunned down last May in a home just three or so miles from where Earle was killed. Lounds' killing is unsolved.

Lounds, who will par tici­pate in next month's events to memorialize the lynch­ing, said, "I think they need to know about what hap­pened. It's good to let them know that something is be­ing done, to know that he's thought about." The idea to for mally me­morialize the Earle lynch­ing was bor n when a group of activists went to Missis­sippi and took par t in an ef­for t to remember the 1955 lynching of Emmett T ill.

As in Earle's case, the men charged in T ill's mur­der were acquitted - but later, in a magazine inter­view, admitted killing him.

"Why has it not been said that, 'Well, yes, this lynch­ing did happen in Green­ville, South Carolina?'" Nor ris said. "In a lot of cases, even with my own parents, they did not want to talk about it." On Feb. 24, a 10 a.m. gathering at the downtown librar y will be followed by the unveiling of signs at the old Greenville County cour thouse and at the Old Bramlett Road site to me­morialize the lynching.

The signs were approved by the state Depar tment of Archives and Histor y.

The group hopes com­munity leaders attend, with a larger goal of pushing the debate of transitional jus­tice to the fore, said Efia Nwangaza, an attor ney in­volved in the committee.

"I cer tainly hope that's one of the things that comes out of it," she said.

By Eric Connor































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