Vague adages abound concerning history. We need to remember it, so we do not repeat it. We cannot know where we are going unless we know where we have been. History is written by the victors. People throw around these adages when it suits their personal beliefs, like when Confederate monuments are threatened (“Project Say Something: Acting Up,” Garden Spices May 2018). But most people are only comfortable talking about a history that fits their worldview.
I encountered this problem while attempting to write an article for a fourth-grade history classroom about the Civil War. The article addressed the life of townspeople in Florence, Alabama during the war, and included a writeup about a lynching of an elderly African American man at the hands of the Confederate cavalry. While the teacher was glad that the article included local information about the Civil War, he deemed the lynching too controversial.
And so, we do not teach it. And we do not talk about it. And we do forget. And when we drag it back up, we’re dwelling on the past. Or creating unnecessary controversy. But talking about the truth, talking about history is necessary for healing.
Leighton, Alabama is a town in Colbert County, Alabama with a population around 700. In the 1800s, it the town was a shipping center for cotton. It is the birthplace of musicians Lefty Bates and Percy Sledge. It is the home of the John Johnson House and Preuit Oaks, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And it is the place where four African American men were lynched.
In April 1894, three African American men were lynched by a mob near Leighton. There had been a barn burning on Claude King’s property nearly a year before, in which King had lost $5,000 in property. King had foreclosed on a mortgage against one of the men. According to newspaper accounts, the town employed a “Negro detective” to find the culprits. The detective obtained “evidence” that Fayette Delony, his son Emmet Delony, and Ed Felton were the guilty men, and they were arrested in conjunction with the crime. The three men were brought to jail in nearby Tuscumbia, where they remained for ten days. At 11:30 on a Saturday night while the sheriff was at a Masonic banquet, a mob of between 25 and 50 disguised men from Leighton descended upon the jail. The mob broke into the jail and took the three African American men to a nearby bridge. They hanged them and riddled their bodies with bullets.
Fifteen years later in January 1909, an African American man named Sam Davenport was lynched for the alleged burning of a barn near Leighton, Alabama. John Galbraith’s barn and property were destroyed, resulting in the loss of roughly $5,000. Local authorities sent for bloodhounds from Lawrenceburg, TN to hunt for the culprit. The bloodhounds led authorities to a young boy, who allegedly blamed Davenport for the crime. According to a newspaper account: “The evidence against the negro, a man much below the average of his race in intelligence, was conclusive.” That evidence consisted of two sets of footprints near the scene of the crime.
Davenport was taken to jail in Leighton. A mob of 25 to 30 men broke into the jail and took Davenport two miles into the woods where they hanged him.
This is our brutal past. We cannot run away from it; we cannot hide it; we cannot cover it with time and hope it goes away.