In a shrine to silence and shame, Mobile has a marker for its regrets. It’s perched atop a wall beneath an overhang, like a bird poised between flight and shelter.
Mobile’s marker is near a corner of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. Commonly called the National Lynching Memorial, it hallows victims of the racially inspired domestic terrorism that marred the United States from 1877 to 1950.
In design, it’s impeccable. Visitors enter on ground level, through a phalanx of rusty, upright steel boxes built like paupers’ caskets. Each bears the name of a U.S. county along with the names and dates of its lynching victims.
The floor slowly drops away as the blood-colored caskets rise. Finally they hang, a forest of lynched souls dangling above visitors’ heads. All told, 800 slabs venerate nearly 4,500 victims.
In emotion, it’s undeniable. Voices lower, footsteps soften as visitors read descriptions of the capricious reasons murderous mobs arose. A concrete wall sheeted by cascading water pays tribute to undocumented victims.
“When it comes to lynching, the individuals died twice. Once with the actual murder but the second part was their lives were lost to history, because lynchings aren’t made to be recovered,” said Dr. John Giggie, director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.
Sunlight cuts across Mobile’s marker, pulling seven names and dates from the shadows.
Zachariah Graham, 03.31.1891 • Richard Robinson, 10.06.1906 • Will Thompson, 10.06.1906 • Moses Dossett, 09.22.1907 • Richard Robertson, 01.23.1909 • William Walker, 07.31.1910 • James Lewis, 06.06.1919.
Questions buzz like slaughterhouse flies. Who were these men? What put them here? Why have they been forgotten?
Putting faces to names
Mobile adores its past. Its 316 years feel deep and rich, like the Black Belt soil that bestowed King Cotton’s lucrative favor on the port city.
A romantic sheen glistens across Mobile’s wrought-iron balconies and columned mansions. It cavorts with Mardi Gras revelers through ancient graveyards and under massive live oaks shaggy with resurrection ferns.
The past is given deference. Myth and reality commingle, eventually indistinguishable to many. Despite Mobile’s nostalgic haze, racial violence was always a specter.
“[This reality] doesn’t sit well with people invested in moonlight and magnolias, who want to capture a version of the Old South or the New South that is about white-gloved ladies and cotillion dresses and finely dressed men in grey neo-Confederate suits,” Giggie said.
Zachariah Graham claimed to be from the West Coast, bound for New York and taking work along the way. He was in Mobile just long enough to die.
On May 31, 1891, Whistler’s Justice of the Peace Ira Pringle ran into O.P. Page, who was dragging Graham through the little community just beyond Mobile city limits. Page was a section boss of the Mobile and Ohio rail line. He claimed the roughly 30-year-old Graham had “attempted assault” on Page’s 12-year-old daughter the previous day.
Pringle looked over the cowed captive, 5-feet, 6-inches, a slight moustache and chin whiskers. He told Page to follow the law, to make an affidavit then go to trial.
“I heard he’s wanted in Texas. There’s a $50 reward upon his delivery to Sheriff Holcombe in Mobile,” Page said.
Pringle went home while Page awaited the train into downtown Mobile. At 6 p.m. a black man knocked on Pringle’s door. A bloodthirsty crowd at the Whistler depot was looking for Graham.
“There was a good deal of excitement,” Pringle drily told a reporter about the 100-person mob he encountered.
Pringle wanted custody of Graham. He told a nervous Page trial by jury was best.
“A trial is as good as an acquittal,” Page said as he shook his head.
Deputy Sheriff Chris Mitternight arrived and helped secure Graham in a small office in the depot, away from the mob’s clutches. Pringle wired the sheriff to come immediately from Mobile since Graham’s train wouldn’t arrive there until 9:30 p.m.
The outside frenzy continued. At 7 p.m., the mob fetched a Miss Sweeney from Turnerville. She glimpsed Graham and denied he was her attempted assailant from a week prior.
Unarmed, Mitternight, Page and Pringle questioned Graham. He never mentioned guilt or innocence.
At 8 p.m., the mob clambered through the office windows and unlocked the door. Shots were fired, the lights extinguished.
The mob pulled at Graham. Mitternight, Pringle and Page hung on vainly.
Finally, the mob disappeared into the woods with their terrified prize.
Minutes later, Pringle heard shots. He didn’t see Graham again.
The 9:30 p.m. train arrived in Mobile with no prisoner. A reporter took the next train to Whistler and found a small crowd at the depot. They pleaded ignorance to a lynching.
The men asked if the reporter was with law enforcement. He said no.
One man said a “Negro” prisoner escaped from officers earlier. He supposed the runaway was “hid down there in the swamp.”
“My advice to you, young man is to get on the next train for Mobile and not to ask any questions while you stay here,” the man said.
“It is reported the Negro went to heaven by the hemp route,” another added.
No corpse discovery was reported. An editorial criticized the incident and it otherwise disappeared.
“After the Civil War, you have notions of the Southern white woman as honorable, deified as the apotheosis of Southern culture,” Giggie said. “They were to be respected and kept apart from the supposed base passions, the unrestricted indignation of black men.”
Any interaction between black men and white women was suspect and incendiary.
“It was an easy excuse if you simply wanted to kill a black man who demanded greater wages on the farm. You’d simply blame him for assaulting a white woman. More than enough reason for inciting to lynch,” Giggie said.
Racial friction dominated Mobile’s wealth of daily newspapers in the 1900s. News of lynching and riotous calamity from across the nation littered the front pages regularly.
Editorials denounced lynching as mob rule. They weren’t as kind otherwise.
Mobile Register Editor Erwin Craighead — the namesake of Craighead Elementary School, which reported 100 percent African-American students last year — deemed whites “the superior race” and claimed black men slept through the day, fed vices at night and their women paid for it all. He said vagrancy made them steal, fight and beat women, that their cocaine and alcohol addictions made blacks “ruthless madmen” and stirred “black terror.”
Max Hamburger’s Daily Herald claimed Plateau and Magazine Point were rife with alcohol and gambling. The Herald described “weekly orgies” in their gathering spots.
“The city’s own brand of segregation … actually contributed to a growing atmosphere of hostility, estrangement and fear,” Dr. David Alsobrook, former director of the History Museum of Mobile, wrote in his meticulous 1983 doctoral dissertation.
On June 27, 1900, a statue of Confederate Rear Adm. Raphael Semmes was erected at the prominent intersection of Government and Royal streets. A popular Mobilian, Semmes spent his post-war years as a lawyer and man of letters. In 1869, he penned a steadfast defense of the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause.”
For dedication day, the Daily Register described a citywide holiday, an elaborate parade and thousands of cheering spectators. An artillery salute sounded and a band played “Dixie” as the Semmes statue was unveiled.
“These Confederate monuments celebrate a version of the past in which slavery is vanished and white slaveholders and soldiers fighting for the Confederacy are all glorified,” Giggie said. “There’s no representation of black life at all.”
In 1901, Alabama adopted a new constitution. As stated by Convention President John B. Knox in opening remarks, its purpose was to “establish white supremacy in this state.”
On Nov. 9, 1902, Lewis Wyatt was charged with “assaulting” a white child just west of Springhill and Broad. A mob gathered while police officer Newell held the black man and waited on a police wagon.
One incensed man tried to stab Wyatt but Newell thwarted the attacker as the crowd’s fervor grew. The police employed multiple wagons and subterfuge to confuse the riotous throng.
A 300-person mob marched on the police station at 10 p.m., some armed. “In the crowd were many citizens of the better class and many who were merely spectators,” the Register reported. Authorities dispersed the vigilantes.
“This is actually how people thought. This wasn’t just one guy living in a trailer park somewhere deep in the woods. This was general public knowledge consumed and approved of by most white citizens,” Giggie said.
“The cultural power of lynching — indeed, the cultural power of white supremacy itself — rested on spectacle,” Amy Louise Wood wrote in 2009’s “Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940.”
The 2000 book “Without Sanctuary” contains nearly 100 lynching photos used as souvenirs and postcards.
Will Thompson left Selma at age 16. After four years in Birmingham, he turned southward and ended up a waiter in Mobile.
In August 1906, two white girls claimed Thompson lured them to a vacant house where they were “inhumanely treated.” After arrest, his preliminary hearing provided lurid newspaper copy.
Thompson was unrepresented by counsel. County prosecutor James Webb wrote the governor and explained “newspapers have greatly exaggerated the facts … if the Negro had a fair and impartial trial he would probably be convicted of nothing above a misdemeanor.” Webb noted the state’s medical evidence seemed to exonerate Thompson but rumors inflamed the public.
Sheriff John Powers sensed trouble, so deputies took Thompson to Birmingham. On Aug. 29, roughly 500 heavily armed Mobilians violently stormed Mobile jail seeking the accused. The Register said the mob “later increased by several thousands.” The Daily Item said the crowd “included men of distinction and those who move in all walks of life in Mobile.”
A mob of 300 attacked the next evening. Powers dispersed them using a telegraph from Birmingham verifying Thompson’s custody.
Nature heightened tensions when a catastrophic hurricane struck Mobile on Sept 27. A nearly 10-foot storm surge tossed oceangoing ships onto the debris-strewn riverfront. Christ Episcopal Church was in ruins, its steeple and roof in a pile.
Across Mobile County, an estimated 5,000 houses were damaged. Electric and telegraph service was mostly gone.
While only one person died in the city, the Register proclaimed 79 fatalities in the Southern half of the county, 31 of them in the seaside village Coden. Hundreds of county residents were without food, drinking water and shelter.
NOAA estimates of damage were $1.65 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $42 million in today’s dollars.
Register headlines shouted “NEGROES LOOTING HOMES OF DEAD” and described theft and corpse mutilation by blacks. A later investigation negated those details.
On Oct. 2, another lynch mob attacked the jail, this time looking for Cornelius “Dick” Robinson. The 17-year-old, unemployed Clarke County native was accused of assaulting a white girl.
Anticipating trouble, Powers moved Robinson to Birmingham as he had Thompson. The fevered rioters fatally shot white law enforcement agent Roy Hoyle during their siege. The governor ordered militia to Mobile.
On Oct. 6, Powers and a deputy stood on a Birmingham train platform with Thompson and Robinson, bound for court in Mobile. Daily Item reporter C.J. Fiourney joined them.
Near Mount Vernon, eight men in white masks boarded the train. They held Powers and his man at gunpoint and demanded the prisoners.
One told a reporter the vigilantes were “leading businessmen of Mobile.” They told Powers lynching was best done outside city limits. Otherwise, it would “leave a stain upon Mobile that would take years to wipe out,” the Item reported.
For them, lynching was a given. Location was the question.
Other black passengers were terrified. One masked man approached them and said “no harm would come to them if they stayed where they were.”
At Creola, more masked men joined with rope and straps. By the time they ordered the train stopped near Plateau, there were 45 in the lynching party.
As they left the train with the prisoners, Mobile Herald publisher Max Hamburger was there. By then a state senator, he implored the mob to let the prisoners “stand trial and be ‘legally hanged.’”
“Assaults on our women must stop or we [may] kill every Negro in Mobile County,” the mob leader replied.
The party marched eastward toward Plateau, an independent-minded community founded by freed slaves. About 200 spectators trailed the execution crew.
According to the Item, they left Holt Road and 100 yards later — The New York Times estimated 300 yards — threw the ropes over live oak limbs. A mob member called an AP reporter over to Robinson, certain of a confession. The doomed man “screamed” his innocence.
Both were hanged about 12:30 p.m. Onlookers swarmed forward as the bodies swayed in the wind.
The site was near the streetcar lines, so sightseers from Mobile poured onto the scene; Alsobrook cited as many as 3,000. Frustrated attendees fired shots at the bodies. A suggestion to burn the bodies was snuffed.
Some took photos of the dangling corpses to use for postcards. Others snagged bits of rope, tree bark or the victims’ clothes, even their shoes, for souvenirs.
The victims were finally cut down around 4 p.m. A justice of the peace held a quick inquest and declared they died from strangulation by “persons unknown.”
The newspapers decried mob rule. On Oct. 12, Craighead opined Northern blacks shouldn’t agitate “the Negroes in the South” who “are fairly well satisfied with their lot, and have good reason to be.”
In the space above the editor’s remarks, an announcement boasted of $1,400 raised for a monument to Father Abram Ryan, the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy.” In 1913, the adherent to “Lost Cause” style verse would be honored with a statue in a park bearing his name.
The nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) conceived and built the lynching memorial. It opened in late April 2018.
Lynching “was intended to terrorize communities of color … It was the optic of this raised violence that made the threat, the menace even more powerful,” EJI founder and Director Bryan Stevenson told CNN.
On Sept. 22, 1907, Whistler deputies loaded Moses Dossett onto a wagon for a rainy ride to Mobile’s jail. Earlier that evening, the prisoner had crept into the Widow Beeder’s home as the 90-year-old read a newspaper.
She spied the intruder and stood. Dossett “lunged” and “caught her” so Beeder screamed. He fled.
Neighbors came. Angry searches erupted. Deputy Charles Smith arrested Dossett two miles west of Whistler, “near Wolf Ridge.” Beeder identified Dossett, who said he entered the home “looking for a match.”
Smith and Hutch Adams knew local crowds were riled and feared mob action. They opted for an indirect route down Old Telegraph Road to fool the fevered, setting out near midnight.
“More than two miles from Whistler,” a dozen armed men in long coats, masks and “slouch hats” sprang from both sides of the road. The deputies moved to protect Dossett. The mob warned interference meant death.
The masked men seized Dossett and disappeared into the woods “with a yell.” He was hanged on a tree “within yards” of where Thompson and Robinson were murdered in 1906. A Register reporter described the mob as “orderly” and said the storm obscured the crime from nearby residents.
Crowds endured a downpour to visit the crime scene after dawn. Some clipped rope and clothing bits for souvenirs.
Dossett’s relatives claimed his body at 8:30 a.m.
Days later, the Sept. 28 Register reported a notice posted at the Whistler railroad workshop gates. It notified three black men, “Edward Thomas, Mosley and Cole, that they had been talking too much and reminding them that ‘there were plenty of ropes and trees left.’”
The precise lynching location for Dossett, Robinson and Thompson is unknown. One account said it was off Holt Road and another mentioned “Old Whistler Dirt Road,” neither found on historical maps.
Another account said it was a half-mile from the intersection of the Whistler and Magazine Point streetcar lines, just north of where Wilson Avenue currently passes beneath Interstate 165.
A half-mile east from there toward Plateau is Whitley Elementary School, where Prichard Junior High once stood. It faces a street named for a family who smuggled the last shipload of enslaved Africans into the U.S.
Where kids swung from playground equipment, men may have once hung from trees.
Erwin Craighead was grateful lynching occurred beyond city limits. Scotty Kirkland, historian and author of a forthcoming book on Mobile’s racial politics, said this feeling was common among city leaders.
“It gave those in town opportunity to blame it on the less-cultured residents in the country. That was their ‘out’ for looking the other way while this went on,” Kirkland said.
On Jan. 21, 1909, Deputies W.N. McCarron and Phillip Fatch tried to serve an assault warrant on mulatto carpenter Richard Robertson. Robertson pulled a .38 pistol. Gunfire wounded all. Robertson was arrested before Fatch died.
On Jan. 23 at 1 a.m., roughly 25 men stormed the jail at Church and Royal streets. They held deputies at bay, secured keys and seized Robertson. Out the back, they took the alleyway to Church Street and turned west.
A half-block later they stopped at a tree on St. Emanuel Street, across from the city’s oldest church, newly rebuilt Christ Episcopal. Robertson fell to his knees and cried out. Three shots rang.
Witnesses say Robertson was still kicking when hoisted on the rope. The mob dispersed and residents of the prestigious neighborhood gathered. Deputies removed Robertson’s corpse an hour later. The coroner found three fresh bullet holes and a broken neck.
Condemnation was widespread. William Armbrecht, U.S. Attorney in Mobile, organized state prosecution of Sheriff Cazalas for ignoring rampant lynching rumors. Cazalas was impeached and replaced by John Drago.
The new sheriff was credited with stopping three lynching deaths between July 1909 and August 1910.
On July 31, 1910, William Walker assaulted and robbed Nettie Gibson, a 21-year-old white woman in Axis, slashing her young brother in the process. He stole her rifle, with which he shot and killed Jesse Brown, a black man nearby.
Enraged citizens combed the countryside. Walker attempted to jump a train and nearby witnesses said a group fired several shots. Rewards were offered.
When reports said a posse had Walker trapped in a swamp, he was presumed dead. That information was published in the Register, the Atlanta Constitution and the Macon Daily Telegraph.
However, the Register reported Walker at-large the following day. Nearly every day for a week it continued alerts and rumored sightings, until the Aug. 10 front page announced Walker’s imprisonment in Mobile. He had been arrested in Biloxi Aug. 8 and returned.
Walker stood trial in early September and quickly was found guilty of murdering Brown and assaulting Gibson. He was hanged by the state on June 2, 1911.
Walker was adjudicated and executed by the state, not lynched. The overwhelming volume of cases EJI researched nearly ensures errors. In Walker’s case, a lynching was initially reported.
Noted UAB historian Dr. Glenn Feldman referenced 12 lynching cases for Mobile County in a 1995 Alabama Review article. He gave no individual listing.
Feldman died in 2015. No explanation of his additional lynching cases was available.
James Lewis was shot June 6, 1919 as he walked through Prichard. The Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology listed the cause as “race hatred.” Alsobrook said it stemmed from “trouble between white and colored workers in [a] cotton mill.”
Lewis spoke with Sheriff William Holcombe Jr. before he died. The laborer described his journey home and passing by a group of white men near Coleman’s Station.
“James Hamilton, aged 20 is charged with inciting a riot and Robert Hamilton, Clarence Hall, Tom Tyson, Dewey Kimball, Jeff Kelly, Fay Croker, Ben Warner and Edward Cleveland, ranging in age from 16-21, are charged with assault to murder … They are each held in $5,000 bond,” the Register reported.
Further Register reports on the case and defendants could not be discovered. Nothing was found in the Daily News-Item.
The name missing from the memorial is the one Mobilians know best: Michael Donald. In 1981, Klansmen randomly lynched the 19-year-old. His body was found on a residential midtown street now renamed for him.
The lynching memorial only covers deaths through 1950. Donald wouldn’t die for 31 more years.
Federal courts prompted a 1985 change to Mobile city government. Blacks would finally hold elected office.
On June 25, 2000, another grand event celebrated the centennial of the Raphael Semmes statue. Uniformed re-enactors, artillery and music were there. The commander of a local Sons of Confederate Veterans group called the statue “the most important piece of historical outdoor art in the city.”
Semmes still stands resolute and defiant, hand on hip. His gaze crosses Mardi Gras Park, straight to the front of Christ Church, where Richard Robertson was killed.
In 2005, Mobile elected its first black mayor. He was re-elected in 2009.
When Hilton Hotels assumed control of the historic Admiral Semmes Hotel in 2014, renovation was in order. The stylish spot is now just The Admiral.
An African-American Heritage Trail began in 2006. With 41 stops, it adds to Mobile’s vast wealth of historical markers and plaques.
A four-by-two-by-one-foot Plexiglas box filled with soil from lynching sites sits at the memorial. Touches of emerald have appeared in its multi-hued strata, moss and sprouts unintentionally included but fed by the moist earth and sunshine.
One visitor thought it symbolized the hope something positive can grow from attendees discovering shared humanity.
“Like a rose from the concrete,” she said wistfully.
In the outer yard around the main structure, more steel caskets lie in neat rows. There is a twin — same counties, same names — for every blood-colored slab inside.
These are intended for claim by their respective counties, for public display, recognition and acknowledgement. Coalitions from the respective places can apply for ownership.
“You can’t live in a community where most people came out and cheered while someone was tortured and hanged and expect to be a healthy community by never talking about it. It just doesn’t work that way,” EJI’s Stevenson told The Guardian in April 2018.
EJI staffer Jonathan Kubakundimana wouldn’t estimate how many communities have applied for their markers. “We’re actively working with an untold number,” he said.
Unclaimed markers will remain as testimony — to reluctance, the forgotten and the lost. Corten steel protects them from corrosion. Unlike the corpses they represent, they are resistant to time and exposure.
For the man behind it all, ownership of these markers isn’t about blame. It’s hope and redemption.
“Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson said.
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