Book about Mississippi lynchings has some local residents pondering their pasts

— Photo from the Johnson family

Church trip: Members of Pastor John Johnson’s congregation stand outside the church building in Albany, in the late 1950s or early 1960s, before boarding a bus to visit another church. John Johnson, a native of Shubuta, Mississippi, returned many times to his original hometown in the Jim Crow South to pick up and bring to the Northeast about 100 families, estimates his son, Sam Johnson. John Johnson is the tall and imposing figure near the back of this photo, in the rounded hat and beige coat.

Sam Johnson says his father, John, told him that he left Mississippi because “if he had stayed down there, he would have gotten killed.”

John Johnson devoted his life to rescuing other African Americans from what he saw as a brutal and racist South, driving them north in his Cadillac, one trip at a time, to Albany.

Sam Johnson, now 76, listened to a recent lecture by author Jason Morgan Ward on his book “Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century.” Although Sam Johnson is a native of Albany, his father was from Shubuta, Mississippi, the same small rural town that Ward uses in his book to look at three points, each about 25 years apart — 1918, 1942, and 1966 — as a barometer of the way that violence and terror shaped race relations in the 20th Century.

Ward, who has a doctorate degree from Yale and teaches history at Mississippi State University, was introduced by Anne Pope, who grew up in Shubuta. She has lived in Albany for many years and is the regional director for the northeast region of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Two of Pope’s siblings stayed in their home territory and have had successful careers. Pope’s family, she said, relied on a strong African-American community in Shubuta and taught her that people who harbored hatred and distrust didn’t deserve her thoughts.

Many in the audience, like Johnson and Pope, had a close personal connection to Shubuta, since their families had moved to Rapp Road with the Great Migration or they had come to the area on their own later.

Both Johnson and Pope told The Enterprise they were aware, growing up, of the lynchings that Ward describes in his book.

The first was a quadruple murder, in which four young people between the ages of 16 and 24 — two brothers and two sisters — were all hanged from the bridge after the owner of the farm where all four worked, a white man, was found murdered. Each of the women was pregnant with the boss’s child, Ward writes. A mob had seized the four from their jail cells before driving them to the steel-framed bridge over the Chickasawhay River on the outskirts of town.

In the second lynching, two teenage boys, aged 14 and 15, were hanged from the same bridge after a white girl accused them of trying to rape her. The boys, too, were taken from jail to the bridge.

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Author Jason Morgan Ward speaks at the Pine Bush Discovery Center last month about his book, “Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century.” 

 

The allegation had been that one of them had jumped out at her as she passed over a highway bridge and had made a lewd threat. Rumors abounded, with some saying that she had been seen by a traveling salesman chatting with one of the boys, and that the salesman had remarked, disapprovingly, “That’s the way you people up here treat your niggers.” Rumors also spread that she later denied the allegations against the young men.

In 1966, Ward writes, “the home of the bridge over the Chickasawhay remained a foreboding and seemingly impenetrable place.” Civil-rights volunteers from the North would be driven by their local counterparts straightaway to the Hanging Bridge and warned about the town’s legacy of violence.

By 1966, the FBI had identified three Klan klaverns operating in the county. A mimeographed flyer threatening death to any blacks that demonstrated in Mississippi arrived at the county’s civil-rights office in the summer of 1966. The year before had seen the passage of the Voting Rights Act, meant to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African-Americans from voting. But black Shubuta residents were hesitant to register to vote.

The town’s first civil-rights march, in August 1966, was held in support of a black boycott of businesses that did not hire African Americans to work where they could be seen; a rally in front of town hall ended when the many police officers surrounding the 60 marchers closed in and began beating them.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Samuel Johnson

 

Sam Johnson

Sam Johnson was born and raised in Albany. His father, a native of Shubuta, left Mississippi in 1931 and settled first in the Rapp Road neighborhood at the border of Guilderland and Albany, before moving downtown.

As a child, Sam Johnson heard from his father “that some children were hung on that bridge,” although his father talked “very little” about the bridge.

John Johnson said his father left the South not just because he feared for his life but because he “was not going to spend his life working for the white man. Those were his words to me.”

In Albany, Johnson’s father started out working for white people; his work as a painter, carpenter, and plumber brought him into their homes. But at the same time, Sam Johnson said, John Johnson saved his money and used it to buy houses that he then rented out to other families, many of which came from Mississippi.

During John Johnson’s lifetime, his son said, he bought 17 houses, all in the South End of Albany.

The elder Johnson — who had met and married Sam Johnson’s mother and started a family a few years after arriving in Albany — also drove out to Mississippi regularly and brought people to the Northeast, his son said. He died in 2004 at the age of 95.

Sam Johnson said his father was recognized as “a modern-day Harriet Tubman.” John Johnson received a posthumous Harriet Tubman Humanitarian Achievement Award, “in recognition of his commitment to his community by uplifting the poor, the powerless and the prosecuted.”

He brought over 100 families north from Mississippi, Sam Johnson said. “Many are still in Albany — teachers, ministers, doctors, lawyers.”

Sam Johnson said that he went south with his father many times, starting when he was 10 years old, in 1950. When he was 16, he got his driver’s license and would help with the driving.

 

Photo from the Johnson family
John Johnson

 

His father had a 1955 Cadillac, Sam Johnson recalled. Gas was 18 cents a gallon. Twenty-six dollars and 12 cents would take them all the way to Mississippi. They then returned to the Northeast with as many as 11 people in that car, Johnson said; four could sit in front, five in back, and several small children on laps in the back.

His understanding at the time of why people wanted to leave was that they wanted to find better jobs and get away from “hard-task work from sunup to sundown, and then because of the racism.”

“Hanging Bridge” author Ward said this week that this type of help was dangerous because employers in the South did not want their laborers leaving en masse for other parts of the country. “If you were seen as someone who was trying to entice black people from their labor, that was dicey. They [employers] were very aware that people were migrating, and there were active tactics of force and intimidation,” Ward said.

These tactics would be aimed not so much at the workers — who were indispensable to their employers — but at those helping them, Ward said.

The work was done in secrecy, and with a sense of urgency, Johnson said.

The Johnsons always arrived in Shubuta at around midnight. His father’s signal, Johnson said, was to beep the car horn four times and then flash the headlights four times.

“We never did get out of the car to go to anybody’s house. They knew the signal,” Johnson said.

Sometimes his father would change the signal, to a “special whistle,” because, Johnson said, “Out in the country in the middle of the night, everything is silent except crickets, and when you heard that certain whistle, people knew it was him.”

The Johnsons would wait no more than five minutes, after giving the signal. The people would come out with their belongings — sometimes a suitcase, sometimes just clothes in a bag, and with a bagged lunch. They would drive off to the next house where they were picking up someone else. After that, they would turn right around and get back on the road, Johnson said.

Eventually John Johnson established and served as pastor of the Greater St. John’s Church of God in Christ in Albany, where Sam Johnson’s brother, McKinley Bernard Johnson Sr., now serves as pastor. Sam Johnson is known there as Elder Sammy, and helps his brother with services.

John Johnson also started the first black-owned day-care center in Albany, his son said.

Sam Johnson was a trailblazer, too, in his professional life: He was the first black assistant manager of the Greyhound terminal in Albany beginning in 1966 and went on to work for Adirondack Trailways, then for the state’s Department of Transportation as an accident investigator and eventually became assistant emergency manager at the DOT. Retired from government service, he is now a certified teacher’s assistant in special education and works in the Albany school district.

Sam Johnson saw the Hanging Bridge for the first time in 2000, during a visit to Shubuta for a funeral. “Chills went through my body, because of the various things I had heard,” he said.

 

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Anne Pope, director for the northeast region of the NAACP, lives in Albany, but was born and raised in Shubuta, Mississippi. When she goes back to visit family, she said, “I go back and I’m still in my same community, my church and whatever little neighborhood is left.” That community formed her, as a child, into a positive thinker and confident person, she said, and sheltered her from whatever hatred motivated the two group lynchings on the bridge outside of town in 1918 and 1942.

 

Anne Pope

Anne Pope, who described herself as “a Shubuta girl,” born and raised there, said most of what she knew about the lynchings came from her mother, whom Pope recalls as a great storyteller. “She shared with us — I was the oldest child — everything that went on, different kinds of things that happened, whether they were black and white, or just black, or just white.”

She said she heard about details, including the idea that the mob had mutilated the boys’ bodies — a detail that Ward says is often repeated but may or may not be true.

Most importantly, she said, “My mother told us stories, and those stories were true stories. But she didn’t implant in us a hatred, or dislike, or distrust, or fear.”

Her community in Shubuta, she said, wasn’t exactly isolated, but it was partially isolated. “We had our own community. We lived in our own section of town. We had our own schools, because we could not go to school with the whites. We had what we felt were the best schools.

“We had our own churches. We had wonderful teachers, mentors, pastors, Sunday school teachers. Our families built community and family, and they knew well how to do that. They raised us up to be upstanding citizens.”

Pope said she went to school in Shubuta until the 10th grade, but that there was no black high school in Shubuta, so she attended school from that point in nearby Quitman.

She and her family members, she said, had love in their hearts. They grew up positive thinkers and had confidence in themselves, “because,” she said, “we could see beyond Shubuta, Mississippi.”

People who harbored hatred and distrust, she said, “did not deserve my thoughts, they did not deserve me feeling one way or the other about it. That was the way they lived; it was not the way I lived or the way people I cared about lived.”

She said that the one constant that comes from the stories is that, even though black people “had mean and nasty things happen to us, we were not pushovers at all.”

Pope was one of 14 children. Two of them died young, and of the remaining 12 — all of whom are still alive — two stayed in Mississippi. A sister, Pope said, is a nurse-practitioner in Quitman and a brother is a retired trucker in Waynesboro; both of those towns are near Shubuta.

Her brother and sister have both had successful careers there and have enjoyed mutual respect with the people — of whatever race — with whom they worked. Her other brothers and sisters all moved away, she said, when they went to college or started their careers.

Pope said that her family would sometimes worry about her going downtown, after she had moved away from Shubuta but would come back to visit, because she was very outgoing, she said, and “could hold a conversation with anyone.”

People would see her and start asking her questions, she said, about, for instance, where she came from, what it was like to live in the North, and how much money she made.  Her family, she said, knew that “those white people are sensitive.” They also knew “that the way I might respond might be dangerous.”

But she always made it back home, she said, adding, ‘We knew how to deal with it. They didn’t count. They never went to school. They never went away. They never left Shubuta. They weren’t worth thinking about.

“You were supposed to know that they were in charge,” she said, “but in charge of what? They didn’t have nothing.”

In 1960, Pope was going through a transition in her life, she said, and came to Albany, where she had several relatives. She brought her son and daughter with her and raised them in Albany.

Asked if she is related to the families in the Rapp Road community, Pope said that she is “related to all of them — we just claim each other. They’re great people. The Rapp Road group are just awesome.”

“It brings tears to my eyes to see how they’ve built organizations, built churches, built community. Got their kids to school, without having to use the white man for anything. They just did it,” she said.

She attends the Rapp Road family reunions when she can.

“The older I get, the more I enjoy the past,” Pope said. “You run toward it.”

 

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