EJI Joins Franklin County, Kentucky, to Confront History of Racial Injustice


Attendees point towards the sky in remembrance of victims of racial terror lynching in Frankfort, Kentucky. (Hannah Brown | State Journal)

EJI joined state and local officials and community members for a soil collection service on Sunday to commemorate the lynchings of Marshall Boston and John Maxey in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Sponsored by Focus on Race Relations (FORR), a local racial justice organization that formed in response to the tragic violence in Charlottesville two years ago, the ceremony featured remarks from Kentucky Representatives Derrick Graham (D-Frankfort) and Joe Graviss (D-Versailles) as well as musical performances by local artists, the Frankfort Community Choir, and students from Kentucky State University.

A proclamation acknowledging August 18-24, 2019, as “Remembrance of Marshall Boston and John Maxey Week” that was issued by Franklin County Judge-Executive Huston Wells was presented at the ceremony by Judge Wells’s representative, Tambra Harrod, and by Frankfort City Commissioner and Mayor Pro-tem Katrisha Waldridge.

After Reverend Les Whitlock, Pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church, blessed the soil, attendees were invited to place soil into four jars. Two jars will be exhibited at EJI’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and two are on display at the Paul Sawyier Public Library in Frankfort, where the ceremony was held.

The Lynchings of Marshall Boston and John Maxey

The two men remembered at the ceremony were among 169 African American victims of racial terror lynching that EJI has identified in Kentucky between 1880 and 1950.

Marshall Boston was hanged on an iron bridge over the Kentucky River on August 15, 1894.

According to news reports, Mr. Boston was accused of raping a white woman on August 14. The local sheriff informally deputized a group of 30 men who apprehended Mr. Boston and presented him to the alleged victim. When she identified him as her assailant, he was arrested and jailed.

In the strictly maintained racial caste system of this era, white lives and property held heightened value, while the lives of Black people held little or none. White womanhood, in particular, was often portrayed as being threatened by Black men, who were regularly stereotyped as violent, sexually aggressive, and desirous of contact with white women.

Almost 25% of documented lynchings were sparked by charges of sexual assault, at a time when the mere accusation of sexual impropriety aroused violent mobs and ended in lynching. Lynching, as a statement of racial terror and white supremacy, was largely reserved for Black suspects, who were burdened by a presumption of guilt due to racial hostility. White people accused of similar crimes were much more likely to be prosecuted through the legal system. Race, rather than the alleged offense, predominantly contributed to lynching victims’ fates.

At midnight, a white mob broke into the jail and abducted Mr. Boston, whose cell was reportedly under heavy guard. Armed law enforcement officers responsible for protecting the people in their custody almost never used force to resist white lynch mobs. In some cases, police were found to be complicit or active participants in lynchings.

Newspapers reported that, after the white mob abducted and beat Mr. Boston, he confessed. Black people accused of crimes during this era were often beaten and tortured to extract a confession, and these inherently unreliable statements were then reported as a justification for the brutal lynchings that followed, even in the absence of any evidence or investigation, much less a trial. The local press called Mr. Boston a “Black brute” and a “fiend,” drawing upon dangerous racial caricatures that heightened white people’s fears that Black men were intent on the sexual conquest of white women.

The white mob hanged Mr. Boston on the beam of the iron bridge that divides North and South Frankfort and fired hundreds of bullets into his body. A grand jury convened to investigate the lynching, but as was typical, no witnesses stepped forward and no indictment was returned.

John Maxey was hanged on June 3, 1909, from the girders of the St. Clair Street bridge in Frankfort.

Mr. Maxey was accused of shooting a white “circus man,” newspapers reported, and was arrested. On June 3, a white mob broke into the jail and abducted him.

During this era of racial terror, Black people accused of crimes were burdened by a presumption of guilt, even before investigation or trial, and white peoples’ allegations against Black people were rarely subject to serious scrutiny. In many cases, the mere suggestion of Black-on-white violence, in particular, not only provoked hostile suspicion against Black residents and the Black community, but also often resulted in mob violence and lynching before the judicial system could or would act.

The mob marched Mr. Maxey to the St. Clair Street bridge, where on their first attempt to hang him, the rope broke. They forced Mr. Maxey to climb up the girders and then pushed him to his death, in front of at least 200 people. The mob then fired multiple rounds into his corpse.

Of the hundreds of Black people lynched under the accusation of assault and other alleged crimes, nearly everyone was brutally killed without being legally convicted of any offense. Lynch mobs regularly displayed complete disregard for the legal system, even abducting Black people from courts, jails, and out of police custody. Law enforcement officials often failed to intervene and sometimes participated in mob violence. No one who participated in Mr. Maxey’s lynching faced prosecution.

EJI’s Community Remembrance Project

EJI’s Community Remembrance Project is part of our campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers, and developing the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.

As part of its effort to help towns, cities, and states confront and recover from tragic histories of racial violence and terrorism, EJI is joining with communities to install historical markers in communities where the history of lynching is documented. EJI believes that by reckoning with the truth of the racial violence that has shaped our communities, community members can begin a necessary conversation that advances healing and reconciliation.

Lynching in America

Thousands of Black people were the victims of lynching and racial violence in the United States between 1877 and 1950. The lynching of African Americans during this era was a form of racial terrorism intended to intimidate Black people and enforce racial hierarchy and segregation.

Lynching was most prevalent in the South, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. After the Civil War, violent resistance to equal rights for African Americans and an ideology of white supremacy led to violent abuse of racial minorities and decades of political, social, and economic exploitation.

In an expanded edition of Lynching in America, EJI also documented racial terrorism beyond Southern borders, detailing more than 300 lynchings of Black people in eight states with high lynching rates in the Midwest and the Upper South, including Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, West Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Indiana, and Ohio.

Lynching became the most public and notorious form of terror and subordination. White mobs were usually permitted to engage in racial terror and brutal violence with impunity. Many Black people were pulled out of jails or given over to mobs by law enforcement officials who were legally required to protect them. Terror lynchings often included burning and mutilation, sometimes in front of crowds numbering in the thousands.

In response to this racial terror and violence, millions of Black people fled the South and could never return, which deepened the anguish and pain of lynching. Many of the names of lynching victims were not recorded and will never be known.