When a black man named John Hartfield was lynched in Ellisville, Mississippi, on June 26, 1919 – hanged from a gum tree alongside nearby railroad tracks, riddled with bullets, and then burned – press coverage in newspapers throughout the country reported that ten thousand white men, women, and children had traveled from throughout the state to watch his gruesome murder.
Photo postcards of the brutal spectacle were sold afterward and a gleeful spectator even boasted of cutting a finger from the corpse to keep as a souvenir.
No reports, however, gave voice to the whispered horror, sadness, and fear of those who knew and loved John Hartfield, those who experienced his lynching as an act of terrorism aimed at intimidating the entire black community, and those who fled in fear for their own lives.
It has taken nearly 100 years for that side of the story to be told. Mrs. Mamie Lang Kirkland has been waiting.
Mamie Lang was born in the southeastern Mississippi town of Ellisville on September 3, 1908 to Edward Lang and his wife Rochelle. Earlier this month she celebrated her 107th birthday in Buffalo, New York, with family and friends, then marked another milestone on Wednesday, September 9th when she traveled to visit her birthplace for the first time in 100 years. The memory of John Hartfield’s lynching had kept her away and it was now what brought her back.
This past February, Tarabu Kirkland – Mrs. Kirkland’s youngest child and only living son – read an online article about the Equal Justice Initiative’s new report documenting racial terror lynchings. Clicking a link to browse the online summary report, he was struck by a full-page image of a newspaper headline: “John Hartfield Will Be Lynched By Ellisville Mob At 5 o’Clock This Afternoon.” He immediately showed the page to his mother, who was visiting him and his wife in Los Angeles.
“She had talked about John Hartfield for many years,” he recalled, “but his name had changed. She told me his name was John Harvey for a long time, so I could never get a beat on him. But when I saw the article, and I showed it to her, I asked her if this was the person she remembered. Before I could finish, she said that’s him, that’s the man.”
“My dad came home at 12:30 in the morning,” Mrs. Kirkland recalled in an Ellisville hotel lobby last week. “And he said, Rochelle, I got to leave. Get the children together, then you leave early in the morning.”
A mother of five children, including one nursing baby, Rochelle Lang gathered seven-year-old Mamie and her siblings and traveled by train to East St. Louis, Illinois, where they reunited with their father. There he explained that his friend, John Hartfield, had been seeing a white woman, and white men were after them both for the deadly transgression. This was in 1915, Mrs. Kirkland recalls, and for the moment they were safe.
The family remained in East St. Louis for about two years until May 1917 when, in the face of growing black migration into the area and increasing competition for jobs, three thousand white men waged a violent racial attack against the city’s black residents, homes, and businesses. By the time the violence was quelled, as many as 200 black people were dead and thousands were left homeless.
Two years later in June 1919, the front pages of newspapers in Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans announced the time and location of a premeditated murder not yet committed: the target was a black man named John Hartfield, and the method of death would be lynching.
Perhaps the violence in East St. Louis and the seemingly inescapable threat of racism left John Hartfield tired of running and longing for home. “[My father] told him, don’t go back. But he did go back,” Mrs. Kirkland explained. “And some time after he went back, that’s when they said he had a white girlfriend. So that’s when they murdered him."
Hartfield was accused of assaulting a white woman in an era when any contact between black men and white women attracted suspicion and violence. A posse of white men wounded and captured him after a ten-day manhunt, then kept him alive in downtown Ellisville while arranging for his public and torturous death.
“[Hartfield] has been taken to Ellisville and is guarded by officers in the Office of Dr. Carter in that city,” the Jackson Daily News reported on June 26, 1919. “He is wounded in the shoulder but not seriously. The officers have agreed to turn him over to the people of the city at 4 o’clock this afternoon when it is expected he will be burned.”
Despite the ample warning, and the organized efforts of a “committee of Ellisville citizens appointed to make the necessary arrangements for the event,” no effort was made to prevent Mr. Hartfield’s extrajudicial death or ensure him a legal trial. Governor Theodore G. Bilbo, an avowed white supremacist, declared himself powerless to prevent the inevitable lynching and predicted any attempt to do so would only lead to hundreds of deaths.
Instead they settled for just one.
“First, they kept him alive,” Mrs. Kirkland recalls hearing her parents discuss in hushed tones after they heard news of the lynching. “Then the next day they say they had a rope around his neck and was dragging him down the street with a horse, dead.”
After seeing the documented evidence of John Hartfield’s lynching in the EJI report and confirming it with his mother, Tarabu Kirkland resolved to visit Ellisville. His mother, who had long said she would never return to her birthplace, announced: “If you’re going, I’m going.”
Last Thursday, Mrs. Kirkland visited the area of Mr. Hartfield’s lynching and, along with her son Tarabu, daughter Beatrice, and daughter-in-law Nobuko, joined hands for a solemn moment of silence and prayer. Sitting in a wheelchair, dressed in all white, Mrs. Kirkland looked small and lost in her thoughts, as if for the first time absorbing the full weight of this place and memory. She chose not to offer any words at the site, but upon returning to the hotel turned to Tarabu and expressed what most horrified her.
“They were after my father too. That could have happened to him.”
Returning to Ellisville after one hundred years, Mrs. Kirkland holds joyful memories of playing underneath the family home with her siblings – and also some she’d rather not recall. Memories that shaped her life and the lives of countless others who lived through an era of racial terror and lynching that targeted black Americans for violence and intimidation for decades following emancipation. Many times during our conversation in Ellisville, while recounting the East St. Louis violence, the Alliance, Ohio, cross burnings, and the lynching of John Hartfield, she turns to her son and quietly says, “I didn’t think I’d have to tell this. I don’t like to talk about this.”
“I know,” Tarabu Kirkland says to his mother kindly. “But it’s important for the young people to know this history.”
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Kirkland says, straightening in her seat. “Oh yes it is.”