July 3, 2019
Before the Central Park Five, There Was the Trenton SixBreaking News
tags: civil rights, Central Park Five
Dr. Denise Lynn is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. Her research centers on women in the American Communist Party during the Popular Front. Follow her on Twitter @DeniseLynn13.
The four-part docuseries When They See Us, directed by Ava DuVernay, has brought attention to the notorious case of the Central Park Five, a legal case that for many of us unfolded in living memory. The attention the docuseries brought to the case has inspired historians to make comparisons to other cases involving the legal frame-up of young Black men. Carl Suddler and Heather Ann Thompson have cited cases like the Scottsboro boysand the Harlem Six as examples. Thompson argues that these cases reveal that the American “criminal justice system is a proxy for white anxieties about blackness and brownness in America.” One of the cases Suddler specifically mentions is the Trenton Six, one that featured many of the same elements of the Central Park Five, including the targeting of a group of Black men with only precarious links to one another and the use of false confessions. It also features another element: the efforts and resistance of people and organizations to point out the regular use of police brutality and manipulation to control Black bodies and lives as well as to seek the exoneration of the men.
On January 27, 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey, William Horner and his wife were brutally attacked in their furniture store. William Horner would later die at the hospital; his wife Elizabeth claimed that three men were responsible for the attack. Another witness told the police he saw only two “light-skinned” Black men leave the building. Squads of police began monitoring Black neighborhoods, pulling men over and generally terrorizing peopleunder the direction of Trenton’s director of public safety, Andrew J. Duch, who ordered that all Black men after dark be detained. By January 31, twenty men had been arrested. In the midst of this Collis English, a Navy veteran, was arrested on a complaint by his stepfather for using the family car without permission. His mother was told he would likely only be detained for an hour, but instead he never returned. Much like Korey Wise of the Central Park Five who only went to the station to support his friend, English’s brother-in-law, McKinley Forest, went to the police station to ask after him but did not return. During his detention, the police asked English what he did on January 27, and while being questioned, he mentioned his friends Ralph Cooper and “Buddy” Wilson. Later that day the police arrested Cooper at his friend Horace Wilson’s apartment, arresting Wilson as well. The police announced they had four men in custody for the murder, even after Elizabeth Horner could not identify them as the assailants. The police later arrested another man whose name English mentioned, James H. Thorpe Jr.
English’s mother Emma called her daughter Bessie Mitchell concerned about the lengthy absences of both Collis and “Mac” McKinley Forest. Bessie, along with some friends, went to the police station demanding to see both Collis and Mac. She was allowed to speak to Mac, who had no idea why the police booked him and was never told under what charge. On February 10, the Trenton Evening Times ran the headline “Five Confess Brutal Killing of Merchant,” accompanied by a picture of the five men. This was the first Emma or Bessie heard about the charges. The headline put the police on the spot, and that evening they forced confessions out of four of the men. Horace Wilson was the only holdout. The police returned to the English’s the next morning asking for Jack Martin or Jack Kelly. Finding neither, they arrested Forest’s nephew John MacKenzie. Historian Cathy Knepper emphasized in her book on the case that MacKenzie was the only man in good health and that he and English were the only ones who could read and write competently. The men were indicted for murder on February 17.
Why do cases like the Trenton Six and the Central Park Five happen and how can we stop them? Heather Ann Thompson argues that it would require not just a “fundamental restructuring of policing” in the United States, but a restructuring of housing, education, employment opportunities, etc.—in short, a substantial upheaval of racist American institutions and the white fragility that maintains them. The CPUSA and the CRC were deeply unpopular in their time and were legally harassed nearly out of existence; however, one lesson we can take from the groups’ regular commitments to racial unity in the face of racist oppression is that to change an oppressive system, it is the people that have to force the change. The “ruling classes” will not do it.
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