Although we'd both written about them, Chris and I had to reacquaint ourselves with the gory details of the events at Palmetto. Here's a rough chronology of what happened:
February 1899 – Several buildings (reports vary from one to three buildings to two blocks of buildings) burn in Palmetto.
15 March 1899 – Nine African American men are arrested for arson. They are bound with rope and, under armed guard, are placed in a warehouse near Palmetto's depot, awaiting rail transportation for trial the next morning.
16 March 1899 – Between midnight and 1:00 a.m., an armed and masked mob of about 100 white men break into the warehouse and fire at all the prisoners. Four of them are killed immediately; one of them has mortal wounds; and two others are injured. The mob disperses into the night. At 10:40 a.m., a special train brings a command of state militia to the scene. The white townsmen are armed and, apparently expect local African Americans, who had fled, to attack the town at dark. The families of all the men accused of arson are driven from the community. No charges are ever brought for the murders,"at the hands of persons unknown."
12 April 1899 – Samuel Wilkes (aka Sam Hose), an African American laborer on the farm of Alfred Cranford near Palmetto, approaches his employer about his pay. Cranford draws a gun and Wilkes kills him with an ax. Subsequent accounts claim that Wilkes also threw the Cranford's infant to the floor and raped Mrs. Cranford. Wilkes flees to the south.
13 April 1899 – The first newspaper accounts of the murder of Alfred Cranford report a widespread search for Wilkes and, matter-of-factly, that he will be lynched and his body riddled with bullets or burned.
22 April 1899 – Wilkes is caught near his mother's home between Macon and Griffin Georgia. The Governor orders him brought to Atlanta for trial, but he is taken to Newnan.
23 April 1899 -- On Sunday morning, a crowd of 2000 people take him about a mile and a half out on the road to Palmetto. Children in the crowd are sent ahead to gather up firewood. Wilkes is hung and burned. Sunday's banner newspaper headlines notified the public of the event and, after church, special trains from Griffin and Atlanta bring additional site-seers out to the Palmetto Road for the occasion. Witnesses gather charred remains from the fire.
23 April 1899 – Some witnesses claim that shortly before his death, Wilkes said that a Baptist preacher, Elijah Strickland, had paid him $20 to kill Alfred Cranford. That evening, Lige Strickland is seized by a mob, tortured, and hung from a Persimmon tree near Palmetto. His ears and a finger are cut from his body.
24 April 1899 – The trophies from Lige Strickland's body are on display in Palmetto and W. E. B. Du Bois, a member of the faculty at Atlanta University, sees the charred knuckles of Sam Wilkes hanging in the window of a butcher shop in Atlanta.
Newspaper accounts of the events gave us only the roughest approximate locations. As we drove into Palmetto, however, we spotted the old railroad depot that stands near the warehouse in which the men accused of arson were killed. The railroad paralleled the highway as we drove out of Palmetto and stopped at a place near where Lige Strickland would have been lynched. So far as as we could tell, the modest building of North Coweta Baptist Church stands just about there. We were tempted to knock on its door and ask the pastor if he knew that an earlier Baptist preacher had been lynched there. As we drove toward Newnan, however, the real estate became increasingly impressive. Sam Hose would have died on what is now very expensive property. The crowd that burned him, after all, was led by prominent businessmen in the community. There was no historic marker anywhere in sight. It isn't that these events are unknown. Du Bois wrote about the lynching and burning of Sam Hose in The Souls of Black Folk and Ida B. Wells wrote about the murders of the African American men at Palmetto in March 1899, the lynching and burning of Sam Hose outside Newnan, and the subsequent lynching of Lige Strickland near Palmetto. More recently, Fitzhugh Brundage and Philip Dray have written about these events. But, on the face of things along Highway 29, you'd never know anything happened there.
Chris and I drove into Newnan and had lunch at Sprayberry's, a haunt once favored by Newnan's Alan Jackson and Lewis Grizzard. The barbecue was just o.k., better than what we were served in Monroe, but almost anything would be. The brunswick stew was better. I'm beginning to think that barbecue isn't an appropriate repast when you are hunting down lynching sites. We stopped at the public library and confirmed that there were grizzly reports of the 1899 events on its microfilm copies of the local newspaper. So far as we could tell, however, all local memory of them was tucked safely away in their metal filing cabinets.