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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Field trip: Carrollton, Mississippi

On my way home from Texas I took a detour north of Jackson to Carrollton, Miss. I wanted to see the little town that has preoccupied my imagination for so long.

Courthouse

The courthouse where, in 1886, more than a dozen black men were gunned down in cold blood still stands. At the time of what quickly became known as the Carrollton Massacre, it was less than 10 years old. According to a WPA history, the prior courthouse had been burned in 1875 by a Republican out of anger that the Democrats had "redeemed" the state from the political control of the Republicans, part of the infamous "Mississippi Plan": "Our great triumph [at the polls] compensated us for the loss of our principal edifice." (The next year, Carroll County residents contributed to the delivery of the state in the presidential election to Samuel Tilden.)

Local journalist Susie James wrote up a nice summary of what happened. Reduced to essentials: A white man, James Liddell, an attorney and newspaper editor from nearby Greenwood, ran into the brothers Brown (black Indian "half-breeds" with a reputation for trouble), molasses was spilled, "a fracas" ensued. The Brown brothers were thrown in jail. But before they could be tried (a lynch mob would have made quick work of them, but they plucked the wrong prisoner), they had the nerve to file charges against Mr. Liddell. This, when you get down to it, was their great offense.

On March 17, 1886, the trial commenced. The black men in pursuit of justice were not even given a prosecutor. Only their black friends were on hand to watch, for the whites had been warned away. They knew that the trial would not get very far before a particularly severe kind of order would be imposed on the court.

Courthouse entry

Minutes into the trial, a cloud of men on horseback arrived from the west (the direction of Greenwood). From all four doors of the beautiful, symmetrical courthouse they entered: 50-100 white men "armed with every conceivable fiream," according to the New Orleans Picayune. They bounded up the stairs to the courtroom. Although it was said in the regional white press that the black men were armed and that the intruders shot in "self-defense," there is conflicting evidence on whether any of the blacks had guns. No white men suffered injury.

With the entrance to the courtroom blocked by the assailants, some of the black men took the only exit they could find: the windows.

Courthouse
From New Orleans Times Democrat,
March 19, 1886


Some escaped that way with their lives; others were not so lucky. From the Picayune:

There was a general stampede of those who would escape the missiles of the crowd, thinking to reach the window, thirty feet high, and jump to safety; but alas! The crowd around the courthouse, all being strangers, supposed each man trying to escape one of the Browns.

One man, Amos Matthews, who plunged through the eastern window, nearest the jury room, when equidistant in and out had the whole left side of his head blown off by one or more loads of buckshot, or a Winchester rifle, thus falling, breast on the window-sill, dead, and his brains streaming to the ground thirty or forty feet below, where it remained to-day. His wound was found to be as long as an ordinary man’s arm, and the weight of the blood striking the ground was heard across the street. It fell with such force and in such quantity, quite two gallons, that it spattered two or three feet up on the courthouse wall.

Peyton Hemingway, a confederate in all the plot and one of the leading backers of the Browns, jumped from the second story of the courthouse, and running toward Mrs. Aldure, had twenty-five to forty shots fired at him, but only received one slight wound and escaped.

A young negro jumped from the second story jury-room, striking the ground without injury and ran away with several guns turned on him, only one shot striking him anywhere, and that in half of his shoe sole.


Exactly how many died is not known. Susie James puts it at 23, higher than contemporary accounts, but possibly closer to right. One of her sources was Mildred Cain, granddaughter of Jake Cain, a survivor. ("They didn't want us to hate," she said.)

Carrollton is in the bluff hills region of Mississippi, right next to the fertile plantation-land Delta. Many more blacks lived in Carroll County than whites. Keeping them from gaining political power was what this game was all about: a couple of uppity blacks, yes, but more than that. At least, that's how the black and northern Republican press saw it. "The colored voters are duly intimidated by the wholesale slaughter of their fellows. And the solidity of the South is strengthened by the cement of innocent blood."

Newspaper editorials of the time (the Jackson Clarion for one) suggest that this horrific event was too much even for the white estsablishment. Since the overthrow of Reconstruction, keeping blacks from the voting booth had been accomplished by an uneasy, steadily escalating combination of fraud and violence. “[I]t is no secret . . . that we have been preserving the ascendancy of the white people by revolutionary means,” wrote one contemporary. “No man can be in favor of perpetuating the election methods which have prevailed in Mississippi since 1875 who is not a moral idiot.”

There had to be a better way. And so a way was found. In 1890 a new state constitution was adopted, one with a trick: you had to demonstrate your "understanding" of the constitution through an easily manipulated literacy test. This now infamous strategy, picked up by states across the South, was the brainchild of Carrollton's own Sen. J.Z. George. (George's son was rumored to have taken part in the massacre.)

You'll find no hint of the Carrollton Massacre on the courthouse square. There's a nice plaque commemorating the restoration of the courtroom in 1990-91. My visit happened to be on a Saturday morning, which was too bad, because the courthouse offices were closed. Indeed, the square itself was like a ghost town. I would have asked to see the courtroom. And I would have not been surprised to be refused: I'm told that such a thing has happened.

According to the Picayune, "Balls were lodged in all the walls, ceiling, doors, window sash, piercing the glass, mutilating the benches, etc." Amazingly, the damage was not fully repaired until that early 1990s renovation. From her childhood, Elizabeth remembers bullet holes in the walls. But she could get no explanation. All she could discover was that something terribly wrong happened to some black men a long time ago--an uncle told her it was unfortunate but necessary. Relevant issues of the Carrollton Conservative can't be found.

Newspaper office

In 1999, Carrollton was listed by the Mississippi Heritage Trust as one of the state's most endangered historic places.

A quintessential nineteenth century town, Carrollton survives relatively intact with a courthouse square surrounded by beautiful homes and downtown buildings. Carrollton could be to Mississippi what Salem is to North Carolina and Williamsburg is to Virginia. One of two county seats in Carroll County, drastic measures will be necessary to save this amazingly special Mississippi town.


Some progress has been made. They've enacted a historic preservation ordinance. They kept a Dollar General Store out of the historic area. They're renovating the old Town Hall. But whether this renewed sense of history will be expansive enough to include the Carrollton Massacre is very much an open question.

In his Turn in the South, V.S. Naipaul detected a distinctly southern sense of the past "as a wound." He felt it in the old plantations around Charleston, "many of them still with physical mementoes of the old days, the houses, the dependencies, the oak avenues. The past of which the more-black-than-white city now spoke, the past of slavery and the Civil War." Fitz Brundage pushes the notion: "ongoing contests over the meaning of that history will ensure that the southern past remains an open wound."

Now I still have to imagine the inside of that courtroom. In my mind's eye it is bright, well polished, smoothly plastered. Old wounds are sealed over. Or so it would seem.

UPDATE: Here's my article, "Spencer's Voice at the Back Door and the Legacy of Reconstruction" (.pdf), from the Winter/Spring 2005-06 issue of the Mississippi Quarterly (Vol. 59 Nos. 1-2), which was published in summer 2007.