“It was as easy to raise a (lynch) mob in Logan County in those days as to drop a hat ... .”
That was the observation of Bowling Green lawyer John Rhodes in 1944. Rhodes was looking back three decades on the power of mob violence he saw firsthand as one of the lawyers in a 1908 shooting case in Russellville involving an African-American named Rufus Browder.
Extraordinary steps were taken to protect Browder from lynch mobs – including having a jailer hide him overnight in a cemetery – but four other African-American men were not so fortunate.
They were hanged one by one from a cedar tree on a small rise in Russellville on the morning of Aug. 1, 1908, in a lynching case that would go on to have national repercussions, but remain largely forgotten for a century. An effort is now underway, however, to erect a historic marker for the quadruple murder and other racial killings in the county.
It started, as did hundreds of other lynchings in the period after the Civil War, with a dispute between a black and white man.
In 1908, Browder was a tenant farmer in Logan County. His overseer was James Cunningham. Browder told Cunningham he needed to leave work early July 11 to go to town to buy some medicine for his sick wife. Cunningham, who was reported to be the leader of one of the local Ku Klux Klan “Klaverns,” said he would dock Browder more than a full day’s pay if he left early.
Browder apparently left it at that, but early on the morning of July 13, 1908, the two men ran into each other. Browder later said Cunningham ordered him to take his sick wife and vacate their cabin. When Browder said moving his ailing wife could kill her, Cunningham said he didn’t care and would show Browder “his place,” according to a Browder interview with the Louisville Courier Journal in August of that year.
“With that he hauled off and struck me with a strap he had in his hand,” Browder told the newspaper. “I started to hit him, when he drew a gun from his pocket and shot me in the breast. I got my revolver out of my pocket as soon as I could and shot him in the breast. He fell to the ground and again shot, but missed me. I was afraid he would kill me, so I drew my gun again and fired.”
Browder was wounded, Cunningham was dead.
Browder was arrested, charged with murder and taken to the Logan County Jail – a stone-and-brick building that still stands in downtown Russellville and now houses local archives.
A large lynch mob approached the jail that night to get Browder, but Logan County Jailer James Butts snuck him out and hid him in an African-American cemetery for the night. The next morning, he took him to Bowling Green for safekeeping to await his trial.
Before the trial could begin – on July 24, 1908 – four African-American men were arrested and taken to the county jail: brothers John Jones and Virgil Jones (charged with breach of the peace and unlawful assembly), Joe Riley (charged with carrying a concealed weapon) and John Boyer (charged with unlawful assembly, breach of the peace and interfering with the prosecution of Browder).
The Jones brothers and Boyer were members, as was Browder, of the local True Reformer lodge. The national True Reformer organization was established in 1881 as a mutual aid society for blacks. The local lodge, located in the Ash Spring community, supposedly had passed two resolutions after Browder’s arrest: one declaring the belief that Browder had acted in self-defense and the other pledging that Browder would be provided the best legal defense possible at his trial.
What was seen as standing up for Browder did not sit well with many in the county, and at 1 a.m. Aug. 1, 1908, an armed mob of about 50 men went to the jail and demanded the Jones brothers and Boyer be turned over. Riley was also taken – a case apparently of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” as one observer put it. The men were promptly released to the mob. The hands of the four men were tied behind their backs and they were marched to a nearby cedar tree and lynched, one by one.
A note was pinned to the body of Virgil Jones, who had fought his attackers and was therefore badly beaten before being hanged. The note left no doubt that the lynching was in retribution for local African-Americans trying to assert their rights. It read: “Let this be a warning to you n-----s to leave white people alone or you will go the same way. Your lodges and halls better shut up and quit.”
The four bodies were cut down later that morning and put on display on the courthouse lawn. They were later buried in the county cemetery in unmarked graves.
• • •
When Browder was brought back to Russellville later that year to face trial, he was protected by a contingent of 60 state troopers.
When no Logan County lawyers would take the case, Browder’s father persuaded two prominent Bowling Green attorneys to represent his son – John Rhodes and James Sims. It was Rhodes, writing to his daughter years later, who observed the ease with which lynch mobs formed in Logan County.
Despite the odds against getting Browder acquitted before an all-white jury, there was a partial victory as the trial ended in a hung jury. Browder was retried, found guilty and sentenced to death, but that verdict was appealed and overturned, with a court ruling that Browder did not receive a fair trial in the charged atmosphere of Logan County.
His third trial was held in Simpson County. He was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but Gov. Augusta Wilson in 1914 commuted his sentence to 10 years. Before his release, however, Browder died in prison of tuberculosis.
• • •
The quadruple lynching was not especially unique – the circumstances had been repeated thousands of times across the South – but it would soon have national repercussions.
Sending postcards was a popular form of communication in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and local photographers soon discovered that if they could snap a picture of a lynching and turn it into a postcard, they would have a fast-selling souvenir.
Such lynching postcards are one of the reasons a relatively large number of lynching images have survived to the present day.
The Russellville lynching was no different, as a gruesome image of the four dangling bodies was soon made into a postcard. What was different this time was that a Kentucky postmaster, Gus Breathered, found the lynching postcard offensive and complained to the Post Office Department – now the U.S. Postal Service – officials in Washington, D.C.
As a result, federal law was amended to ban the distribution of material “tending to incite arson, murder or assassination.” While that language did not ban lynching postcards specifically, it was an attempt to stop their proliferation by targeting the racially inflammatory language printed on many of the lynching postcards.
While the reaction to the Logan County lynching was therefore in one regard uncommon, racial murder was a commonplace occurrence in Logan County.
• • •
The Equal Justice Initiative organization has found that at least 4,400 individuals lost their lives in lynchings and other racial killings between 1877 and 1950. While both blacks and whites have been lynched in all 50 states, the vast majority of lynchings took place in Southern states in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War as white society used violence to maintain authority over blacks.
The exact number of lynchings is unknown as many cases went unreported, but history professor George C. Wright, in the research for his 1990 book, “Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940,” found documentation of at least 353 lynchings during that time in Kentucky.
In his book, Wright found there were at least 31 lynching victims in southcentral Kentucky during the period, with Logan County leading the way with 17 individuals lynched. That number puts Logan behind only Fulton County in the number of lynchings in the state, by some estimates.
In the period between 1883 and 1895, at least 13 men were lynched in Logan County – a rate of more than one a year.
It was Browder’s Bowling Green attorney Rhodes, writing to his daughter, who noted that at the height of the lynchings that “Russellville, in Logan County, seemed to be infected as with a disease.”
Logan County is also unusual in that it houses a powerful memorial to the legacy of lynchings.
• • •
The West Kentucky African American Heritage Center in Russellville stretches across several buildings that chronicle the experiences of African-Americans in the region.
Perhaps the most powerful exhibit fills a small room. At the center is the work of folk artist Willie Rascoe – a small tree with nooses dangling from the branches. The surrounding exhibits tell the story of numerous Logan County lynchings, with an emphasis on the quadruple 1908 lynching.
The exhibit is the brainchild of Russellville native and museum historian and director Michael Morrow.
Morrow, 56, said while growing up, the topic of the area’s racial violence was discussed by both blacks and whites, “but they didn’t talk about it with each other,” he said.
His knowledge of the violence was gathered in bits and pieces in his childhood. He recalled an elderly lady once talking about four local men who had been killed. When he asked if they had died in an accident, she responded, “No boy, they were lynched.”
Eventually, when his interest became known, “stuff kept falling into my hands,” such as newspaper clippings, family Bibles and accounts from surviving family members, he said.
When the museum was being prepared for its 2008 opening, Morrow pushed to include a display about lynching.
“It had to be told. Some people don’t want to talk about it, but once you take the (secrecy) out of it, it takes the load off,” he said.
The reactions to the display run the gamut.
“People break down and cry, some get down on their knees and pray quietly,” he said. “This experience affects so many people in so many ways.”
Some, however, question the appropriateness of the exhibit. To them he responds: “Shouldn’t the truth be told?”
“This is necessary – these are necessary conversations,” he said, adding that issues related to the conditions that led to lynchings are still relevant today. Morrow said lynchings were about intimidation, and the rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., just one year ago this month “was also about intimidation.”
Outside the museum in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, there are few other reminders of the legacy of violence.
The “lynching tree” was cut down a few years ago – no one seems to know by who – and Morrow notes that “most of the people who lived it are gone.”
But there still are direct descendants of the lynching victims living in Logan County, such as Drusilla Jones, John Jones’ granddaughter.
Now 62, Drusilla Jones said the 1908 lynching was rarely discussed in the family, and it was only through discussions with Morrow that she learned the details.
“A lot of people don’t even know about it ... thank God for Michael,” she said, adding that while what happened to her grandfather was “pitiful,” it was important to keep the story alive.
“You need to know about it,” she said, “and thank God it’s not like it used to be.”
• • •
Twice in the last few years, representatives of the Equal Justice Initiative visited Russellville in preparation for the opening of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
The museum opened in April and is the first national memorial specifically dedicated to the legacy of racial violence. It includes jars of soil from thousands of lynching locations, including from near the “lynching tree” in Russellville.
Now the Russellville museum is working with the Alabama center to get a historic marker regarding the local lynchings to be placed in Russellville.
While the process is still in its early stages, Morrow said the marker could be placed in a city park or perhaps on the museum’s grounds.
The marker would be another step in keeping the history alive.
“From my standpoint, it’s clearly a shared history for all people (and) to not tell that story creates a lack of understanding and misunderstandings,” said Joe Gran Clark, chair of Historic Russellville Inc., the governing body of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project involves a multi-step process to promote racial reconciliation while acknowledging the past, which includes public meetings and involvement of schools, as well as placing historic markers.
“We hope the community will see it in a positive light,” Clark said. “Until you know this history, it’s hard for people to reconcile. We want to use it for, hopefully, a healing process.”
Drusilla Jones agrees, saying keeping the stories alive “is beneficial ... it really needs to be taught in the schools,” she said.
Morrow said further commemorating the largely hidden history of events like the 1908 quadruple lynching is vital for progress toward racial healing.
“It’s an unpleasant story,” Morrow said. “But it’s a necessary story.”
– For more about the The West Kentucky African American Heritage Center, visit the website at slavery2freedom.com.