‘They stole him out of jail’

Local author’s book shares story of last racial lynching in South Carolina


In May 1947 the courthouse in Greenville, South Carolina was the site for a trial that made national news and asked the question: Was a lynching possibly legal under any circumstances?

Littleton author Will Gravely, a native of Pickens, the town near Greenville where the lynching victim had been abducted from jail, was 7 at the time of the incident and was unaware of it then. He went on to teach history and religious history at the University of Denver. He decided to take an in-depth look at the scene and the ensuing story — involving court records (there was no transcript of the trial), files of local and some national newspapers and magazines, and conversations with locals who remembered ...

National press figures appeared to record the scene for newspapers and magazines — including British author Rebecca West, aka Dame Cecily Isabel Fairfield DBE, who filed stories to the New Yorker.

Gravely is scheduled to talk about this story and presumably, his process in telling it, at the Littleton Museum at 7 p.m. on March 5.

A farmer had found 48-year-old taxi driver Thomas Watson Brown injured and bleeding on the night of Feb. 15, 1947 — a Saturday — and called for help. Brown was transferred to the local hospital in critical condition, and died two days later.

Investigation on the night of Feb. 15 found tracks from Brown’s cab led to Tessie Earle’s home, where police found a gun — the probable weapon used — a jacket with stains still showing after washing and shoes that fitted the tracks. They belonged to a 24-year-old black man, Willie Earle, who was arrested and locked in the Pickens jail.

By the day after the attack, other cab drivers had convened and an angry mob started talking about taking Earle out of the jail cell. A caravan of 31 men arrived at the jail and pushed their way to Earle’s cell, where they grabbed him and went to a pre-chosen site to “interrogate” the young man.

Earle was shot, stabbed and bludgeoned, with the dead body left on the ground as the men scattered. Soon after the body was found, the FBI entered the scene in addition to state and local law officers — although the FBI withdrew several days later.

Gravely spins a story of passions, mob psychology, individual portraits and rivalries — and a prevailing point of view that is not as evident today, although it does keep surfacing in some news reports...

The 31 men were tried as a group and much of Gravely’s writing describes the words and actions that ensued — the judge’s rulings, the steamy, crowded courtroom — as well as profiles of many of the mob members. (A list at the end of the book tells age, family status, education and occupation of the group, which adds to an overall image of the community.)

The writing is crisp and colorful and keeps a reader turning pages to see what’s next. (It’s hard to put it down and go tend to whatever else is pending!)

We are told that Bemis Library has a copy in its collection and Gravely says the University of South Carolina publication is available at Tattered Cover, Aspen Grove.

Tattered Cover will have copies for sale at the Littleton Museum lecture. Gravely has also been talking at Sunday Forums at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Littleton.


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