Say my Name, Say my Name!
The Lynching of an enslaved African American Man in Memphis, Tennessee on January 1, 1851
By Jennifer S. Bennie
On January 1, 1851, a “young, bright mulatto” African American man presented a “certificate of freedom from the county clerk of Lincoln County [Tennessee] countersigned by the [Lincoln County] Mayor and Recorder, in order to travel up the river.” Mr. John Chester, the Recorder for the City of Memphis, was whom the papers were presented to at the Mayor’s office located in the Exchange Building on present day Front Street. Upon inspecting the papers, Mr. Chester declared them a forgery and not an actual legitimate Free Negro Paper. Mr. Chester held the African American man at the Mayor’s Office while trying to find a police officer to take him into custody, after not locating one, he told the African American man to wait in the Mayor’s Office. Soon afterward, the unidentified black man shot Chester in the back of the head. Sources never disputed accounts of the shooting. The pistol was confiscated by another man in the room, the black man was taken to the calaboose or jail, “near the old Market house in Market Square.” A mob formed within hours and according to an account in The Gallipolis Journal, “compelled the surrender of the calaboose keys, dragged out the negro, and in the view of an immense crowd, swung him up the nearest tree. He confessed he was a runaway before dying.” Another newspaper account noted that there were “some twelve to fifteen hundred people” making up the mob that lynched the man.
Who was this unidentified victim of mob violence? Where was he from, was he a runaway slave, or was he free? Why was it acceptable for a mob to seize him from a legal jail and hang him to publicly execute him? Down to the most basic of human rights and identity, what was his name and why was it never mentioned in the over twenty newspaper articles about this incident that ran in publications from Memphis to New York in January of 1851 about this incident? Keeping a lynching victim’s name out of the newspaper, to erase the victim from the historical narrative was consistent with treating the enslaved as chattel property, and free African Americans as having less value than free whites in the antebellum 1850s. The racially segregated social control maintained by the white public violently supported superiority in this class power struggle by dehumanizing the black victim.
According to an Arkansas newspaper, before “he was hung, he [the victim] admitted that he belonged to a gentleman living in Coffeeville, Mississippi,” who was later identified by The Coffeeville Appeal as D. L. Herron, a plantation owner from that town. Other newspaper articles only referenced a “Mr. Herron” and none identified the victim of this white mob’s vigilante “justice.” This suggests that it was more important for the white newspaper reporters to verify the victim’s enslaved status, than to provide his actual name. Centering his identity as “Herron’s slave” gave more creditability to the mob violence that ended his life. It was critical that the victim was unfree, since “free blacks…had considerably more latitude to challenge…collective violence.” Revealing the owner’s name and insuring that the name was printed was part of the power of the press in upholding lynching culture.
Newspapers of the 1850s were majority owned by white men, so the journalism of that time was consistent with catering to racial segregation thus the emittance of a black lynching victim’s name in a news report was standard. “By their very nature, lynchings make it practically impossible to get at the exact facts of the alleged crimes. In practically every community with a lynching, a tradition of the absolute guilt of the person lynched sprang up immediately and cut off further legal investigation.” Before the Civil War, enslaved African Americans were seen as property, keeping a lynching victims name out of the newspaper was not even considered careless journalism, especially if the victim was enslaved as it preserved the racial power hierarchy by not humanizing slaves with an individual identity. Michael Pfeifer in the book, Southern Society and Its Transformation, 1790-1860, wrote a chapter on “The Lynching of Slaves, Race, Law, and the White Community in the Antebellum South.” He found through an examination of primary and secondary sources "an inventory of fifty-five mob executions of blacks in the South in the years 1835-1862.” Pfeifer discovered from the choices that southern newspaper editors made regarding lynching coverage in their own community, coupled with northern editors' views on slavery, this inventory does not include all victims. It did not matter if the newspaper article was printed in the North or the South, the name of the African American lynching victim was never given. In the 1850s, no matter where in America the newspaper was printed, there was a national prejudice against African Americas, and segregation, common in journalistic standards. Pfeifer identified the practice of lynching African Americans became a familiar process in the South by 1850 as “more than two-thirds of documented lynchings of blacks occurred between 1850 and 1862.” The press at this time “showed a considerable lapse of professionalism in the dependence on rumor and the uncritical acceptance of local opinion in reporting lynching. Those papers dependent on the national wire services, particularly the Associated Press, simply printed stories as they received them.” This was evident in this particular case. The story was reprinted in newspapers, from Louisiana to Ohio and from South Carolina to New York.
One particularly interesting exchange between North and South newspapers, happened between one in the Northern city of Cincinnati and one in Memphis. Newspaper articles from The Louisville Daily Courier of Kentucky and The Portage Sentinel in Ohio both dated January 20, 1851, stated that the Cincinnati Gazette printed an article that gave another personal account of the murder of John Chester. Both newspapers claimed a passenger on the steamer Winfield Scott reported that a black man from Cincinnati had been killed, who after some passengers suspected him of being a runaway slave tried to arrest him. The black man then shot a Mr. John Chester, also formerly of Ohio, with a revolver. Mr. Chester died immediately. The African American man was then promptly killed and his head placed on a spike on the levee in full view of all the passengers on the Winfield Scott. This was not unheard of as “the custom of cutting off the heads of executed slaves and displaying them on poles…was continued throughout the antebellum period.” Such as the in the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, where any enslaved African American involved was eventually executed with their decapitated heads placed on spikes as a fearful warning to other slave rebellions. A clipping from a New Orleans newspaper dated December 26, 1850, states that the Winfield Scott will be leaving New Orleans going to Cincinnati stopping in Memphis around the time of the lynching, so this account does seem plausible. However, a rebuttal to this appeared in The Memphis Daily Appeal on January 21, 1851, stating “it would be difficult to get a more reckless compound of misstatements and perversions of truth.” It states that the African American man was not from Cincinnati and that “the negro acknowledged himself, before any steps were taken to hang him, that he was a slave and property of a Mr. Herron, of Mississippi.” “The expression by Mr. Chester of the opinion that the [freedom certificate] paper was a forgery was the offense with which the negro took his life.” The rebuttal states the head being placed on a spike and making a public exhibition of it all was the work of “fancy.” “In conclusion, we would just say…that when the people of Memphis or the South, desire instructors of public morals, they will not import them from Cincinnati.” This response to the Kentucky and Ohio article was common before the Civil War. Southerners did not like to be scolded by the North. “Strangers who came from the North were especially at risk of being accused as abolitionist intruders.” Although another newspaper from Ohio, The Sandusky Register, dated January 22, 1851 does refer to the “death of the negro by violence,” it was the only Northern paper to call out any wrong doing by the southern mob. This was surprising that more Northern newspapers did not chastise this violence as per the NAACP website that 79% of lynchings happened in the South, but Southerners were quick to make sure Northerners mind their own business. As was evident from this article, The Memphis Appeal does not like the intrusion from the newspaper of Cincinnati and quickly shuts them down.
This rebuttal from Memphis was filled with contradictions from earlier printed articles from the same paper, as all that mattered was dispelling the North accusation, not actually facts. If the paper catered to a white readership, “the white press usually accepted as true all the rumored details of guilt.” The Memphis newspaper still does not give the name of the African American man imperative to keeping his status as enslaved, so the lynching was deemed further justified. Of course, the name of Mr. Herron was printed again, setting up the “honored” institution of Southern slavery as The Memphis Daily Appeal preaches that they (the South) should instruct the North in public morals. Then contradicting that there was no public exhibition of it all, therefore no mention of the mob size of 1200-1500 people present previously printed in The Memphis Appeal earlier that month. The South wanted to distance itself from lawlessness and that slavery ignited violence, therefore it wanted to convey the message that the killing of the African American man was justified as he murdered a very upstanding member of Memphis society. The article states that the African American man acknowledged that he was a slave before any steps were taken to hang him, another contradiction from an earlier printed account of the enslaved man confessing right before he was hung from the closest tree from the jail.
There was no hiding the fact that keeping a lynching victim nameless in the newspaper preserved the fear that mob justice hoped to achieve, and in doing so enforced a violent, lawless social order keeping whites superior to blacks. “Fueling the fire of violent racial hatred, the daily press increasingly utilized a sensationalistic treatment of lynching which irresponsibly exploited the existing shock value of assails upon racial and sexual codes in order to attract and hold a mass readership.” The way lynching was covered by the press in keeping out the name of the African American victim and the lawful officials turning their heads to mob violence “leaves intact the views which provide a justification for lynching and other expressions of racial antagonisms.” The effect was an unsafe public and legal environment for the African Americans, free and enslaved, therefore making them fearful of the public, the press, law enforcement and the legal system ensuring this racist social control.
The presence of a mob was never questioned in any newspaper article. “Groups under emotional tension, like individuals under strain, act in conformity to local attitudes and practices.” Throughout the South at this time, and even in the North as these news articles ran in places like New York without any dialog for injustice of the mob coming to the jail and subsequently lynching this African America man, it became an acceptable community attitude, as well as a nationally accepted attitude. “For the period from 1828 to 1861 there is evidence of at least 49 Southern mob acting against alleged black victims, all of them ending in death of their victims.” It was understood, if not encouraged, that local people will form mobs to deal with violence to man or property especially with regard to African Americas. “Since the Negro’s danger from mob violence is nearly forty times as great as that of the white man.” It was apparent the racial element was a leading cause of the mob phenomena by keeping segregation in place through fear. “Black responses to lynchings were a complex mixture of anger resentment and fear and shame.”
Also, the newspaper stories themselves set the scene approving the white crowd of lynching. “After a time, the various stories of the crime take on a sort of uniformity, the most horrible details of each version having been woven into a supposedly true account.” In every newspaper report, explicit detail was given into how Mr. Chester was shot with 2 slugs to the back of the head, above the ear. Then on how he dies, whether immediately, 5 minutes later, or 10 minutes later, no talking, or muttering a prayer, was also stressed. The very first article to run after the event on January 2nd was Mr. John Chester’s Obituary laminating this man’s life of service to his city and fellow white Memphians. This reinforced the sentiment that “nobody is lynched except those who have been guilty of so heinous of crime that the indignation of citizens arises in an uncontrollable frenzy.”
Many times, persons who are lynched are taken from the custody of law enforcement. This was another factor in condoning mob justice. The common attitude of white law enforcement was they were not going to risk their own life for an African American, especially if they were enslaved. “In most cases the sheriff and his deputies merely stood by while the mob did its work, and later reported that the mob had taken them by surprise, or that, though aware of the impending danger, they were unwilling to shoot into the crowd.” Like in this case, “68% of lynching victims are taken from jail” and since most law enforcement are dependent on the local sentiment for their jobs, they stop short of blocking the local people that make up these mobs. The people in a lynching mob were not in risk of being prosecuted for their actions either in court or in public opinion. “Lynchings were rarely intended to be secret; indeed, the desire to create a public example of just punishment was often present.” Therefore the first article seems to be the accurate, along with the reprints that this was a public exhibition, a legally condoned one, meant to send a message.
That message was made even more loud and clear with an announcement of commendable courage in the arrest of the murderer of Col. J. K. Chester, for a Mr. Andrew Brady, the lieutenant of the Night Watch. This statement was printed in The Memphis Daily Appeal just 3 days after the lynching, quickly proving that not only was mob lynching violence acceptable in Memphis so was congratulating a police officer for his role in this incident. Earlier newspaper accounts state the keys of the jail were surrendered, another stated the jail doors were broken down, either way the fact the African American man was relinquished to the crowd by police officials illustrates a compliance of “the law” in lynching. “This peculiar code of honor, requiring a violent response…was often celebrated and a distinguishing feature of Southern culture.” It was evident from the facts that surround this one event the mishandling of trust by the police, and government officials prove that they were complacent in it, and this would be of great concern to African Americans. There was no actual justice for enslaved African Americans in America during the 1850s.
Nonetheless, enslaved names were routinely used in inventories, tax records, wills, and at times, the slave census, when describing property of their owners therefore by the use of modern research tools, archives, and libraries, enslaved names are uncovered. Why the difference? Names for the enslaved are the easiest way to identify their value to a white owner. This time in history before the Civil War, when people of color were considered property may be the only means of uncovering his name. Through the use of family ledgers, court records and probates in and around Memphis and Coffeeville, Mississippi was the best course of action for finding this man’s identity.
To understand who this man was, I first try to uncover what he was doing in Memphis that day. In this particular case, this African American man was at the City of Memphis Recorder’s office to present his papers of freedom. “In 1806, State of Tennessee Statute 141 was enacted which required every free Negro to be registered by the county clerk of court with a description, age, and statement as to his right to freedom. A transcript of this record was to be furnished to the Negro by the clerk. If at any time the Negro should travel out of the county of his residence without this transcript he might be arrested and jailed until a copy of the record of his freedom should arrive.” However, the newspaper articles stated after Mr. Chester declared the papers a forgery, and only after that fact was uncovered by Mr. Chester, the enslaved man shot him.
“As slaves sought to escape authority and slave holders strove to reestablish control, both combatants revealed much about the peculiar nature of their society-its fluidity and complexity, its tensions, and conflicts, and its foundation in fear and violence.” Why was this man willing to kill another when his free paper was declared fake? Was he a runaway slave? “Violence and the threat of violence were staples of plantation life.” Was this man subject to violence at his plantation? Perhaps, as “slave narratives confirm that punishment led to flight.” However, there was no proof that this slave’s owner was violent, as it was published that Mr. Herron had given this enslaved man permission “to go to Hardeman county to visit his wife and children.” This does not mean the owner was violent or was not violent but does illustrate a sense of compliance in maintaining a family tie for this enslaved man, if the article was accurate. There would be no legal way an enslaved man could visit his family at this time without permission from his owner. “A written pass from the master giving a slave permission "to pass and repass" until a given time, was considered sufficient authority for the slave's being absent from home. However, the pass might not ordinarily be called for unless suspicion was aroused, or unless it was at night that the slave was roaming.” Why had this African American man not presented Mr. Chester with this pass if he did indeed have one, instead of killing him?
Perhaps he was trying to run away and did not want to go back to enslavement. The fact that this man was described as mulatto, was also an indication of racial status in Mississippi, where he would have been from. “Free blacks as a group tended to be biracial and mulatto. In 1860, roughly 80 percent of Mississippi's free black population of 800 were of mixed racial ancestry. By contrast, among the state’s more than 400,000 slaves on the eve of the Civil War, fewer than 10 percent were mulatto.” However, he would have had to have a certificate of freedom to actually prove his freedom. His skin tone could only “pass” for so much. “Laws in Mississippi as early as 1820 presumed every “negro,” or person of color, to be a slave. To prove otherwise, free blacks were required to secure certification for their free status.” It was no different in Tennessee than it was in Mississippi. Free blacks put themselves at risk if they did not always carry their certificate of freedom. They could be detained and put in jail. “If blacks were unable to establish their free status within a specified period of time, they could, as allowed by law, be sold into slavery at public auction. Free blacks’ certificates of registration were their single most important source of documentation.” There was reference of this certificate in the newspaper article reprinted from The Memphis Eagle in the The Evening Post, the certificate was from the clerk in Lincoln County, countersigned by the Mayor and Recorder of that county. Lincoln County, Mississippi is well south of Jackson almost to Louisiana, and 190 miles south of Coffeeville but was not founded till 1870. Lincoln County, Arkansas is southwest of Memphis about 165 miles away but also was not founded till 1870. Lincoln County, Tennessee is due east of Memphis, about 230 miles away and founded in 1809 as it was named after a Revolutionary War solider. How did an enslaved man from Coffeeville, Mississippi have a forged freedom certificate from 230 miles away in Tennessee is still a mystery?
Finding a name in a time when an enslaved name was only recorded in benefit of the owner proves challenging. Newspapers at this time identify D.L. Herron of Coffeeville, Mississippi as the slave owner. Upon inspection of D.L. Herron’s documents that mention his slaves, other members of the Herron family become apparent, Samuel Herron, Frances Herron, Mary Herron, and James Herron. On a website devoted to slave ledgers, “Learn Your History, You’re a leaf on a very Big Tree,” it states that the slaves of the Herrons had shared interest within the family. After talking to a Mr. Worsham of the Coffeeville Historical Society he put me in touch with Joy Herron, a descendent of D.L. Herron, and referencing the website ancestry.com it is confirmed that D.L. stands for David Luckie. He had a brother named Samuel (who was Joy’s great-grandfather), his first wife named was Mary, and second wife was named Harriet from the same family as Mary. His father was Frances and James was his uncle. They also lived in close proximity to each other in Coffeeville. Joy Herron told me that David and Samuel married sisters and lived very close to each other. The fact that they are slave owners running plantations was never disputed. Joy Herron made it clear the only reason David Herron’s body was brought back to be buried in Coffeeville, after he died fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War in the battle of Shiloh on April 6, 1862, was that his enslaved man, Spencer brought it all the way home from the battle on train. Therefore, looking into the Herron family to find if there was any mention of this enslaved African American man that was lynched on January 1st, 1851 proved difficult, when it opened it up to five people that could have actually have been his owner, or listed as his owner at any given time before 1851.
“Many slaveholders were not happy to see their human property destroyed by raging mobs.” However they had to be careful, their power and authority upheld through slavery depended on the collusion of all whites. “Masters relied not only on asserting their own absolute power but also on the brute force of mobs…called… committees of safety.” This preserved their power, therefore a slave owner had to be careful when using the legal protection the law offered their slaves through them. “Masters provided their slaves with legal counsel and initiated appeals, because the execution of a slave usually meant a significant financial loss given the compensation to which slaveholders were entitled did not match the slave’s market value.” The slave law of Tennessee in 1850 mirrored that of the North Carolina act of 1741. "Section 52 provided that the owner of every slave convicted of having been concerned in an insurrection and executed accordingly should be reimbursed for his loss.” It was using this idea of financial loss that had me looking through circuit court cases in Memphis. I was looking for any sign of the Chester family suing the Herron family for the death of John Chester or for a member of the Herron family suing the city of Memphis for the value of their “chattel” property. The city of Memphis could even sue the Herron family to bury the enslaved man in a pauper's funeral.
All of this came up short in finding a definite name of the lynching victim of January 1st, 1851. I found a probate record from 1862 where D. L. Herron left his two house slaves, John and Hannah, to his second wife Harriet (Bridgers). I found a slave census from 1850 for Mary Ann (Bridgers) Herron, D. L. Herron’s wife at the time, listing 13 enslaved African American males, age ranged from 5 to 45. A 15-year-old was listed as mulatto, and as a newspaper article used that descriptor, I wondered if at 16 years old this could be the lynching victim. Comparing this list to the slave census from 1860 listed 16 enslaved African American males owned by the Herron family ranged in age from 4 to 45, and none as mulatto. This could be a probable person, however, could a 16-year-old have a wife and children as D.L. Herron claimed this enslaved man had and was his reason of travel to Memphis. I uncovered a Thomas Soap suing a Simon Bradford of the firm Chester and Bradford as the surviving member after John Chester’s death, but no other records.
Then I came across a newspaper article from October 18th, 1851 in the Clarksville Jeffersonian that was reprinted from The Memphis Appeal, stating a Mr. William R. Smith was being sued in Federal Court at Jackson, Mississippi for “the value of negro that was hung in this place on the first of January last for the murder of John K. Chester, Esq.” I immediately contacted the city of Jackson, Mississippi Archives and put in a formal request for any information pertaining to this case. I am waiting for a response, however did find a reference on the Mississippi Archive website of a case tried in Mississippi Federal Court in 1852 with a William Smith as defendant.
The article goes on to ponder why Mr. Smith would be singled out for this event when the entire highly incensed community participated was inexplicable. Could Mr. Smith be a member of a Slave Patrol, whose responsibility it was to catch runaway slaves and return them to their owners? The column then goes on to say that they do not believe any intelligent jury would find a verdict against Mr. Smith, and the community holds him blameless of any damages that might be assessed against him. The end of this article was the perfect example of public sentiment toward the lynching of an enslaved African American man in 1850. The white community publicly participated and it was justified since they were highly incensed by this violent crime that was in their minds confirmed by law officials handing over the accused. The writer of this article makes it clear to live at that time and be intelligent was to know this was common knowledge. The article also stated if a jury was to convict Mr. Smith, the people would again take the law into their own hands and not hold him accountable for any damages. The name of the African American man hung was again never given.
The final article I found to do with the case gives a location of the lynching, printed August 21, 1869, it seems this mob death was declared the third legal execution in Memphis. The article states that in 1851 a mob took a negro from the calaboose that was near the old market house which stood where Market Square is now and hung him on a “tree in sight of his place of confinement.” This article states before his death he confessed to the murder of Mr. John K. Chester on the 1st of January 1851. So much for any newspaper article getting the facts correct.
In the lynching death of an enslaved African American man in Memphis on January 1st, 1851 facts reported in the newspapers were molded to fit the narrative. The man was declared enslaved and a veritable owner was reported, therefore a mob of over 1200 people felt they were justifiably empowered to collect this man from compliant law officials and execute him without a trial for the murder of a white man. The African American man’s name was never given throughout all the various newspaper articles pertaining to the hanging that were printed in newspapers from the South to the North. The violence against him was barely questioned. No name was provided to identify him as a man, and there was no question of his barbaric mob death sentence to identify him as a human being. This was done with purpose as his name could have easily been discovered from D.L. Herron, the slave owner identified. Giving him a name, a value above monetary assessment, could break the system of fear from vigilante justice that helped keep racial segregation viable in the antebellum South of the 1850s.
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