I listened to the first few podcasts in anticipation of the release of Frank Turner’s No Man’s Land album not quite knowing what to expect. I was intrigued by Turner’s focus on stories of women he believed needed telling. After hearing the story of Sister Rosetta, a woman who I had never heard of, I wondered what other “famous” women in the past deserved to have their stories told but who were relatively unknown.
While reading the August 1, 2019 op-ed article in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson, “Ignoring Trump’s racism betrays our country’s victims” I read about the story of thirty-three-year-old Mary Turner and her eight-month-old unborn child Hazel “Hayes” Turner. I was gobsmacked and also incensed that her story does not appear in any text book I ever read – and I was a History Major back in the day.
Trigger Warning: This story involves details of a lynching.
So, who was Mary Turner? Mary Turner found herself in the wrong time and place a little over 100 years ago. Mary Turner lived in Brooks County, Georgia. Although by this time slavery was a thing of the past, there was a white plantation owner named Hampton Smith who hired black workers through a debt peonage system to work his fields. Hampton Smith would pay the bail money off of offenders of petty offenses. One such petty offense caused nineteen-year-old Sydney Johnson to be arrested for “rolling dice”. Hampton Smith paid Sydney’s bail and “hired” him to work off his debt.
After Sydney Johnson more than worked off his debt, he demanded to be paid. After being beaten by Hampton Smith and after Smith refused to pay Johnson, Sydney Johnson shot and killed Smith.
You must be wondering, what does Mary Turner’s story have to do with the death of Hampton Smith. The sorry answer is nothing but here is where this tale takes a horribly fatal turn for the black citizens of Brooks County, including Mary Turner and her unborn child.
A mob driven manhunt ensued for Johnson and other people the mob believed were involved in the killing of Hampton Smith. The mob lasted more than a week and they murdered at least thirteen people. One of the people the mob killed was none other than Mary Turner’s husband, Haynes Turner.
Even though Mary Turner was a black woman in the early 1900s, she spoke out, she resisted, and she persisted. On May 19, Mary Turner publicly objected to the mob’s murder of her husband. She persisted by threatening to request warrants for those people responsible for her husband’s murder. As noted in the article “Remembering Mary Turner” found at MaryTurner.org, Mary Turner’s persistence and “unwise remarks, as the area papers put it, enraged locals.”
What happened next was a travesty of justice and horrifying. The sheriff arrested Mary Turner and turned her over to the mob. As reported by James Cone in “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”, the mob took Mary Turner, “stripped, hung [her] upside down by the ankles, soaked [her] with gasoline, and roasted [her] to death.” If that wasn’t enough, “a white man opened her swollen belly with a uniting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.”
Mary Turner’s story is one that shouldn’t be forgotten lest we forget where racism and misogyny can lead if we do not speak up and learn the lessons that history has to teach us.
Written by Bruce Cheriff (he/him) from Mount Kisco, NY. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram or visit his website. This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.