Thursday, November 26, 2015

June, 1895: Attempt to lynch Tom Harris

This Thanksgiving, I've decided to feature a lynching that led to wounded but no apparent dead. We first learning about the trouble brewing through the pages of The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) dated June 7, 1895:


Man Preaching to Alabama Negroes Ordered to Leave the Country. 

Tuskegee, Ala., June 6.—About twenty of the best citizens of this town gave Rev. Mr. Kelly, a white man, of Ohio, a surprise party at 7 o'clock yesterday evening by calling on him and informing him, through their spokesman, Dr. W. J. Gautier, that his presence here was obnoxious and disgusting to the white people of Macon County, and especially to the citizens of Tuskegee, and that he must leave Tuskegee and Macon County on the first train that passed Chehaw, the railroad station, at 1 a. m., or abide the consequences. Kelly is a white man pretending to be a minister. He claims that he was "called" to preach to the negroes of the South. He has been holding a protracted meeting here in the negro church for the last ten days, eating, sleeping, and mingling altogether with the negroes, and making his headquarters with Thomas Harris, where he was found by the committee that waited on him. He is teaching and practicing social equality, which will never be submitted to by the people of this section.

Our next article comes to us through the pages of The Richmond Planet (Richmond, Virginia) dated June 22, 1895:



Alleged Social Equality, the Cause.


Tuskegee Institute Closes its Doors upon the Hunted Unfortunate.

[Tuskegee, Ala., News, (white) June 13]

Last Saturday night about 10 o'clock the residents of Tuskegee were startled by a wild hubbub in the N. E. end of the city—a furious barking of dogs was accompanied by other sounds of a more startling nature—Suddenly four or five pistol shots rang out on the air, followed by agonized screams of women, and a man's voice shrieking in pain. It was terrible to listen to:  "Help! Help! My God, they have killed him—Oh they have killed him!" These words shrieked over and over soon drew a crowd of men and boys to the residence of Mr. John Alexander where it had been found that Mr. Alexander had been accidently [sic] shot and was supposed fatally wounded by a mob of masked men who had entered his premises in pursuit of Tom Harris, a notorious mulatto man, Negro lawyer and rather a seditious character, who had against Mr. Alexander's orders taken refuge within his home from a pursuing mob. Tom Harris is a very ambitious and rather an idle Negro man, extremely unpopular with his own race on account of his airs of superiority, and having little influence with them.


So far as known he has never been guilty of any crime whatever,  but his impudent utterances and insolent bearing have made him very obnoxious to the white people, and once before now he has had to leave the city on a prolonged stay. He purchased some years ago a very comfortable home for his family—the Hayden residence in the immediate vicinity of Mr. Alexander's home, and there his family reside. His wife is considered a model colored woman, she is industrious, virtuous and thoroughly orderly in every respect and has endeavored to raise her large family of children with propriety. His eldest son, Wylie, is a well-known young yellow man who has a butcher's shop here. Some two or three weeks ago a yankee preacher named Kelley appeared in this county.


He put up with respectable citizens at Cross Keys and was told that he might preach to Negroes, but that in this part of the country social equality was not tolerated. He conducted himself accordingly there, but coming to Tuskegee he was entertained at Tom Harris' house, and it is said walked the streets between two of Harris' daughters, holding an umbrella over them. It is also stated that he preached social equality, and from the pulpit denounced certain citizens of this place, calling no names but making such pointed remarks that there could be no doubt of his meaning, and that Tom Harris had given him the dots.


A meeting of citizens was called in which all rash suggestions were voted down, but it was resolved that a committee of citizens should go to the house of Tom Harris and order the yankee to leave our city within six hours. This was accordingly done. It was well and good, and the matter should have ended there. But Saturday night a letter was taken home by Wiley at a late hour 
(probably from the Post-office) and the Negro could scarcely have had time to have made an escape after receiving it before the arrival of the mob at his house. Instead, however, of immediately retreating from the neighborhood he took the letter over Mr. Alexander's and calling from the front gate requested to see him, Mr. Alexander was at the time seated on his front gallery with his daughters.


He stepped into the road and Tom Harris told him of the letter and asked his advice, directly looking down the moonlit road claimed, "There they are now, coming to kill me!" and rushed into Mr. Alexander's front yard. Mr. Alexander seeing the approach of several masked men, recognized the danger to his family and rushed into the yard attempting to run Tom Harris out, at the same time calling to the men not to shoot for fear they might kill or frighten his daughters. The mob however, not to be deterred from their purpose rushed into the yard and one of them putting his pistol within a foot of Harris fired meaning of course to kill him.


The Negro squatted in time to avert the shot which struck Mr. Alexander  (who was immediately back of him trying to evict him from the premises,) hitting him in the throat, the ball ranging toward the spinal column where it lodged. Other shots followed in immediate succession and Tom Harris was wounded in the leg and fell as he was running down the road, and it is said the bone was shattered. The screams of pain were from the wounded Negro who called loudly for help, but no attention was given him excepting by his family who gathered around him, though in the crowd that rushed to the scene were several medical men who proceeded to render Mr. Alexander all the assistance in their power.


It was thought at first that Mr. Alexander was mortally wounded. He is said to have borne himself with wonderful coolness and nerve, and though probing for the ball was unsuccessful he has rallied, to the surprise of all, and bids fair to recover. If he does it will be due in large measure to the devoted attention he has received from our medical men, who, as well as every other citizen of this community, feel the greatest sympathy for him in his suffering and for his family in their anxiety and distress.


Failing to get any white doctor to attend his father, Wylie Harris took him over to the Normal School that night, where however he was not received, for Booker T. Washington, the president of the Negro school has ever conducted himself and his school in the most prudent and conservative manner, and learning that a mob was in pursuit of Harris he told him that he could not be admitted there. What has become of Harris we do not know. That he is painfully wounded is certain, and after the vindictive demonstration to which he has lately been subjected, it is scarcely probable that he will ever again attempt to make his residence in this city. The lawless action of these masked men cannot, be too severely condemned.


The first place Harris had done nothing to make him amendable to law. Personal dislike and a vindictive feeling of animosity give no excuse for any attempt on a man's life be he white or black. In the second place the unlawful entering of the premises of Mr. Alexander and shooting him, an entirely innocent person, even though it claimed that hurt to him was not intentional, was a most unprecedented outrage, and we call upon the Sheriff of Macon County to do his duty in this matter. If he will, we believe that he can

The same edition included the following statement which echoes with sentiment heard more recently:

Editorial Opinion.

The shooting of Mr. Edward Harris, at Tuskegee, Ala. on the 8th inst. by a mob of lawless white men was outrageous. He should have been armed and have shot down his assailants.

We shall await to hear the explanation of Prof. WASHINGTON with reference to his refusal to admit the wounded man. The institution should have been used as an asylum in this case and its doors should have been a mighty bulwark against the assaults of these lawless parties.

It was difficult to find, in a newspaper, if either man died as a result of the attempted lynching. I did however check the 1900 US Census for Tuskegee, Macon County, Alabama and discovered a John Alexander, white, living with his family and having a neighbor Thomas Harris, black, living with his family. Their ages fit for them to possibly be the same men, but whether or not they were is merely conjecture.

I hope you have an enjoyable holiday. Thank you for joining me and as always, i hope I leave you with something to ponder. 

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