by Michelle Ann Kratts
Sometimes the stories come by sheer accident. They are unexpected guests. I see a name etched onto a tombstone and bells go off. Sometimes a missing fact nags at me. Or it stands beside my desk, pulling at my sleeves, begging and begging for me to have a look. How can I refuse? Curiosity always gets the best of me.
This particular story came to me, like the summer, at the end of June. But it was a miserable day, dark and stormy. I was working diligently on my daily search for information regarding veterans buried at Oakwood Cemetery when it flashed before me. The rain fell and a story most brutal and horrifying dropped into my lap.
I didn’t know what to do with it at first. In fact, it made me sick. And if you are faint of heart…do not read further, for if you have any human decency you will feel sick, too. I wished I could tie this story up in a box and throw it over Niagara Falls. No one should know these things…but then…I saw her face. Mary Turner. She held onto her baby and she whispered…please, don’t let anyone forget. And then I had no choice but to accept her story.
Because there was no grave site or headstone, several "Mary Turner" headstones started mysteriously showing up in various cemeteries throughout the U.S. beginning as early as 1925.
It was Turner B. Bryant who brought Mary to me. He was on a list of names given to me by my friend, Jeff Manning, who is the fearless leader of our most honorable veterans’ project. Our mission is to fill in some details concerning the lives of more than 950 veterans who lie in rest at Oakwood Cemetery. Which branch of service were they in? What was their rank? Where were they born? Ideally, we find their obituary. We learn so much more about these men and women. From what I could find, Turner B. Bryant was born on November 1, 1921, at Quitman, Brooks County, Georgia, to Samuel Bryant and Jennie Manning. He died at St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston on March 17, 1981.
Bryant served valiantly in the US Navy during WWII. He saw action in six major naval engagements in the South Pacific. He was honored by the Niagara Community Center when he returned home to Niagara Falls on his first leave in over two years of active duty service. He was well known in Niagara Falls, even before the war, for his involvement in the local community, according to the Niagara Falls Gazette.
The connection to Mary Turner came because of a mistake in Bryant’s Social Security Death Index record. His place of birth was written as “Quitman Broo, Georgia.” Something seemed off to me so I looked into “Quitman Broo” and found that his correct birthplace is the city of Quitman, located in Brooks County, Georgia. A little googling around Quitman led me to Mary Turner, another and most famous resident of Quitman, Brooks County, Georgia.
It was busy in the library. The phone was ringing and there were many other responsibilities. Time was moving fast. But I could not stop reading about this particular even that occurred in Brooks County in May of 1918.
According to an article published by the Georgia Historical Society in 2006 (“Killing them Wholesale: a Lynching Rampage in South Georgia,” by Christopher C. Meyers) Brooks County, Georgia, had “a dubious reputation for mob violence on an unprecedented scale…there were more lynchings in Brooks County than any county in Georgia.” This racially inspired violence indicated that the hardships for African Americans continued for many –even decades after slavery had been abolished. In fact, most African American men and women worked the very same fields and plantations that their parents and grandparents had worked on decades before…as slaves. Some were even treated with the same cruelty.
One particular farmer, noted for his cruelty, was Hamp Smith. He was known to be a harsh boss who frequently and brutally beat his workers. As a result, no one would willfully work for him. So he found another way to get workers and resorted to Georgia’s debt peonage system. In this system, Smith would troll the county courthouse and pay a convicted criminal’s fine. Once this fine was paid the individual had to work for Smith until it was satisfactorily paid off. Most of these men were African Americans. Basically, they were slaves to Hamp Smith…and he treated them as such.
But just once, he went too far. Nineteen year old Sydney Johnson, after suffering a brutal beating at the hands of Hamp Smith, directed a plot to murder Smith. In May of 1918, the deed was carried out and Smith was shot dead. His wife was also shot but not killed. Mrs. Smith identified all of the assailants. Lynch mobs formed almost immediately. In the end, following a brutal rampage, thirteen individuals were murdered. Including Mary Turner and her unborn child.
Haze Turner, who had been captured by the police and imprisoned, was being transported by the Brooks County Sheriff when they were waylaid a few miles outside of Quitman near a bridge by about 40 masked men. Haze was hanged at the corner of Morven and Barney roads and his body left hanging for days so that hundreds of residents could view the remains.
Haze’s wife, Mary, was eight months pregnant when she was lynched on May 19, 1918. She was found guilty of “unwise remarks” concerning her husband’s killing. She stated, among other things, that her husband’s hanging was unjust, and that if she discovered the identities of the members of the mob she would “swear out warrants against them.” Inflamed by her words, the mob apprehended Mary on a Sunday afternoon and took her to Folsom’s Bridge over the little River, just outside of Barney on the Brooks-Lowndes border. Reports from witnesses reveal the gruesome details of Mary and her child’s death. She was first strung upside down, her ankles tied together, and then doused with gasoline. They burned her clothing off her body. When onlookers witnessed her stomach quiver with life, they decided to rip out the unborn child, who was said to have cried before they crushed its skull with their boots.
Mary and her child’s bodies were buried about ten feet from the tree in which they had been hanged. Their grave was marked by a whiskey bottle with a cigar placed in the neck.
Following these weeks of terror, hundreds of African Americans fled the county. The years following the deaths saw even more leave. And one man, the uncle of Turner B. Bryant, also called Turner B. Bryant, came to Niagara Falls in 1921. My Oakwood veteran was born three years after this incident. I can’t help but wonder if the first name, Turner, which shows up often in this family, reveals a family tie to the Haze and Mary Turner family. The US Federal Census of 1900 for Quitman (Morven) reveals Haze Turner only a few pages from the Bryant family. It is likely they were familiar, at the least, and members of the same community.
Bryant’s parents stayed in Quitman and died in Quitman. It is possible that our veteran followed his namesake, his uncle, to a fresh start in Niagara Falls. These men were a part of the Great Migration of African Americans who left great hardship, and often violence, behind to seek a new life in northern states. Of course, it was inevitable that many would experience prejudice and uncertainty…but times were changing and new movements were on the horizon.
I am not sure if I will ever know much more about Mr. Turner B. Bryant. He is only one of about 950 men and women we are researching at this time. Everyone has a story and sometimes our stories meet up with historic events. And then we go quietly into the night.