Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Verso Books. 2021. 80pp. $17.46
“In this particular historical moment when young Black people are engaged in a renewed struggle against state violence, Mary Turner’s story resonates. She insists that we #SayHerName too.”
The phrase, “Seeing is believing,” is apt when thinking about the killing of George Floyd. It echoes lynching in America, done in plain sight, the perpetrators confident there would be little to no consequences. But these heinous acts were seen nonetheless, witnessed and documented. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an artist and teacher, has created a visual testament to one of the most horrific of lynchings: on May 20, 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, Mary Turner, 8 months pregnant, was brutally murdered, set on fire, her live baby pulled out and stomped to death. The mob then shot at Mary Turner’s corpse hundreds of time. Mary Turner was lynched because she dared to object to the lynching of her husband, Hayes, the day before.
A work like this achieves not only the goal of informing but also of haunting the reader. These images, not meant to shock but to testify, will stay with you. The full-color art and collage work names those who were killed, identifies the killers, and evokes the landscape in which the NAACP investigated the crimes when the state would not. In the big scheme, these lynchings occurred only yesterday. A book like this one brings home that fact.
Williams chronicles all the events related to a series of lynchings which included Mary Turner. It all began as a quarrel between Hampton Smith, a plantation owner, and Sidney Johnson, a modern-day slave working indefinitely for Smith who had an ongoing scheme of paying off jail fines in return for indentured servitude. The quarrel became heated. Smith beat Johnson. Subsequently, Johnson returned and ended up shooting Smith and his wife. He killed Smith. And he nearly killed his wife. She was pregnant at the time. This incident triggered a lynching spree, between May 17 to 24, 1918, of any Blacks in the surrounding Brooks and Lowndes counties. This resulted in a mob killing 10 men, one woman, Mary Turner, and her baby.
C. Tyrone Forehand (great-grandnephew of Hayes and Mary Turner) provides a postscript. There you will find vivid chilling details like this:
“Rufus Morrison was only ten years old when he was hiding in a cornfield along Ryalls Road in the town of Barney and witnessed Mary Turner’s execution. The memory of a frightened and bewildered woman was forever etched in his mind as he saw the mob tie a rope to her ankles and hoist her upside down from a tree. They taunted and jeered a terrified Mary as they began to roast her alive. One of the members of the mob took a swig of moonshine from a jug and spat it on her as another dared him to slit open her abdomen where her unborn child was oblivious to the fate which was about to befall it.”
The fact is that “seeing is believing” but it’s reading the facts that will give you an deeper picture.