The John S. Williams plantation in Georgia was operated largely with the labor of slaves—and this was in 1921, 56 years after the Civil War. Williams was not alone in using “peons,” but his reaction to a federal investigation was almost unbelievable: he decided to destroy the evidence. Enlisting the aid of his trusted black farm boss, Clyde Manning, he began methodically killing his slaves. As this true story unfolds, each detail seems more shocking, and surprises continue in the aftermath, with a sensational trial galvanizing the nation and marking a turning point in the treatment of black Americans.
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About the Author
Gregory A. Freeman is the author of Sailors to the End and has written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He lives in Roswell, Georgia.
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Lay This Body Down
The 1921 Murder of Eleven Plantation Slaves
By Gregory A. Freeman
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1999 Gregory A. Freeman
All rights reserved.
"Don't Throw Me Over"
Jasper and Newton Counties in central Georgia are not all that different from the way they were in 1921, at least as far as the more pleasant aspects of Southern culture are concerned. More than three-quarters of a century after the murder trials of John S. Williams and Clyde Manning, they, like many Southern communities, have changed for the better in terms of racial equality and integration while retaining much of their old Southern-style charm.
Pick any small Southern town and you can see a study in the conflicts that have shaped the region over the past century. Blacks and whites still mainly keep to themselves when it comes to churches, civic groups, and social gatherings, but the rest of their lives overlap in an easy, routine way. The vestiges of segregation are still there, as is plenty of overt racism, but the American South is not what many outsiders think it is. And quite possibly, it never was.
Jasper and Newton Counties are typical examples of small Southern communities that have held on to their local identities even as nearby towns have been swallowed by urbanization and robbed of commerce and population. On a typical afternoon, the county seats, Covington in Newton County and Monticello in Jasper County, are still alive with the flow of local residents, both of them far enough away from the sprawling Atlanta metropolis to retain their small-town independence.
And Covington and Monticello are still deeply Southern. Atlanta is Southern only in comparison to other big American cities; in many ways it has become a generic big city without the personality that defines a Southern community. A great many residents of Atlanta were not born in the South, and, even if they have decided that they really do like grits, there is no connection to the land on which they live. But in Covington and Monticello, the people know that they are Southerners, and they are proud of it. Their towns are slow and peaceful, seemingly content to idle quietly as the world around them picks up speed.
Monticello is the smaller of the two, consisting almost entirely of a town square surrounded by old brick storefronts, not all of them occupied. Monticello is holding on, but just as in 1921, it is only the front door to a rural community. Nearby Covington is much more alive. While still a pleasant little spot where the hours stroll by with no hurry, there is business to do and people to see. Both towns look traditional, with green, parklike town squares surrounded by brick-front stores; the highest points are the old courthouses with clocks on their towers. Monticello has only a smattering of businesses downtown, but Covington is still a commercial center for both counties. Around the city square, stores offer hardware, furniture, insurance, real estate, drugs, and one even offers Web pages. At Smiley's Restaurant, a country cookin' buffet, you can "catch a good meal at a good price," and the sign touting the new Sunday dinner hours ends with a hearty "God Bless You!" Inside, blacks and whites enjoy fried chicken and banana pudding together while listening to old-fashioned gospel music.
Just beyond the town squares are dozens of beautiful neoclassical Southern mansions with tall white columns, wide wraparound porches, brilliant white paint, and little signs indicating how soon after the Civil War destroyed most homes of that type they were built. Because it is still so picturesque, so typically Southern, Covington was used for the opening montage of the popular television series In the Heat of the Night, with the Newton County Courthouse featured prominently.
These are communities where people still wave at each other as they pass on the street whether they know each other or not, and the occasional out-of-towner is spotted on the sidewalk right away. Every other vehicle is a pickup truck, but a fair number of minivans also slowly circle the town square. The county sheriff still provides an escort to funeral processions, and drivers traveling in both directions still pull over to the side of the road as a sign of respect while the procession passes. The occasional honking horn on the streets means someone has spotted a friend and wants to say hello; it couldn't mean that anyone had been so rude as to honk in anger. And on a Saturday afternoon outing to the library, a twelve-year-old boy with an accent like sweet molasses can openly dote over his aging grandmother, calling her "Honey" and making sure she has everything she needs.
In both towns, the focal point of the town square is the local courthouse. Both are traditional structures, the Monticello courthouse a bit more typically Southern with its Ionic columns and beige brick. The Covington courthouse is red brick with white trim and a soaring clock tower. Both buildings have been beautifully maintained. But the Covington courthouse has a richer history because the murder trials of John S. Williams and Clyde Manning were both held there. In 1921, all of Georgia and indeed much of the country was focused on the second-floor courtroom in that red brick building.
The actual physical center of both town squares, however, is a memorial to the Confederate soldiers. These memorials are an almost obligatory centerpiece of any Southern town. Usually consisting of a tall stone pedestal supporting a statue of a proud soldier leaning on his rifle, the memorial always includes a passage or two paying tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Confederacy, praising their valor in their struggle against overwhelming odds.
The Confederate memorial in Covington, however, includes another passage of a type not often seen. Resembling a disclaimer, the inscription on one side of the monument — the side visible when facing the courthouse — notes that "No sordid or mercenary spirit animated the cause espoused by those to whom this monument is erected or inspired the men who bravely fought and the women who freely suffered for it. Its final failure could not dishonor it, nor did defeat estrange its devotees."
That oddly defensive inscription says much about the way many Southerners see their history — not only the history of the Civil War but also everything that has happened since. There is a strong urge to honor the good people who came before you, and, for many white Southerners, there is a compulsion to defend them from accusations that they were just slaveholders or segregationists.
Even today, the people of Newton and Jasper Counties are much like those who would have witnessed the trials of John S. Williams and Clyde Manning. Neither uniformly good nor uniformly bad, they are normal folk who happen to live in a region whose history is tightly woven with slavery and racism, whose history is inescapable no matter how they try to move forward. There is no doubt that the community is progressing, but to truly succeed, it may be necessary to look back.
When one looks back at the case of Williams and Manning, one's eyes inevitably fall on the bridges spanning the shallow waters of Jackson Lake and its surrounding rivers. The lake is a focal point for life in Jasper and Newton Counties, just as it was in 1921. Most local residents find some everyday tie to Jackson Lake though it is not a source of livelihood or even much recreation — you live on the lake, you live on this side or that side of the lake, or you cross the lake to get from here to there.
The construction of Lloyd Shoals Dam in 1910 caused three rivers to pool at the bottom of Newton County: the South River, running down from the western border of the county; the Alcovy River, running down the eastern side; and the Yellow River, which meanders down the middle. The result was a Y-shaped lake dividing three counties, with Newton County to the north, Jasper to the southeast, and Butts to the southwest. The two bridges connecting Jasper and Newton Counties, and another within Jasper County, are now modern concrete structures, sleek and sturdy, entirely suited to their task. They look like any other bridges on country roads, and there is no lasting reminder of the tragedies that occurred there. They are not the same bridges that served as the killing sites for some of the men who had become a liability for John S. Williams, yet they span the same waters, and the remnants of the original wood and steel structures can still be seen in the dark waters below.
On a cold night in February 1921, Lindsey Peterson, Willie Preston, and Harry Price plunged from these bridges. Their deaths are an appropriate introduction to the Williams plantation murders, not because they were the first, but because they were perhaps the most horrifying. Their experience speaks volumes about Williams, about Manning, and about the time they lived in.
John S. William's car moved swiftly along the rough Georgia road, the three men in the back seat talking softly among themselves. There was no conversation between the twenty-six-year-old Clyde Manning, a handsome young man with coal-black skin, and the other two men in the front: Charlie Chisolm, another black worker from the farm, and John S. Williams, the white farmer at the wheel.
Manning may have dreaded what was to come, but Mr. Johnny had made it clear that he could not say no. "It's your neck or theirs, Clyde. Whichever you think the most of." So he stared straight ahead, watching the car's headlights faintly penetrate the damp night air. He could barely hear the struggles of the three men in the back, pulling in vain against the wires that bound their hands and feet and trying not to strangle each other with the chains that tied two of them together by the neck.
Lindsey Peterson and Willie Preston were scared, but not yet terrified. They spoke quietly to each other: Where were they going? What was going to happen to them? It was not unusual for Mr. Johnny and his sons to put his workers in chains, and it certainly was not unusual for them to be left wondering what was next. All they knew for certain was that they must not ask and they must not protest. No matter the destination, that could only make things worse.
Harry Price, on the other hand, was terrified. He was sweating furiously in the chilly, wet Georgia night, and he could be heard praying hard.
All three must have wondered what they had done to deserve this. Had they not worked hard enough on Mr. Johnny's farm? Had they made trouble in some way? Punishment was expected on the plantation, but the men usually had some idea what they were being punished for. They must have realized, of course, that they were not being taken to the train station as promised. Mr. Johnny and his sons regularly shared their workers among their own farms, so perhaps they hoped that Mr. Johnny was sending them to a neighbor's land. But that would not have explained the rocks.
The car stopped in the middle of Allen's Bridge on the Yellow River. Mr. Johnny stepped to the road, told Peterson and Preston to get out, but told Price to stay put. Manning came around to the driver's side and urged the two men, "Y'all get on out and do what Mr. Johnny say. We can't put up with no foolishness."
The men struggled with the chains and weights that tied them, and Manning reached in to lend a hand. Mr. Johnny helped lift the hundred pounds of rocks in the sack tied to the trace chains that bound the men, supporting the weight enough so that the men could get out of the car. The men moved slowly, straining under the weight, the chains causing them to bump into each other and stumble.
Price sat in the backseat with his own bag of rocks hanging from his neck and resting on his lap. He watched as his friends were led to the edge of the bridge by Manning, Mr. Johnny, and Chisolm. He heard Mr. Johnny say only one thing: "Throw them over."
Manning and Chisolm grabbed the two men firmly and started pushing, but Peterson and Preston panicked, shuffling about, trying to run, even with the chains binding them and the rocks weighing them down. Manning would later recall that their look of fear was a horrible thing, and he did his best to avoid looking them in the face. They were young and strong, but the chains made them easy to handle.
Without saying anything to Mr. Johnny, Manning and Chisolm did their best to follow his orders. They grappled with Peterson and Preston and forced them against the bridge railing as the two chained men pleaded not to be thrown over. They called Manning and Chisolm by their first names, screaming and crying helplessly. It was clear they knew not only that they were about to die, but exactly how — and how horribly.
In a short moment it was over. As the chained men were pushed over the railing, the rocks tied to their necks made them top-heavy, and their legs flipped over quickly. There was a soft splash, and in an instant they were gone. Manning turned around to see Mr. Johnny already walking back to the car.
Manning and Chisolm climbed in without a word to Price. Manning wondered why Mr. Johnny didn't want Price thrown off the bridge too, but he wasn't about to ask. Within moments, he had an idea where they were going. Price probably figured it out just as quickly. Mann's bridge, over the South River, was only about a mile away.
As before, the car came to a halt in the middle of the bridge and Mr. Johnny stepped out. "All right, boys, get out," he said. "Hurry up and get it over with." Manning and Chisolm helped Price out of the back seat, with Manning lifting the heavy bag of rocks so that Price could walk. Mr. Johnny didn't say anything this time. Chisolm began to push Price toward the railing while Manning, with his eyes downcast and avoiding Price's face, supported the rocks.
Manning was surprised when Price shook himself free of Chisolm's grip and in a low, quavering voice said, "Don't throw me over. I'll get over." Apparently not knowing what else to do, Chisolm let Price shuffle slowly toward the railing on his own. Manning walked alongside, carrying the bag of rocks that Price could not support without help. When he got to the railing, Price turned his back to the river and faced Mr. Johnny, standing near the car. He pulled himself up on the railing and balanced himself there, with Manning still holding the bag of rocks for him.
He sat there for a long moment, tears streaming down his dark cheeks and his whole body trembling. No one said anything. Manning stared downward, his gaze passing through the rusted metal bridge railing and into the blackness of the river. Price looked from Manning to Chisolm as if he were trying to think of something that would help him, but nothing came.
"Don't throw me over," he said once again, calmly. And, after another long pause, "Lord have mercy."
With those final words, Price leaned back and disappeared into the darkness.CHAPTER 2
"When I First Remember Myself, I Was in Jasper County"
The deaths of Peterson, Preston, and Price certainly were not the first Clyde Manning had witnessed. Many of his friends had been abused and killed on the Williams farm, and more often than not he had had a hand in it. He had lived there from the age of thirteen or fourteen, when his father was killed by a shotgun blast from someone lying in ambush. Williams took in Manning, his mother, and his siblings in their time of desperate need and in some ways acted as Manning's tutor and surrogate father. The depth of their relationship was illustrated by the many occasions on which Williams gave Manning instructions that it seemed no man could follow, and Manning obeyed with a diligence that is hard to ascribe solely to fear or blind obedience.
The Williams property was located in central Georgia, about forty miles from Atlanta, and the boy never strayed far from it. Even as an adult, Manning never traveled and knew very little of the surrounding counties, much less anything farther away. Like most of his fellow laborers, he never learned to read. Illiteracy tends to encourage a strong memory for places, dates, names, and other details, and Manning would demonstrate that skill later, when called on to recount his experiences.
But he remembered little of life before or beyond the Williams plantation. When asked during the murder trials about his childhood, he replied that he did not know where he was born. "When I first remember myself, I was in Jasper County," he said.
Manning grew into a good-looking young man, very dark skinned, about 150 pounds and strongly built. The Williams family entrusted him with far more responsibility than the other laborers on the farm. The plantation owner allowed him to drive the family cars — or at least attempt to. On his first try, he wove crazily all over the farm and eventually ran over the Williams family mailbox — a scene that always would be recalled with some humor.
Manning and Williams had a special relationship that was obvious to the other plantation residents. While certainly not loving or indulgent toward Manning, Williams apparently had some affection for the young man, springing from his earlier tutelage of him. That small feeling was encouraged by Manning's obedience, his eagerness to make Williams happy. The white man came to appreciate Manning the way one appreciates an obedient and trustworthy dog.
Excerpted from Lay This Body Down by Gregory A. Freeman. Copyright © 1999 Gregory A. Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 "Don't Throw Me Over",
2 "When I First Remember Myself, I Was in Jasper County",
3 "The River Was Full of Dead Negroes",
4 "You Lying Scoundrel, You",
5 "I Hate to Do It",
6 "I'll Go, Mr. Johnny",
7 "Don't Make No Miss Lick",
8 "I Believe Clyde Can Tell You All About It",
9 "Things Were Sort of Bad on the Williams Place",
10 "He Wanted to Look Good Because He Was Going Home",
11 "Before God, I Am as Innocent as a Man Can Be",
12 "This Is the Spirit of Justice in Georgia",
13 "There Was Fear Among the Hands",
14 "Stand Up, Clyde",
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A true, cant put it down story that will open your eyes to the second age of legal slavery in the south. Thought provoking and spine chilling from page one on! Jerry Gilmour
One can not read this book without being forced to 'feel.' It is impossible to be a fence-sitter after reading this book. You will emerge as an all out racist or one who realizes that covering up history or trying to deny it ever happened will doom us all to repeat it. I am an avid reader and have taught English, American and African-American literature in three colleges. This is one of the most intense books I have ever read. I am surprised it is not available in all book stores. Although I have been an Internet user for years, this was my first order via Internet because the bookstores I visited ( and I visited many) did not have this book. All Americans should read LAY THIS BODY DOWN.