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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Motivations for and community reactions to lynchings in the 1930s

Kester discusses some of the lynchings he investigated for the NAACP and other organizations during the 1930s. He describes several incidents in detail and explains the motivations behind them. His remarks reveal how southerners, white and black, reacted to this form of racial violence.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
What were some of the other lynchings you investigated? How many did you investigate?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, I was thinking about that today. I would judge in the neighborhood of between 20 and 25 for the ACLU, the NAACP, The Workers Defense League, mostly for the NAACP. And one of the most atrocious ones occured near Duck Hill, Miss. The Neal lynching was bad enough, . . . in between what, in Mississippi, is known as the prairie and the delta, is an area, or was, now I haven't been there in 25 or 30 years, known as the Piney Woods. It was an area of very poor whites.
WILLIAM FINGER:
North Mississippi?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yeah, and they didn't . . . that's where the clay eaters were to be found. You drive down a country road and you'd find these holes on the side of the road from which the people would secure clay. The clay contained minerals which the people thought helpful toward their health. It was also the big corn liquor area in Mississippi, and it was controlled almost completely by white people. It was controlled by white people, and one Negro man, I can't give you his name at the moment, decided that if it was good for white folks, it ought to be good for Negroes, and so he started a still, and the white folks just rose up in revolt, and they took this man and chained him after they caught him, to a large pine tree. There he was bound with a chain, as close as I am to you, and they chained him to the tree, and they started tormenting that poor thing with blow torches, and they said you could hear the man scream for five miles and finally somebody picked up a five gallon can of gasoline or kerosene and poured it on him. And an Episcopal Minister was with me to make this investigation, Charlie Hamilton of Aberdren, Mississippi.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Did you ever investigate any other lynchings?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, Arthur Raper and I investigated the lynching of a small Negro boy not far from Nashville, and neither one of us knew that the other one was investigating. A small boy was accused of molesting a girl in a community near Nashville. The parents, of course there was a real possibility of trouble, you know, being accused of molesting a white child or white woman, or something of that sort, and Alva Taylor, Barnett and various other people became interested in this thing being investigated and arranged for a meeting, I think, and I can't be certain, but I think it was in the Court House in Nashville where the reports were to be made. And what the family of this little Negro boy felt, was that he would be the object of terror and maybe lynching, and they sent him to his uncle's home in Nashville. And the uncle's home was right across the street behind the dormitory, the men's dormitory on Fisk campus, but the mob broke in there and got that child and hung him, if I am not mistaken, on the flagpole at the Court House. I investigated it, Arthur was there and I didn't know that he was investigating it, and of course I was glad because it confirmed everything that I said and vice versa.
JACQUELYN HALL:
When you went into these places, how did you go about getting information? Besides going to the hamburger joints . . .
HOWARD KESTER:
Sometimes you'd find somebody . . . hear somebody who was outraged by what had happened.
JACQUELYN HALL:
White person?
HOWARD KESTER:
White person, and I'd always go to the Negro folk and talk to them.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Who would you go to to talk to in the black community? Is that where you got most of your information . . . from blacks?
HOWARD KESTER:
Blacks and whites. Sometimes it just fell into my lap. For example, it was reported that the farmers, cotton farmers in Warren County were forcing Negroes to pick the cotton at a price much much lower than they could get in other counties, but they couldn't get away. This was in Georgia. Warrenton is the County seat, and Alice was with me. It was not too far from where she was raised as a child, and we thought we'd go down to see the old plantation and maybe meet some of the older people who were there when she was a child, which we did. And we went to the hotel and registered, and after we came out I wanted to get acquainted with the town, you know, a little bit. A man passed us . . . well dressed, and he stopped, he went by us and he stopped and started walking toward us. I sensed it and he came back to where I stopped . . . Alice and I had stopped, and he came back and said "Aren't you Alice?" He had been the manager of the plantation on which Alice was raised. Well there was nothing we could do but go over to his home for dinner, which we did, and while Alice was with his wife he told me the whole story about what was going on in Warren County. I didn't ask for the story, he just gave it to me of his own free will. I can't remember his name, and that is one reason why I relied so much on Alice.
JACQUELYN HALL:
To remember people's names?
HOWARD KESTER:
Names and faces and many things. If there were 15 people sitting in this room, she could tell you where each one of them sat and what each one of them said. Now that is the God's truth, it's amazing, really incredible, and when I would go off on these long trips and would come back one of the first things she would do would be to tell me about who had been there, what they said, and all about them.
WILLIAM FINGER:
She kept you in touch with things?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, Yes.
JACQUELYN HALL:
How did she feel about the amount of traveling you did? You were on the road an awful lot.
HOWARD KESTER:
Well she was very lonely and sometimes I can hardly forgive myself, but I doubt if she would have had it otherwise. She was dedicated to our work. Anyway, while she was in the kitchen talking to this man's wife, he took me out on the front porch and we sat together in one of those swings, and he told me the whole story. He was the Mayor of the town and the head of the Ku Klux Klan, and I felt almost miserable, and I had to ask him why he was telling me the story. He said, "Well, I'm telling you, because I am very proud of it."
JACQUELYN HALL:
What kind of patterns did you see in the lynchings that you investigated? What caused them, who was responsible for them, what class of people?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, a cross section of the community - some well to do, poor people, whites, there was a strong feeling, as you will find in some of my papers that if a Negro had a job and a white man didn't, that was wrong, and he should be gotten rid of. So, but often times the entire community including some of the highly placed people in the community participated in these things.