- Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching by Julie Buckner Armstrong
Despite the unique circumstances surrounding her death—she was a woman; she was eight months pregnant; she was killed for speaking out against the men that murdered her husband—Mary Turner has, for the most part, been forgotten by history. And, according to Julie Buckner Armstrong, Turner is not alone. Rather, “[she] is one of countless black women whose stories have received insufficient attention in a history of racial violence that for too long has been triangulated between white men, black men, and white women” (3).
Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching is what Armstrong calls a case study of a story and not of an event. This is an important distinction. While seminal texts by Patricia Bernstein, Leonard Dinnerstein, James Madison, and James McGovern fully investigate the cases of Jesse Washington, Emmett Till, Claude Neil, and other black men, there are no equivalent studies for female victims of racial violence. And so, after determining that “the range of materials on Turner allows a scholar to study the ways knowledge and perceptions emerged and changed over time” Armstrong decided to produce her case study (14).
The result, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching, is Armstrong’s effort to change the narrative to better reflect that black women “played multiple roles: as victims, as loved ones left behind, and as those who fought back using grassroots, institutional, and artistic forms of resistance” (3). By collecting the stories and efforts of others who had done similar work before her Armstrong participates in the ongoing task of remembering Turner. In addition, this work provides the most complete context for Mary Turner and the various creative works that remember her.
The book is comprised of three parts. First, Armstrong presents an introduction wherein she explains the project and the struggles she faced completing it. Second, she presents a succinct and thoroughly-researched overview of the events of May 1918 during which Mary Turner and ten black men were killed by mobs of whites in southern Georgia. And third, she presents an exhaustive catalogue and review of many works by many creators produced at various points during the last century. All three sections are well done. All three are thorough. Some readers may appreciate the personal narrative Armstrong provides more than others, but this reviewer believes the personal/introductory section benefits the work and frames it nicely.
The personal/introductory section of the book explains how Armstrong learned of Mary Turner and what compelled her to take on this project. It takes readers to southern Georgia near to where Turner was killed and Armstrong worked as an English professor at a small university. It is here that readers discover Armstrong learned of Mary Turner from African American students whose families kept her story alive (remembered her). That local whites stonewalled Armstrong at every turn as she conducted her research for the project. Armstrong confesses that at times working on this project made her physically ill. That it forced her to rethink her own identity as a white woman from the South. This first section grounds Armstrong in her work and prepares the reader for the emotional task they are preparing to undertake. For, even in a field of study where unspeakable violence is commonplace, Mary Turner’s murder is shocking for its savagery.
These are the details: over a period of about a week back in May 1918 a mob of white vigilantes in Brooks and Lowndes counties, Georgia, lynched as many as ten black men as [End Page 488] well as Mary Turner. The posse ostensibly formed to bring a laborer named Hayes Turner and an accomplice to justice after it was determined that Turner had killed his white boss, Hampton Smith, and assaulted Smith’s wife after Turner and Smith disputed over wages. The mob lynched and killed Hayes Turner soon after he shot Smith. Mary Turner, his wife, responded by publicly vowing to see her husband’s killers brought to justice. For that the mob hung her upside...