Lynching and Foul Murder: An Excerpt from The Violent World of Broadus Miller

The following is an excerpt from The Violent World of Broadus Miller: A Story of Murder, Lynch Mobs, and Judicial Punishment in the Carolinas by Kevin W. Young, which is available wherever books are sold.

“Young offers insight into the day-to-day racism, violence, and fear that permeated the Carolinas. Thoroughly researched and meticulously documented, this gripping narrative is a truly impressive work of scholarship.”—Daniel S. Pierce, University of North Carolina Asheville

Most homicides in upstate South Carolina were unpremeditated, arising from drunken quarrels and domestic disputes between same-race perpetrators and victims. However, some killings had a more deliberate intent. In a region where African Americans comprised a majority of the population, the white minority maintained supremacy by force, and the targeted killing of Blacks sent a stark message to all African Americans, reminding them of their designated place within the local hierarchy. According to the NAACP, in the years after its formation, Greenwood County would witness more lynching deaths—sixteen—than any other county in the state. Half of these deaths occurred at Phoenix in 1898. In the following years, mobs lynched Blacks accused of committing crimes or behaving in ways that seemed to challenge white supremacy. No whites were ever lynched in twentieth-century upstate South Carolina; all lynching victims were African Americans. From Broadus Miller’s birth in 1904 until the time he left Greenwood County in 1921, at least six recorded lynchings took place within a twenty-mile radius of Shoals Junction, while additional lynching victims may have vanished without a trace, their deaths unreported and their names unknown.

In September 1904—around the time Broadus Miller was born—the body of James “Babe” Stuart was discovered near the Saluda River, his hands tied behind his back and a gunshot wound in his chest. Stuart had been serving time on a Laurens County chain gang when a white farmer paid his court fines and then apparently kept him in involuntary servitude for the next two years. One afternoon, the farmer left to visit a cotton gin, leaving his two teenage daughters picking cotton alongside Stuart and the other field hands. When the farmer returned, his daughters claimed Stuart had attempted to rape one of them but had been scared off by her sister. That evening, several dozen of the farmer’s relatives and neighbors seized the accused field hand, then argued among themselves about whether to turn him over to the local sheriff. A few of the men decided to take matters into their own hands and marched Stuart over a river bridge into Greenwood County, where they executed him with a single shot to the heart. In response to the killing, The State—one of South Carolina’s leading newspapers—published an editorial denouncing white farm owners whose “wives and daughters were made to work side by side with negroes in the fields” and calling on these farmers to “keep the negro in his place and maintain their own proper position.”

Targeted killing of Blacks sent a stark message to all African Americans, reminding them of their designated place within the local hierarchy

During the early 1900s, African Americans inhabited a precarious place in upstate South Carolina, forced to navigate a treacherous terrain between variously positioned segments of the white population, and any misstep could prove fatal. The region’s white residents consisted of town elites, mill workers and other wage laborers, landowning farmers, and tenant farming families. Many of the town elites—businessmen, lawyers, and other urban professionals—employed Black domestic servants and manual laborers, and though these elites ascribed to white supremacy, they feared the specter of a mob of working-class whites, unruly and ungoverned. For white tenant farmers and wage laborers, any resentment of these town elites could be directed with near impunity at the African Americans whom the elites employed. Kinship ties connected many white tenant families to local landowning farmers, and though some of these landowners provided Black tenants with feudal protection, others kept African Americans in virtual slavery. Tacitly supported by many people, a few white families played a leading role in much of the mob violence against Blacks.

Continue reading in The Violent World of Broadus Miller

Kevin W. Young teaches at Appalachian State University.