Eyewitness to Terror: The Lynching of a Black Man in Obion County, Tennessee in 1931

New York Times Article on the Lynching of George Smith, Obion County, April 1931
New York Times Article on the Lynching of George Smith, Obion County, April 1931
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In 1931 twelve-year- old Thomas J. Pressly witnessed the lynching of George Smith in Union City, the county seat of Obion County, Tennessee.  Now a University of Washington historian and Professor Emeritus, Dr. Pressley describes that lynching in the article below.  

When I was twelve years old, I saw the body of a young black man hanging from the limb of a tree where he had been hung several hours earlier. The lynching had taken place in April, 1931, in Union City, the county seat, of Obion County, in Northwestern Tennessee, not too far from the Kentucky line to the north, and from the Mississippi River to the west.

I lived in Troy, Tennessee, a town of five hundred inhabitants, ten miles south of Union City. On the morning of April 18, 1931, a friend of mine in Troy, Hal Bennet, five or six years older than I, told me that he had to drive his car to Union City to purchase some parts for the car, and he asked if I wanted to go along for the ride. I was not old enough to drive, and I was happy to accept his invitation. Neither Hal not I had heard anything about a lynching in Union City, but when we entered town, we soon passed the Court House and saw that the grounds were filled with people and that the black man’s body was hanging from the tree.

We were told by people in the crowd that the lynched man was in his early twenties, and that on the previous night, he had entered the bedroom and clutched the neck of a young lady prominent as a singer and pianist who regularly performed as the main entertainer at the new radio station recently established in Union City, as the first station in Obion County. The young lady said she had fought off her attacker and severely scratched his face before he fled from her house.

Within hours the sheriff and his deputy, using bloodhounds, had tracked down a black man who had scratches on his face. They then brought him before the young woman who identified him as her assailant. Convinced he had the attacker, the sheriff put him in the jail, which occupied the top floor of the Court House.

Before long, however, a mob of whites gathered, broke into the jail, overpowered the sheriff and deputy, and hung the victim from the limb of the tree near the jail. I did not know the name of the black man who died that day. I was later told that he was a high school graduate which was unusual for blacks or whites in my county in that period, and that he knew the family of the woman attacked.

When my friend Hal and I drove back to Troy later that day, we carried another boy from Troy named Denton who was about the same age as Hal, although neither Hal nor I knew him very well. As we left Union City, headed for Troy, we passed a black man who was waking by the side of the highway. Denton, riding in the back seat, rolled down his window and shouted at the black man, “You better watch out, you black son-of-a-bitch, they will get you next.” Hal immediately stopped the car and said to Denton “If you say one more word like that, you will be out of this car, and will be walking the ten miles to Troy.”

Even though I was only a twelve-year-old, I well understood the difference between Hal and Denton, because it reflected to me the primary difference between the whites in Troy. All the adults in Hal’s family and in my family were college graduates, as were the adults in the Moffat family, the Grier family, and in several other Troy families. They were all Scotch Irish Presbyterians. As I learned later when I went to college, these Scotch Irish Presbyterians were equivalent to the 17th century Puritans who settled in Massachusetts.  These Presbyterians immediately founded a college so that the ministers would be educated. The college founded by the early Scotch Irish Presbyterians, the ancestors of those in Troy, was Erskine College and Theological Seminary established in the 1840s in South Carolina. Erskine College was where most of the college graduates in Troy had gone to school, and the Erskine Theological Seminary was where my grandfather and one of my uncles had received their training for the ministry.

I think that there were only thirty or forty blacks in Troy (this was not plantation country), and most of them were maids, cooks, and men who took care of lawns and of pigs, cows, and horses. Clearly, the whites in Troy controlled the blacks, economically and socially, but I had never heard any whites talk to blacks, or refer to blacks, as Denton did on that trip from Union City. There was no church for blacks in the town of Troy, nor was there any school for blacks. I do not know whether Denton had a family, or whether he belonged to any church. If he did attend any church, my guess is that it would have been the Cumberland Church—whose minister was neither a college graduate nor a high school graduate, and who ran Troy’s only butcher shop.

Did Troy itself ever have a lynching? So far as I know, it did not, but my mother told me of one occasion (before I was born) when she and my father feared that a lynching would take place. My mother said the occasion was on a Saturday, some time after 1904 (the year in which my father and mother were married). The number of whites in Troy increased greatly on Saturdays, because that was the day on which farmers and their families came into town to buy groceries and clothing, and to see friends and relatives, and to find out local news.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, according to my mother, a high-school-age girl (whom my mother did not know and who was probably from one of the farm families), became quite upset and told a great many people that a black man from Troy (I never heard of any black farmers who lived near Troy), when he approached her on the sidewalk in Troy, did not get off the sidewalk and walk in the ditch as she thought he should have done, so that she could have had the entire sidewalk for herself.

My mother and father had known the black man she described for some time, and had a favorable opinion of him, and they also thought that the complaint by the young girl was outrageous. When they saw a crowd of whites began to gather around the girl, my father motioned unobtrusively to the black man to slip into my father’s store before the crowd of whites became large. My father and mother then hid the black man under bolts of cloth in their store.

As the afternoon wore on, groups of whites searched for the black man in each of the stores, and in some of the surrounding streets. When it began to get dark, many of the farmers left with their families to go back to their farm homes, but there were still a few whites hanging around and searching for the black man. By about ten o’clock, all the stores closed, and my mother made a point of making a lot of noise when she locked the door on their store, and then in leaving their store and walking away toward our home (leaving my father alone in the dark store with the hidden black man).

By midnight, there was no one left on the streets. Our store had a back door, not visible from the street, and after an hour or so my father was able to get a horse (the man who ran the livery stable was a friend of my father’s), and bring it to the back door of the store. He gave the horse to the black man telling him that it would probably be unsafe for him to ever return to Troy. The black man got away on the horse without being detected, and about four days later he got word to my father that he was in Kentucky and hoped to make it to Canada. My father and mother never hear from him after that.