|18-year-old Henry Choate was lynched from the second floor of the Maury County Courthouse|
in Columbia, Tenn., on Nov. 11, 1927. (CLICK ON ALL IMAGES TO ENLARGE.)
|Deary Armstrong's tilted marker in |
Salem Church Cemetery.
Across a two-lane road, broken markers peek through the earth at unkempt Salem Church Cemetery, the final resting place of scores of African-Americans. A large, toppled marker rests behind a decrepit, twisted iron fence. The gravestone for Marsh Mayes, age 99 years, four months, 22 days, leans against a tree. Tilted at an odd angle, Deary Armstrong’s tombstone is almost obscured by weeds and purple wildflowers. Dixie Lou Bates’ gravestone – she was 24 when she died in 1943 – looks forlorn among stumps and trees. On many of the battered and weather-worn gravestones, the inscriptions are unreadable.
|“Watch out for the holes,” warned a woman who lives next to Salem Church Cemetery. Some of the graves|
have subsided, giving the grounds the look of a World War I battlefield.
|The Salem Church Cemetery gravestone of Marsh Mayes, who almost lived a century.|
|Could this be Henry Choate's gravestone?|
And then there’s the Choates’ 18-year-old son, Henry, who died in 1927. Perhaps he’s buried at Salem Church Cemetery beneath the small, block marker inscribed with “H.S.C.” None of the other nearby graves include a readable last name, so there’s no way to tell. We know the cause of Henry’s death, though. In cursive writing, it leaps from his one-page death certificate:
Henry Choate is why I’m here.
|Henry Choate's death certificate. Cause of death: "Lynched." (Courtesy Tina Cahalan Jones)|
'Maury County had been disgraced'The Page 1 headlines in the Nov. 12, 1927, Nashville Tennessean are jarring:
“Negro Lynched in Columbia for Attack on Girl.”
“Unmasked Mob Estimated at 350 Men Storms Jail With Sledge Hammers.”
“Deaf to Pleas.”
|Front-page headlines in the Nashville Tennessean on Nov. 12, 1927.|
The circumstances of Henry Choate’s lynching on Armistice Day 1927 are especially revolting.
Earlier that day, Choate was accused of assaulting Sarah Harlan, a 16-year-old white girl, as she waited for a school bus on a remote stretch of road five miles from Columbia. Harlan’s clothing reportedly was nearly torn away by the assailant, who attempted to shoot her. She screamed for help. According to the Tennessean, the attacker struck her on the forehead with the butt of his pistol and apparently attempted to strangle the teenager, one of nine children raised by a widow. Sarah scratched her assailant and bit his finger, drawing blood. The man fled when she told him her brother was approaching, a ruse. “Now I’ll guess you’ll get it,” Harlan said, the Tennessean reported.
|The Nashville Tennessean|
published Sarah Harlan's
photo on Nov. 13, 1927. She couldn't
positively indentify Henry Choate
as her assailant.
Choate, who denied the attack, was taken by law enforcement to the house of Harlan’s uncle, where Sarah was staying. She couldn’t identify him positively as her assailant. A mob formed and surged into the house. The girl’s mother and the sheriff “asked them to spare the negro for trial,” the newspaper reported, and Henry was whisked out another door and taken by car to the Maury County Jail, 300 yards from the county courthouse.
Eager to storm the jail, a mob formed at the two-story, late-19th-century building on 6th Street. Attempts to swipe the keys to the jail from Wiley’s wife failed. Deputy sheriff Ed Pugh of Nashville, who owned bloodhounds George and Queen, warned the crowd about attempting to exact its perverted version of justice on the eve of the election for county sheriff. Wouldn’t want to make Sheriff Wiley look bad after all.
At 7 p.m., the scene at the county jail was calm. But about an hour later, the mob formed again on 6th Street, soon growing to about 350. Swinging sledgehammers, some of the men broke into the jail, leaving destruction in their wake. Wiley reportedly pleaded with them to stop. So did his wife, but someone turned over the key to the cell for Choate, who must have been terrified. The sheriff himself may have unlocked the cell.
|Two days after the lynching, the Nashville Tennessean|
published this image of voters casting ballots at the
Maury County Courthouse in the Democratic primary for
sheriff. The "X" shows where the "hanging rope" was tossed.
“They planned to tell the governor,” the newspaper reported, “that no determined effort was being made to protect the negro against the lynchers …”
Dragged from the jail, Choate supposedly confessed at the door of the courthouse to J.R. Parsons, a Methodist minister, who urged the mob to let the teenager stand trial. Choate’s “confession” was heard by a man nearby holding a rope. “Well, that sends you to hell,” he said, according to a newspaper reporter.
A noose around his neck, Choate was taken to the second floor of the courthouse, which was decorated with red, white and blue for Armistice Day. The men pushed through the double doors that led outside, tied the rope to the stone balustrade, and hurled Choate over. The teenager’s body dangled to about the center of the first-floor doorway for about 10 minutes. Relatives later retrieved Henry’s battered body.
“Success of the lynching” the Tennessean reported, was announced by Finney at the American Legion banquet.
“Maury County,” the newspaper added, “had been disgraced.”
'Courthouse is lynch gallows'
| The day after the lynching, |
Luther Wiley lost in the Democratic
primary for Maury County sheriff.
A week after the lynching, editor Finney of the Tennessean weighed in on the pages of his newspaper. “Executions by mob are murder,” he wrote, “nothing more, nothing less.”
Beyond demanding justice, journalists apparently didn't do any digging of their own.
Maury County citizens, a Chattanooga newspaper wrote, “will not be judged alone by the lynching of Henry Choate, but also what they do toward bringing the lynchers to the bar of justice and seeing that they are properly punished for their crime against the state of Tennessee.”
Ultimately, however, no one stood trial for the lynching. A grand jury was convened, but no charges were filed. It was “unable to find evidence upon which to return a true bill against participants …” Predictably, a judge said Maury County law enforcement was “blameless.”
The only justice in this case came on Election Day, Nov. 12, 1927. Luther Wiley – who “stood by and meekly submitted to the battering down of the doors of his jail” – was defeated in the Democratic primary, squashing his bid for a third term as county sheriff.
The scene of the crime
|Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn. Henry Choate was lynched from the second-floor porch.|
Armed with questions, I circled the building, looking for a marker explaining what happened here on a Monday night nearly 93 years ago. Steps from the front door of the courthouse, dozens of names of U.S. Colored Troops are inscribed on a modern, gray-granite soldiers’ memorial. But there’s no mention of a lynching anywhere on courthouse grounds.
Nearby, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” blared from a music store. Outside the barber shop next door, I chatted with a stylist named Todd. Told him why I was here: “Black kid … lynched … 1927 … right over there ... from the courthouse porch.”
"No kidding," he told me. He had cut the hair of three customers recently who talked about the same case. "The old locals here know everything."
Perhaps my questions are unanswerable, but I have so many of them. Maybe the locals can help.
Who was Henry Choate?
Who denied him justice?
Where are the records of that long-ago grand jury?
What happened to Sarah Harlan?
And, most importantly, who put the rope around an 18-year-old kid's neck and lynched him in 1927?
-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? E-mail me here.
-- Chattanooga Daily Times, Nov. 27, 1927.
-- Find A Grave.
-- Lancaster (Pa.) New Era. Associated Press report.
-- Morristown (Tenn.) Gazette, Nov. 15, 1927.
-- Nashville Tennessean, Nov. 12, 1927, Nov. 13, 1927, Nov. 18, 1927.
-- The Leaf-Chronicle, Clarksville, Tenn., Nov. 14, 1927.