Sunday, March 29, 2020

'That sends you to hell': The 1927 lynching of Henry Choate

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.)

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The ancient cemeteries on Old Zion Road in Columbia, Tenn., are roughly 300 yards apart, but they are starkly different. Worlds apart, actually.

Deary Armstrong's tilted marker in 
Salem Church Cemetery.
The grounds of Zion Presbyterian Church Cemetery are tidy; the old trees neatly trimmed. Among the more than 1,500 buried there are Confederate veterans, including the celebrated Sam Watkins of “Company Aytch” fame, and soldiers from the  Revolutionary War and War of 1812. The beautiful, Greek Revival-style brick church on the grounds was built in the mid-19th century with the labor of slaves and others.

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.
“Watch out for the holes,” warns a woman who lives next to the cemetery, which is bordered by a ditch filled with water. Some of the graves have subsided, giving the grounds the look of a World War I battlefield in France or Belgium.

Could this be Henry Choate's gravestone?
Somewhere on this sad landscape rest the remains of the Choate family -- Freeman, his wife Mattie and their son and daughter. They lived on Rural Route 1 in Columbia. A former phosphate miner and farm laborer, "Free" was 72 when he died on Jan. 19, 1945. Cause of death: Unknown. Mattie, 56, died of kidney disease at a house on Albion Street in Nashville on July 25, 1941. On June 14, 1939, the Choates’ 26-year-old daughter, Myrtle, died of food poisoning and “insufficient diet.”

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.
From 1882-1969, according to the Tuskegee Institute,  4,743 people, including 3,446 African-Americans, were lynched in the United States – a horrendous stain on our history. More than 73 percent of the murders occurred in the South.

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. 
Using bloodhounds named Queen and George, a law enforcement posse arrived at the house of Choate’s grandfather, where they arrested Henry. According to officers, Choate had changed from his bloody shirt and trousers and hidden a 22-caliber pistol, which they alleged he used to club Sarah. Sheriff Luther Wiley said Choate had a wound on the middle finger of his left hand, a bite mark inflicted by the victim. Whether any of this is true, well, we may never know.

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.
Nearby, James Finney, the editor of the Nashville Tennessean, and several ministers were attending an American Legion Armistice Day banquet. Alerted to the disturbance at the jail, they attempted to intervene. Finney and a Presbyterian minister – “a critic of hooded orders,” a reference to the Klu Klux Klan  – tried to contact the governor of Tennessee by “long-distance telephone” for assistance from the state militia, stationed nearby. Apparently, they failed.

“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'

Accounts of Choate’s horrific lynching were published in newspapers throughout the United States. “Courthouse is lynch gallows,” proclaimed the headline in the New York World.

 The day after the lynching, 
Luther Wiley lost in the Democratic
primary for Maury County sheriff.
In Tennessee, newspapers blamed Sheriff Wiley for not protecting Choate. “One shot fired into that crowd,” the Clarksville newspaper wrote, “would have saved that negro’s life. Mobs are always cowardly under such circumstances as that.”

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.
On an overcast Saturday afternoon, I explored the scene of this horrid crime. The three-story Maury County Courthouse, completed in 1904, still stands. A massive American flag fluttered above the second-floor porch – the same porch from which Choate’s body dangled at the end of a rope.

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.


  1. Lynching is a horrid crime so is rape . Seems you have more sympathy for the rapist.

    1. Your comment is dumb on so many levels. I'll just leave it at this: You don't seem to understand the concept of fair trial in America.

  2. Jubilo - your comment is beyond contempt.