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East Point, Fulton County, Georgia, September 4, 1889
On September 4, 1889, a masked mob of 15-20 white men seized a black boy named Warren Powell from the jail in East Point, Georgia, and lynched him. Warren, just 14 years old, had been arrested and jailed earlier that day for allegedly attacking a white girl named Ada Brooks while she was walking through the woods on her way home from school.
Almost 25 percent of documented lynchings were sparked by charges of sexual assault. During this era, whites’ outrage at even the suggestion of interracial sexual contact extended to any action by a black man that could be interpreted as seeking or desiring contact with a white woman. Accusations of “assault” were often based on merely looking at, startling or accidentally bumping into a white woman, smiling, winking, getting too close, even being disagreeable. Accusations of sexual impropriety lodged against black men were rarely subject to scrutiny and regularly led to brutal lynchings by violent mobs.
After Warren’s arrest, he was guarded by two bailiffs in a jail local press later described as “secured by an ordinary padlock” and “as little calculated to withstand an attack as a smokehouse.” The lynch mob easily broke the padlock to abduct Warren from police custody. It was not uncommon for lynch mobs to seize their victims from jails, prisons, courtrooms, or out of officers’ hands. Though they were armed and charged with protecting the men and women in custody, law enforcement officials almost never used force to resist white lynch mobs intent on killing black people.
The mob dragged Warren from the jail across several fields; a large crowd of several hundred people yelled “Hang him!” and tried to follow, but the mob kept them back with guns and warned them to stay away. Warren’s tearful parents were also at the jail, and begged for their son’s life, but to no effect. Warren also pleaded, and asked the mob to hang him far away to spare his parents the sight. About 45 minutes after the abduction, the men returned to the jail, unmasked and without Warren. One of the men was carrying a rope when Warren was taken, so it was presumed that they had hanged him, but a search party did not find his body.
Following Warren’s lynching, groups of white men continued to terrorize the black community in Fulton County, dragging black men and women out of bed and flogging them with “buggy traces.” The Governor of Georgia reportedly offered a $1000 reward to catch the white men responsible for the violence, but there is no evidence anyone was ever punished for the lynching or these later attacks. The practice of terrorizing members of the African American community at random in the wake of a racial dispute was common during this period. Southern lynching was not only intended to impose “popular justice” or retaliation for a specific crime. Rather, these lynchings were meant to send a broader message of domination and to instill fear within the entire African American community.
Young Warren Powell was one of at least 35 African American victims of racial terror lynching killed in Fulton County between 1899 and 1936.
April 6, 2019