Black Expulsions USA

Violent expulsions over six decades all but vanished from history,

yet created a checkerboard of danger, intolerance that remains today

It is America's family secret. Beginning in 1864 and continuing for approximately 60 years, whites across the United States conducted a series of racial expulsions. They drove thousands of blacks from their homes to make communities lily-white. In at least a dozen of the most extreme cases, blacks were purged from entire counties that remain almost exclusively white, according to the most recent census. The expulsions were violent and swift, and they stretched beyond the South. But they remain largely unacknowledged in standard histories of America. While it is impossible to say exactly how many expulsions took place, computer analysis and years of research conducted by the Washington Bureau of Cox Newspapers, which owns the American-Statesman, reveal that they occurred on a scale that has never been fully documented or understood. The analysis points to scores of racial expulsions that are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the numerous books, articles and movies about America's contentious racial past. And even less has been written on the legacy of these expulsions. "I am actually less surprised by the number of instances of this that you've uncovered than I am by the extent of the historical failure," said David Garrow, a former Emory University law professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. "Think about what a huge literature has been produced in the last 25 years on lynching," while the expulsions have been virtually ignored, said Garrow, now a senior fellow at Homerton College at the University of Cambridge.
Today, one of the physical legacies of these attacks is an archipelago of white or virtually all-white counties along the Mason-Dixon Line and into the Midwest. Although most purges took place nearly a century ago, the 2000 census showed that blacks remain all but absent from these counties, even when neighboring counties have sizable black populations. The social legacy of the upheaval and horrific violence is less clear. Descendants of those driven out describe a sense of shame about what befell their families. Whites frequently decline to talk about what happened, typically saying, "It will only cause trouble."
Silence about the sweep of these incidents continues despite several recent, highly visible steps by the nation to come to grips with its past. In 2005, the U.S. Senate apologized for not passing anti-lynching legislation; one of the men accused of murdering three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 was tried and convicted; the government exhumed the body of Emmett Till in its new investigation of that 1955 Mississippi killing; and the Congressional Black Caucus held a hearing on the Tulsa, Okla., riots of 1921. But even amid renewed interest in specific incidents, the extent of racial expulsions remains unnoticed. The computer analysis of thousands of U.S. census records dating back to the Civil War identified about 200 counties, most in states along the Mason-Dixon Line, where black populations of 75 people or more seemed to vanish from one decade to the next. Several years were spent gathering old news accounts, government records and family histories to understand the reasons for these apparent collapses in black population. Benign events, such as blacks migrating in pursuit of better jobs elsewhere, explained some.
But in 103 cases, the data indicated that there might have been a conscious effort by whites to drive blacks out. These cases included counties, for instance, where blacks disappeared while the white population held steady or continued to grow, or places where the black population remained small for decades after collapsing. The investigation was narrowed to identify racial expulsions that were countywide and documented through contemporaneous accounts and where few, if any, blacks ever returned. In other words, whites succeeded in running blacks out. Within those narrow parameters, Cox Newspapers documented 14 countywide expulsions in eight states between 1864 and 1923, in which more than 4,000 blacks were driven out. These are only the most extreme examples of a widespread pattern. Racial purges were not investigated further in places where blacks were driven from a town but not an entire county, such as Garrett, Ky., or Dothan, Ala. And places where blacks returned within months of an expulsion, such as Lincoln County, Neb., and Marion, Ohio, also were not counted as successful. In Humphreys County, Tenn., whites who wanted valuable farmland owned by blacks drove them off the land but still allowed blacks to live in the area. In some places, such as Scott County, Tenn., signs of a possible expulsion remain, but old newspapers or courthouse records that could explain what happened have long since disappeared.
There is no evidence the attacks were coordinated nationally by governments or racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. But when they occurred, most police and government officials did little or nothing to prevent whites from attacking their black neighbors. Despite a long trail of murders, torture and theft, the investigation found only three instances in the 14 countywide expulsions in which any of the white vigilantes were arrested or convicted of a crime. In at least one of the 14 counties — Forsyth County, Ga. — an examination of county tax records and land deeds suggests that some black-owned land was appropriated by whites after the expulsion and was never returned. Some purges were triggered when whites, angry about a particular crime, lynched someone and then ordered the black population to leave. But in at least three counties, whites simply decided they did not want to live near blacks. In Marshall County, Ky., for example, vigilantes led by a local doctor posted notices in 1908 telling blacks to leave. When that failed, more than 100 armed and hooded men raided the town of Birmingham, picked about a dozen people at random and tortured them. Nearly two-thirds of the blacks left, and the most recent census showed only 37 blacks among the 30,125 people living in Marshall County.
The racial expulsions still tug at our world. Many African Americans interviewed explained how they still view the country as a kind of checkerboard where some squares remain too dangerous to land. While the specifics of a particular expulsion may be lost, the dangerous specter of these places has been passed by word of mouth. In more recent history, some blacks venturing into certain counties have risked being threatened, attacked or rousted by police. In 1987, a small band of civil rights marchers tried to enter Forsyth County, Ga. — where a violent expulsion had occurred in 1912 — and were chased away by about 400 whites whose screams of "Go home, niggers” were captured by television crews and broadcast across the nation. But more recent racial incidents elsewhere have not been as dramatic or clear-cut. A carload of blacks — a barbershop quartet invited to perform at a local event — was told to get out of Washington County, Ind., in 2001 after stopping to ask for directions.
How much residual animosity toward blacks remains in these communities is impossible to tell. In Vermillion County, Ind., for example, the then-powerful Ku Klux Klan helped drive blacks out of the mining town of Blanford in 1923. Some current residents regret that the county retains its reputation for hostility toward blacks, but others — such as self-professed skinhead Jesse Jackson — claim they will still run blacks out of the town. Even if they no longer try to keep blacks out, these counties retain reputations as fearsome as the expulsions that spawned them.
Old newspaper accounts often describe the incidents in graphic detail. "For nearly fifteen hours, ending about noon to-day, this town of 3,000 people has been in the hand of a mob of armed whites, determined to drive every negro from its precincts," a Pierce City, Mo., newspaper reported in 1901. "In addition to the lynching last night of William Godley, the mob today cremated Peter Hampton, an aged negro, in his home and with the aid of State militia rifles stolen from the local company's arsenal drove dozens of negroes from town."
Whites often applauded when the expulsions occurred. In Arkansas, the Boone County Chamber of Commerce noted in a 1920s-era marketing brochure that the town did not have "mosquitoes or Negroes." A similar brochure published around the turn of the century touting Comanche County, about 110 miles northwest of Austin, pointed out that its population "is entirely and absolutely ALL WHITE; there is not a negro in the county, and the chances are there will not be any for many years to come." According to the 2000 census, 62 blacks were among the county's population of about 13,500. Local histories written in the decades since the expulsions, typically by white historians, often minimize or offer justifications for what occurred. Seventy years after the Pierce City expulsion, a local historian explained a purge that involved three murders of blacks, the burning of several black-owned homes and a military-style assault on the black quarter by more than a thousand men with rifles pilfered from the state armory. Blacks left "after disturbing situations," she wrote in a local history booklet. In a retelling of the Comanche County expulsion about 20 years after the event, whites were portrayed as being generous by doing nothing more than forcing all blacks to flee. "It may be supposed that this has grown out of unreasonable prejudice and without just cause, but . . . the forbearance of the people was manifest by a sentence so mild as banishment," read the county's promotional literature. The reluctance to acknowledge what happened continues to this day. Linda Ledbetter, a Forsyth County high school history teacher and a county commissioner, says she does not teach anything about the county's 1912 racial expulsion. Although she says she knows the story, if students ask her about it she claims not to know. In the black community, the memory of the racial expulsions is kept alive through a series of warnings passed from parents to children. Lillie Nash, 65, a school teacher who lives in Atlanta, says she learned about Forsyth County's past when her parents and grandparents talked about the night they fled. Growing up, she was warned never to go near the county, and it wasn't until a few years ago that she dared to venture back. When Shawn Livingston, a librarian at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, got his driver's license in 1984, he recalls that his parents warned him about areas of the state too dangerous for blacks. "They told me you don't go here and you don't go there," Livingston said. "It really did stick with me. You are never to drive to Corbin or Morehead and, if we find out, you are going to be in more trouble than you can get from the police." Livingston said no one in the family knew exactly what happened in Morehead, but it was considered a dangerous place. All but three African Americans were driven out of Corbin in 1919. Though a few blacks have trickled back into some of these counties, they endure as symbols of America's divided history. Ignored or discounted by whites, their past is kept alive by word of mouth among blacks. Where one sees nothing, the other senses danger.

1886 expulsion: Comanche County, Texas

Mob scours Central Texas county, permanently ripping its population apart

The force of several hundred vigilantes had already murdered one man when it rode into Comanche in north Central Texas sometime after sundown on Monday, July 26, 1886. Town and Country, a local newspaper, reported how the vigilantes brought a message to the 40 or so blacks living in the seat of Comanche County: Leave the county in 10 days or be killed. Three days earlier such a threat against the county's largest black community would have been unimaginable. But that was before Sallie Stephens was murdered, a black farmhand was lynched and a Confederate veteran whipped his neighbors into a racist frenzy. Equally unimaginable: The mob's handiwork endures to this day. Although more than a century has passed, the county remains virtually devoid of African Americans, though its Hispanic population has grown to about 21 percent.

There was a fight on the Stephens farm the Saturday morning Sallie Stephens was murdered. Her husband, Ben Stephens, was going to the town of Comanche, about nine miles away. Tom McNeel, a farmhand, wanted to go along. The story of that day now resides in old newspaper clippings, oral histories and local historical compilations. During the summer of 1886 the farms of Comanche County were burning under a relentless sun. The town of Comanche — two saloons, a few stores and the county courthouse — was not much, but McNeel begged to go. Ben Stephens would not hear of it, leaving McNeel to work the fields. The only other people left on the farm were Sallie Stephens and three children, the oldest a daughter just 6.

Most accounts agree that the killing seemed senseless. Sallie Stephens, planning to make a cake for a friend's wedding, headed to the barn for eggs. McNeel came in from the fields and took a single-barreled shotgun from the house. The story passed down within the families of Ben and Sallie Stephens is that McNeel waited by the back steps. Sallie Stephens saw him, tried to run away and was shot in the back. McNeel dropped the gun and ran. When neighbors found the body, a man rushed to the J.W. Greene store, where Ben Stephens was buying supplies, and cried, "Stephens, Tom has killed your wife!" according to a recollection of the incident years later by James Nabers, one of the vigilantes. Within hours between 250 and 500 men were hunting McNeel. Their quarry, alone and on foot, was pressing northeast towards Stephenville. There was little doubt among whites that Tom McNeel should be lynched for murdering Sallie Stephens. But unlike other recent hangings, conducted in secret to shield the identity of the killers, McNeel's lynching would be a public spectacle. That a black farmhand had killed a pregnant, white woman was not the only reason.

In 1886, the rule of law was a hit-or-miss affair on the Texas frontier, and whites and blacks were equally at risk. There had been at least four lynchings in Comanche County before McNeel's; three of whites and one of a black. Comanche County did not have a jail until 1876. Even then, county officials faced what one called "a floating population, composed chiefly of a reckless class ... who always go armed and ever mounted and ready for escape." The nearby town of Hazeldell, founded shortly after the Civil War, saw nine of its first 10 residents die violently. McNeel was captured by a man heading to church on Sunday and turned over to the posse. "News reached Comanche that the negro had been caught near Stephenville and that he would be brought back to Stephens' house where he would be lynched," Town and Country reported on July 29, 1886. The lynching was set for Monday noon. McNeel was held overnight at the farm of Green Sanders, a local Confederate veteran. The next morning, farmers and townspeople began streaming down what is now Texas 16 to a field about a mile from the Stephens farmhouse. By noon approximately 500 people had gathered.

Sixty-three years after the lynching James Nabers, who by then was 92 years old, recounted the day for Bill Lightfoot, a University of Texas history student who compiled oral histories of Comanche County while writing his master's thesis.

According to Nabers, the hanging got off to a bumpy start. A deputy sheriff arrived and tried to wrest McNeel from the mob. He was hooted down. Told that his services were not needed, the hapless deputy "bade them a pleasant good evening" and rode away, the Town and Country newspaper reported. Then came debate over whether McNeel should be hanged or burned alive, recalled Nabers, who was interviewed in 1949. As mob members argued, Ben Stephens had to be stopped several times from shooting McNeel on the spot, Nabers recalled. Nabers recounted some of the conversation before the hanging: "Now, boys, the laws of our land say hanging and not burning," said Zach Hulsey, the dead woman's father. "So we'll just hang him." A rope was thrown over a tree. McNeel was placed in a wagon and driven under it. With only seconds to go, Hulsey turned to his daughter's killer. "Tom, we're gonna hang you, and in two or three minutes you'll be dead. I want to ask you some questions, and you'll be dead in three or four minutes so it won't do you no good to lie. "Tom, did Sallie mistreat you?" Hulsey asked. "No, sir," McNeel said. "She's the best kind to me." Did he plan to kill her? "No, I took down the gun when I came into the house to kill a hawk but it flew off and I then shot the lady." "Then what in the name of God did you kill her for?" "Just for meanness." They botched the hanging. A group of men pulled too hard on the rope. McNeel hurtled skyward, slammed his head into the tree limb and broke it. McNeel fell back to earth. A teenager climbed the tree and reset the rope, and McNeel was pulled up again. The crowd had gathered for one purpose: to watch McNeel die. But Green Sanders, the man who had guarded McNeel overnight and faced down the deputy, had other plans. Sanders, a Confederate veteran, is remembered by his last living descendant in Comanche County as a prickly man. Leo Page said Sanders would "fight a circle saw." As McNeel's body twisted lifelessly nearby, Sanders jumped on a stump to harangue the crowd, Nabers said. "Boys, this is the second killing of white people by negroes and it's more than people will put up with. I propose we give the negroes a reasonable time to get out of this county — never allow them to return — and never allow one of color to settle here. All who are in favor of my proposition come about this stump." The crowd surged forward and Sanders called for a vote. "The crowd was unanimously in favor of this move," Nabers recalled. The expulsion ripped the white community apart. The vigilantes, mostly from outlying farms, were most intent on expelling blacks, while white townsfolk accustomed to living with blacks rebelled against the idea. The day after the hanging, 55 people including some of the town's leading citizens called what came to be known as the "Law and Order Meeting" at the courthouse. Though it did not have the force of law, it was a spontaneous demonstration of support for the besieged blacks. Townspeople unanimously approved a resolution that "we regard the demonstration in the town of Comanche on last night in ordering the negro population out of the county as uncalled for, wrong and lawless," Town and Country reported.

The resolution prompted an editorial in the paper denouncing mob rule and the expulsion of blacks as a "grave crime." "What connection is there between (McNeel) and the rest of the race in this community and especially those who are known to be as harmless as the most inoffensive white man?" the paper asked in a front-page editorial. When it arrived in town, the mob went from house to house warning blacks that they had 10 days to leave or be killed. As the days progressed the gulf between farmers and townspeople grew even wider. Because the lives of black and white townspeople were intertwined, the mob's expulsion order left both in a quandary, according to Lightfoot's oral histories and news reports from the time. Business owners faced the loss of needed employees. Marthia Hanson, recently widowed, desperately needed the help of her hired hand. Mart Fleming, who ran a butcher shop, told the aged Horace Mercer and Dallas Dabness he would defend them if they wanted to stay.

Sheriff John Cunningham, returning to Comanche the day after the mob rode through, faced only bad choices. Doing nothing would alienate community leaders. But, as he explained to the local paper, deputizing 50 or 100 men to battle the mob "would be arraying neighbor against neighbor and be productive of feuds that would be handed down to the next generation." The nearest outside help, a band of Texas Rangers, was several hundred miles away and did not arrive until Aug. 3, eight days after the lynching. By then the blacks had already fled. While the community was waiting for the Rangers, small skirmishes were fought between the "law and order" people and "the mob." Vigilantes sent threatening notes to people who they thought opposed them. One such note, sent to J.F. Manning and signed "Comitty," warned, "You think you are very smart try to play in with both sides. The other nite you was stanin in with the mob. We hear that you ar on the other side now. Go slo or you may pul on the tight end of a rope," Town and Country reported. Manning, not one to be intimidated, pistol-whipped a man named Tom Stewart whom he accused of making the threat.

For blacks the choice was clear. The Aug. 5 edition of the Town and Country newspaper announced, "The negroes have all left town in obedience to the mandate of the mob. There were not more than forty or fifty of them. Several of them had lived here long enough to acquire homes of their own. Of course it need not be said that they earned every dollars worth of property they had by honest labor. They sacrificed whatever little stuff they had for money enough to get away." They left behind a county in turmoil. By all accounts the Rangers, who stayed until September, accomplished little. In its 1886 annual report summarizing the Rangers' activity, the state adjutant general's office did not report the expulsion or any arrests made in its aftermath.

A Comanche County grand jury report released at the beginning of September described a county gripped by fear. "We have examined witness after witness relative to the spirit of lawlessness that has been pervading our county for the past six months and especially in regard to acts and threats of mob violence but we find ourselves almost powerless in ferreting out crime without the assistance of our fellow citizens. It's next to impossible to make a witness jeopardize his own life by testifying against a mob and a grand juror can do no more than any other citizen in an investigation of this character if he fails to get the necessary testimony to find a bill of indictment." In time the threats and fighting sputtered out. In DeLeon, 15 miles northeast of Comanche, a sign was posted over a well in the center of town warning "Nigger — Don't let the sun set on your head in this town." From time to time traveling road shows would consider playing in Comanche County. They were warned not to bring any of their black stagehands, Nabers recalled when interviewed for the oral history project. By the turn of the century any vestige of the old dispute had disappeared. In 1907 the county published a newspaper-size brochure encouraging people to settle there. It opened with an essay on what residents considered one of the county's main attractions: "The Population of Comanche County, Texas according to the census of 1900 was 23,079. This population, it must be remembered, is entirely and absolutely ALL WHITE; there is not a negro in the county, and the chances are there will not be any for many years to come." Unpleasant history can disappear over time.

After the 1886 expulsion, white residents of the county posted signs warning blacks to stay away, and they worked. Even in the county's heyday around 1910, when the population hit 27,186, there were only 12 blacks. The larger problem was getting whites to stay. The boll weevil hit around 1910, decimating the cotton crop; topsoil blew away in the 1930s; and after the droughts in the 1950s only about 11,800 people remained. Two were black. The 2000 census recorded 62 blacks, or 0.4 percent of the county's population.

Today the county's population hovers around 13,700, little changed from the previous decade. The pace of life has also changed little. Each year county residents — nearly half the population is 45 or older — hold a rodeo and celebrate the DeLeon Peach and Melon Festival in August. In the multivolume Handbook of Texas — generally accepted as the most exhaustive compilation of state history — two sentences recount the racial unrest in Comanche County. "Amid economically desperate times and political unrest in 1886, the second occasion on which a black murdered whites resulted in all the black people being driven from the county by vigilantes," it reads. "They have not returned in any number." No historical markers memorialize the event, but that doesn't surprise Lawrence Oaks, executive director of the Texas Historical Commission. Markers aren't erected unless a county's historical commission wants one. At least 59 markers have been approved for Comanche County, but none mentions the expulsion. "Nobody's going to talk about the thing that they are not proud about," said Karen Riles, a former African American history specialist at the commission. Or as Oaks put it: "Difficult history is difficult to handle

In period after the Civil War, Black Codes re-created a form of slavery in Southern states

There is a telling detail in the story of Tom McNeel's escape after murdering Sallie Stephens. When McNeel was captured and turned over to a posse, he was wearing no shoes. Newspaper reports from the time show that McNeel covered approximately 15 miles of rough countryside over two days, outwitting men on horseback, before he was caught. His barefoot flight, as described by Nannie Green Little in a 1942 local history book, is more than a story of desperation or stoicism. It captures the fate of African Americans following the Civil War. When the war ended, white farmers and businessmen wanted to put ex-slaves back to work. White Southerners who believed African Americans were naturally lazy said they would never labor willingly. Their solution: the Black Codes.

Between 1865 and 1866 whites in Texas and all Southern states except Arkansas — which did not recognize the abolition of slavery until 1867 — and Tennessee rushed through a series of laws that re-created slavery in all but name. While the details varied from state to state, all of the laws rested on two basic ideas: Blacks either entered into labor contracts or they would be considered vagrants. Vagrants could be arrested and forced to work on public projects or private farms to pay off their fines.

Mississippi, the first state to enact Black Codes, created a class of landless peons by making it illegal for blacks to rent or lease land outside of towns or cities — though they could own land — and by ordering that every black have proof of lawful employment.

Texas, which enacted its Black Codes in the fall of 1866, designed them to keep blacks "hewers of wood and drawers of water," said W.C. Dalrymple, a state senator representing Travis and Williamson counties in the Legislature at the time. Labor contracts were mandatory for jobs lasting longer than one month. Once under contract, laborers were at the mercy of their employers, who could fine workers for everything from sickness to "idleness." If workers missed three consecutive days, they lost a year's wages. And blacks convicted of vagrancy could be forced to work on public projects.

Because the North saw them as an attempt, in effect, to reverse the outcome of the Civil War, the Black Codes did not survive long. Governors vetoed them in some states, while elsewhere they were overturned by federal authorities. But while the Black Codes did not survive as law, they continued as informal policy. Through a wide array of legal and extralegal devices such as convict labor and peonage, free or very nearly free labor was extracted from black workers over at least the next 50 years. Which explains McNeel's bare feet. McNeel could pound over nettles and burrs because, always barefoot, his feet were calloused. As he loped across the fields, he represented the fulfillment of the Black Codes: He was landless, a menial laborer and, as his bare feet showed, a person of no social standing.


Click here for map and statistics graphs.


By Elliot JaspinJuly 9, 2006