Strange Fruit: the killing of Jackson Rice
(The title of this post comes from the 1939 Billie Holiday song)
I have spent the last several months serving on a reunion planning committee for a branch of my wife’s family. To aid with my work on the family history, a cousin loaned me a tape of a deceased relative in 1998 discussing our heritage. The interview was full of great oral history and details about my wife’s lineage. Toward the end, the lady on the tape mentions hearing that my wife’s great-great grandfather, Jackson Rice, was hung in my wife’s hometown for talking to or whistling at a white woman. I had been studying this family for several years and had never heard this. In fact, I was not even certain this ancestor had made it to Arkansas from South Carolina. My wife was not familiar with the account either. I did find some older relatives who confirmed hearing the same story (one even claiming to know the spot where he was hung from a bale of cotton), but they were understandably unsure of the details (when? why? who? how?). The story sounded almost too cliché to be real, but I knew such a lynching in that time was a very real possibility. (For more information on the racial tension, political conspiracy, and general disregard for human life in Conway County during the second half of the 19th century, read Who Killed John Clayton: Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South, 1861-1893 by Kenneth Barnes)
The definition of lynching varies a bit, but it usually includes killing someone illegally as a punishment. A group or mob without any legal authority executes someone for a transgression. America has a long history of lynching, and this form of “justice” was popular in the Old West and in the South. Most records of lynching from the Civil War until the 20th century involve African-Americans in the South. Thousands of blacks were killed to enforce the disenfranchisement and intimidation brought on by Jim Crow laws. These events may seem like sudden, angry mob outbursts, but this terrorism was often pre-planned, advertised, well-attended, and photographed. In fact, lynching postcards and photographs were popularly circulated items in the early twentieth century. As a genealogist or family historian, one is at a disadvantage when researching older lynchings. These crimes rarely involved anyone being brought to justice. Death certificates were not widely utilized in Arkansas until 1914. In much of the South, black deaths and their names did not regularly appear in white newspapers. Corroborating this story was going to be a bit of work.
Jackson Rice, the grandfather of my wife’s grandfather, was born (presumably into slavery) in South Carolina around 1835. Like many African-Americans in the South, few (if any) records exist of him before the Civil War. After emancipation, he can be found in Laurens County in the 1870 and 1880 censuses with his wife Rose Etta Fuller and their ten children. Unfortunately, the 1890 census was destroyed, and neither Jackson Rice nor his wife appears in the Arkansas or South Carolina in the 1900 census. Three of their daughters appear in Conway County, Arkansas records in the early 1890s, but I was not yet certain if the parents had made the trip. Because his teenage daughters all married between 1890-1893, I decided my best bet would be to search local newspapers from that period. Lynchings were a popular activity, and there was a chance one would be recorded. The Arkansas History Commission in Little Rock holds the Morrilton Pilot on microfilm from that time, but with no index available, I had to search manually through years of pages. When I was just about to quit and go home, I came across the headline: A Negro Hung. After describing in detail the condition of the body, the writer adds almost as an afterthought “The negroe’s name was Rrice.” Sure enough, it was our ancestor.
Much of the attraction to genealogy and family history is seeing your own family woven into the greater historical narrative. Jackson Rice lived through 30 years of slavery, and around age 50, he moved west seeking a better life in Arkansas with his family. Instead, he was met with the same prejudice and violence. This sort of treatment is one factor that led many African-Americans out of the South in the early 20th century (see: The Great Migration) Two of his daughters pictured above moved away from the area their father was killed in; one landed in Milwaukee and the other in Kansas City. At least one child remained, and thus my wife grew up in the same small community her ancestor was murdered in (perhaps living amongst descendants of his killers). Researchers enjoy connecting our families to important times and events in history, and no family story is without its own tragedy and suffering. What makes lynching give us pause is the reminder that just a few generations ago in our country, African-Americans were second-class citizens who could be killed without any real cause or consequence. While the exact circumstances and details of his death cannot be known, there seems little doubt that his race was a key factor in the crime and its lack of justice. While injustice in the legal system and ugly prejudices still exist, I hope that we have found that better life people like Jackson Rice sought after. Let us not forget the struggles and sacrifices our ancestors endured to create the world in which we now live.