No one ever told me that there were ghosts hidden amid the tall pines and mossy oaks of Slidell, the small Louisiana city where I grew up. But somehow, even as a boy in the 1980s and ’90s, I always felt the presence of those spirits floating on the sweet, magnolia-scented breeze that Billie Holiday once sang about so poignantly. I was a grown man, however, before I learned the story of one those ghosts—known only as Romeo, a victim of a brutal murder at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob.
My grandmother mentioned him to me one day, in a very offhanded way, saying that when she was 12, she had overheard her father talking with other relatives about Romeo. Her father—my great-grandfather—was only a year old when the murder had occurred, so even older folks had passed the story to him:
Romeo, a black man, had been accused of drawing a gun on another man during a fight. When officers had later tried to question him, a deadly shootout had ensued, resulting in the death of a local marshal. Though Romeo initially escaped arrest, he was injured in the gunfire and, as he ran from the scene, he left a trail of blood that made him relatively easy for the authorities to find and capture.
A hundred of Slidell’s white citizens quickly amassed, according to news accounts from the time, forcibly taking him from police custody. They then placed a rope around his neck, tied him to the back of a car, and dragged him through the city streets. As was the custom, the town coroner recorded the cause of death as “strangulation at the hands of unknown parties.” To my knowledge, no investigation was conducted, and no charges were filed.
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In many ways, it was a typical lynching, unremarkable when compared, for example, to that of Mary Turner, a pregnant Georgia woman who was killed in 1918 during a sadistic, five-day frenzy that, by some accounts, left at least 13 people dead. Turner—who had angered mob members by threatening to have them arrested for killing her husband—was abducted, hung upside-down from a tree, doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Her unborn child, still alive, was then cut from her womb and stomped to death before Turner’s mutilated body was riddled with bullets. Again, none of the perpetrators were punished.
Romeo’s story has now been passed down for five generations in my family. For me and my kinfolk, its importance lies not in its uniqueness or overarching significance but in the fact that Romeo’s blood has been spilled and smeared on ground that we have walked on, in the very place that has nurtured us and made us who we are. Speaking for myself, the retellings of his story make similar events from the distant past seem a little more real, and a little more frightening.
For Americans, Romeo’s murder may spark the memory of James Byrd Jr., another black man, who was similarly dragged to death by white supremacists in Texas in 1998, some 84 years later. But going back much further than that, many of us lack substantial knowledge of our nation’s past—as study afterstudy has shown.
In the year 2015—just over a century after Romeo’s tragic end—the lynching era has been so thoroughly forgotten by most of us that a young black woman is now facing a four-year prison term in a case that turns the meaning of the word “lynching” inside out.
On Jan. 18, a pro-police rally was being held near the Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., and Maile Hampton, a 20-year-old activist, was attending a counter-rally. She and others were raising their voices against killings, by both police and vigilantes, of unarmed black people—such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York last year. (It’s an issue that some might argue is the contemporary analogy to lynching.)
As Hampton’s group marched on the Capitol Mall, officers ordered it to move onto the sidewalk, and those marchers who did not immediately comply were arrested. In a YouTube video of the incident, some protesters—and Hampton is allegedly one of these—appear to try to pull their comrades out of police custody, a felony that the California penal code defines as “lynching.”
On Feb. 23, more than a month after the protest, Hampton was arrested at her home, saddled with both “lynching” and obstruction-of-justice charges. She spent the night in jail before being released on $100,000 bail, and she is scheduled to be arraigned in Sacramento Superior Court on April 9. Her defense lawyer, Linda Parisi, has advised her not to speak to reporters.
Understandably, Hampton’s case has caused both bewilderment and outrage among activists in Northern California and elsewhere. ANSWER Coalition—an anti-war, anti-racist organization—has started an online petition demanding that Sacramento’s district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, drop the charges.
Schubert and the police in California’s capital are apparently unaware of the irony of prosecuting a black social-justice activist under a 1933 law meant to protect people of color from the kind of racist vigilantes that kidnapped and killed Romeo in my hometown.
The statute, Section 405a of the state’s penal code, has been used to prosecute defendants for interfering with arrests since at least 1971. But it is unclear if any previous prosecution has involved someone who was actively protesting the killing of unarmed blacks, the very thing that the statute was originally designed to deter.
Featured photo from website naturallymoi.com.