“We Are Going To Do Away With These Boys …”

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Williams, never caught without an alibi, claimed that he had been framed by a neighbor who had a feud with him. Nevertheless, he was immediately arrested. The tale that unfolded in the following weeks of trial and testimony revealed a grotesque murder story, a vivid picture of peonage, and a good deal of information that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the federal machinery for investigating southern labor practices.

John S. Williams began his peonage operation while his four older sons were fighting in World War I. To secure labor, he (or, later, one of his sons) would travel to Atlanta, to Macon, or to some nearby jail, pay the fine of a black who had run afoul of the law, and take him back to Jasper County. Indebted to Williams for his bond, the man theoretically worked only until he repaid that sum. Actually, he stayed for as long as Williams could hold him; he moved from peonage to slavery. And Williams was no easy man to escape from. Once the victim reached the farm, he went through a seasoning process. “When we got down there that night,” explained one laborer, “he told me to go in there and stay with the other boys, and when I went in there I just laid down on the floor, I didn’t have any cover and I begun to work the next day, they took me out to work on new ground and I got a whipping that Saturday.”

Williams gave two trusted black men, Clyde Manning and Claude Freeman, authority over the “stockade” (or jail) Negroes. Freeman remembered that Williams gave them both pistols. “He said if any of the hands got away or tried to get away, or did anything to me to kill them, and he said if I let any one get away I would know what was coming then to me.” Manning claimed that he did not relish his job, but having observed Williams for thirteen years, “I was there long enough to find out you had to go ahead and do what he said.”

While Manning managed the peons on the Williams home place, Freeman helped Huland, Marvin, and Leroy Williams on farms five miles away. The house on Huland Williams’ farm had a hall running through it, and Williams stayed on one side of the hall and the blacks on the other. “They had a cleat across there and they had it fastened on the outside of the door and they had a hole through and a big wire run through the hole and there was a bolt in the door, and a hook on the outside,” Freeman recalled. As many as eighteen prisoners slept there at one time.

To enforce discipline on the Williams plantations, the overseers often administered beatings, not only to the stockade men, but also to the free blacks who lived on the place. Freeman’s wife, Emma, stated that she had been whipped “a heap of times” so severely that “the whelps come.” Huland Williams had also hit her with his pistol; she still bore the scar years later. Twenty-seven-year-old Lessie May Whitlow, who cooked for the hands, revealed that the peons were whipped at least once a week. She, too, was once struck on the head with a pistol by Huland, for not having the evening meal ready on time. Nearly all the hands remembered savage assaults, often for trivial or imagined offenses.

Though John S. Williams and his sons had warned the laborers that they would catch and kill them if they tried to escape, several peons attempted to runaway. Sixteen-year-old Frank Dozier, who had been arrested for vagrancy (for merely sitting down at the Macon depot), successfully made it, though Huland Williams spotted him in Covington, twenty miles away, and chased him with a bloodhound. Dozier fled up a creek “and lay in the water all night, under the bridge.” Gus Chapman, whose successful escape and complaint led the special agents to the Williams plantations, tried once earlier and failed. After his recapture, “Mr. Williams took me back and took me down in the wagon shelter and made me pull down my clothes and said he would kill me, but as I was a kind of an old son of a bitch he would let me go that time but if I ever did it again he would sure kill me. … He whipped me with a buggy trace.”

Despite the warnings, beatings, and the bloodhound, the black peons continued to trouble the Williams family. When threats and beatings failed, the atmosphere of the farm became more macabre, more unreal. The Williams men carried pistols and often shot at the peons when their work did not suit the overseers. One, James Strickland, said they “didn’t shoot just to scare me because one time they shot at me and the bullet went through my hat and knocked my hat off.” Another time, John Williams “snapped his pistol” at a worker named Jake “three times and it didn’t fire because it didn’t have nothing in it.” The Williams family knew how to keep men insecure and ready to perform any task at a trot. And unlike slaves, the peons had no monetary value. They could be replaced at the nearest jail.