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“We Are Going To Do Away With These Boys …”
The black laborers on John Williams’ plantation never seemed to leave or complain. It took some digging to find out why
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
When all else failed to keep the peons cowed, the Williamses resorted to murder. According to a statement of an old man who had once worked on the Williams place, three laborers had been killed there as early as 1911. The deaths were random, bizarre, unpredictable, without reason. In 1919, as near as determinable, Long John Singleton “went to the goat pasture and never come back.” Rumor around the plantation said that Marvin Williams shot him. Claude Freeman only knew that about a week after Long John vanished “me and Mr. Marvin and Barber was pulling corn, and the buzzards was flying around.” So Marvin went to investigate and returned saying that “John Singleton had come to the top” of a pond on the farm. Freeman testified that Williams got ropes and wire “and took the body out there and put some rock to it and sunk it again.”
In the spring of 1920 Leroy Williams shot Iron Jaw, a stockade Negro. Freeman said that he was “rolling some wire, he was not rolling the wire straight and they whipped him.” When Iron Jaw said he had rather be dead than treated that way, “Mr. Leroy pulled out his pistol and shot him.” In the same year, Nathaniel Wade, nicknamed Blackstrap, was killed for running away—reputedly by one of the other hands on the farm at the orders of Huland Williams. At hog-killing time in the winter of 1920-21, Will Napeer was shot by Huland. Three doctors, including still another of Williams’ sons, tended the wounded man in an unexplained display of concern, but he died that night of abdominal injuries. The doctors failed both to inquire how the shooting occurred and to report it to the authorities. What a white man did to his black laborers was his own business.
By the spring of 1921, then, three of Williams’ sons had committed murder, and virtual slavery existed on the family’s plantations. Williams stated only that he took the men from the jails and worked them just until they repaid him for their fines, but he never said what the wage rate was or how long he kept them. There remains no record of his allowing a man to leave, however, and some of the fines were as little as five dollars. Yet all the blacks on the plantations agreed that they were afraid to leave, afraid to disobey the Williamses, afraid for their lives. These acts of terror took place within several miles of houses and a store. Incredibly, the neighbors seemed unaware of the atrocities, or they were intimidated by the savage reputation of the family.
The Williamses thus seemed secure in their stronghold until the autumn of 1920. Then, on Labor Day, James Strickland escaped. On Thanksgiving, Gus Chapman also took his chance and fled a second time. Both went to Atlanta, where they complained to the Justice Department and spoke of their imprisonment and the murders. The visit of agents Wismer and Brown to Williams’ lands in February, 1921, was the result.
Though Williams had counted on his brand of terror to keep the blacks quiet about his crimes, he must have thought he had reason to fear prosecution. Sometime during the week after the agents’ visit, Williams evidently had a serious talk with his sons about their chances before a federal court. About the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of February, Huland, Marvin, and Leroy Williams left for some unannounced destination. If federal charges emerged, the old man decided, he would face them alone. After the sons were gone, Williams talked to Manning. “Clyde,” he told him, “we are going to do away with these boys and I want you to help.” Manning said he did not want to do that. “Well, by God, it is all right with me, if you don’t want to, it means your neck or theirs,” Williams told him. “If you think more of their necks than you do of your own it is all right.” Manning knew of the earlier killings, and the memory frightened him. His statement to jurors later was: “It was against my will to do it, but it was against my power not to do it and live.”