JACKSON, Tenn. — In 1886, an African American domestic worker was accused of poisoning her white employer in Jackson, Tennessee. A mob broke into the city’s jail, dragged Eliza Woods to the courthouse lawn, ripped her clothes off, and hanged her from a tree. Her body was riddled with bullets, historians say.
Five years later, John Brown was accused of severely injuring a switchman on an Illinois Central Railroad train. Brown, a black man, was removed from the train in Jackson and jailed. An angry mob of 500 masked men armed with rifles forcibly took him from the jail — and he, too, was lynched on the courthouse lawn.
Both stories had gone mostly ignored in Jackson until last year, when a college professor and a coalition of church leaders, educators and private citizens led a movement to memorialize both lynchings with a historical marker on the Madison County courthouse lawn. They worked with the Equal Justice Initiative — the Montgomery, Alabama, nonprofit that has created a national memorial acknowledging cases of racial injustice and sponsors the installation of lynching markers in U.S. cities.
After initially rejecting the marker, the Madison County commission voted in August to approve it. The Jackson-Madison County Community Remembrance Project, led by University of Tennessee-Martin criminal justice professor Cindy Boyles, announced Wednesday that the marker is being ordered and dedication ceremony has been set for April on the courthouse lawn.
“Neither Eliza Woods or John Brown received due process for their alleged crimes and were killed by mobs who never faced prosecution for their lynchings,” the marker will say.
With the installation, Jackson will join the ranks of cities such as Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and Wilmington, Delaware, that have markers sponsored by the Equal Justice Initiative, the group led by lawyer and civil rights advocate Bryan Stevenson, author of the book “Just Mercy.”
The book chronicles Stevenson’s defense of a black man who was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. It has been turned into a feature film of the same name that is currently running in U.S. movie theaters.
According to the EJI, more than 4,400 racially motivated lynchings took place in the U.S. between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. During that time, there were more than 230 lynchings in Tennessee.
Three happened in Jackson, located about 85 miles northeast of Memphis. In the late 1800’s, Jackson was a railroad town surrounded by farms where slaves had been held and where African Americans received unjust, unequal, and sometimes violent treatment from whites, including members of law enforcement, judges and elected officials.
Eliza Woods proclaimed her innocence, but she was jailed. After Woods was lynched on Aug. 18, 1886, prominent anti-lynching writer Ida B. Wells protested the killing in her writings.
Woods was later exonerated when the husband of the dead white woman confessed to killing her, according to Boyles, who has researched the lynchings.
John Brown’s lynching took place at midnight on July 26, 1891. The switchman he was initially accused of killing actually survived, Boyles said.
Another black man, Frank Ballard, was lynched in Jackson in 1894. According to The Jackson Sun, he had been accused of raping a white woman, but the location of his lynching is unknown.
A marker bearing the names of the three Madison County lynching victims hangs at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.
Boyle and others felt the lynchings also should be remembered in the county where they occurred. So, she contacted the EJI, which not only pays for and delivers lynching markers but also gathers soil from the lynching sites.
Boyles’ proposal was the subject of several meetings, and it was voted down early last year. After further discussions with county commissioners, the markers were approved. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for April 18.
Boyles said the markers are important because they shed light on racial injustices that must be discussed in the context of current day instances of criminal justice failures.
“Eliza Woods was lynched in 1886. We had a functioning criminal justice system here, and it didn’t work for the African Americans who were in this community,” Boyles said. “We want to be able to recognize that, and say that it wasn’t right then, it’s not right today.”