Black on White

There is a troubling thread that stitches together three events stretched out over two hundred and twenty-eight years.


In 1793 (or thereabouts) four-year-old enslaved Josiah Henson (1789-1883) witnessed the arrival home of his enslaved dad “with his head bloody and his back lacerated”. His right ear had been cut off and he had received a hundred lashes on his back.


His crime?


Assaulting a white man.


According to Henson’s autobiography, published in 1849 after he had lived in Canada for almost two decades as a free man, his (unnamed) father had “beaten the overseer for a brutal assault on my mother”. The assault had included rape. In the slave culture of Maryland, where it occurred, and everywhere else, the attack of a black person on a white person was a crime of the worse sort, regardless of what evil had triggered it. The punishment was often death or something very near death, as in this case.


In 1936, a young black man forced his way into the apartment of a white woman, robbed her of some mediocre jewels and choked her to death. It was Sunday morning, June 7, and the coroner was called from church two blocks away to handle the affair.


Rainey Bethea was his name. He was charged with rape, the only one of several crimes presented in court, and hung by the neck until dead at sunrise on Friday, August 14. There were upwards of 20,000 witnesses to the public hanging; one of them was my father Tom Moody.


There were five witnesses to his burial later that afternoon: the two black men who transported the body, dug the hole in the graveyard, and covered the wood box with dirt; and three little children who happened to be playing in the same graveyard and came over to watch the burial.


“Whitey hung him because he done something to whitey,” one black gravedigger said to the other while the three children watched in silence. So remembers one of those children 78 years later.


Then something happened this year that bears a striking resemblance to these two criminal episodes.


It was a Sunday, February 23, and Ahmaud Arbery was exercise jogging through a neighborhood on the outskirts of Brunswick, Georgia. Three white men suspected him of something, grabbed their loaded guns, jumped in their trucks, and trapped him in the middle of the street. Exiting their truck, they confronted him with weapons raised.


Fearing what might happen, Ahmaud grabbed the barrel of their rifle and pushed it away. The gunslinger had all the evidence he needed of an attack upon his life. He pulled the trigger. Three times. The unarmed Ahmaud fell in the street. Dead.


All of it was recorded on video by one of the men involved.


None of the three white men was arrested. For 76 days, they told their story and defended their actions with some version of this old, old story: “That black boy attacked our white boy.”


The white woman who serves as County Attorney responsible for prosecuting such crimes failed to act. I have a conflict of interest, she explained, because one of the men involved worked for me. But another, more compelling reason, might be a conviction that a jury in Georgia was unlikely to convict a white man of killing a black man if there was any “evidence” that the black man had “attacked” (in any meaning of that word) a white man.


Her name is Jackie Johnson and this week voters in our county removed her from office and elected another person as District Attorney. It is a small sign of progress.


Maryland in 1793.  Kentucky in 1936. Georgia in 2020. There is hell to pay if a black person has the gall to attack a white person. The slave husband and father of 1793 was sold off into the cotton fields along the Mississippi River, never again to be seen or heard. The young man of 1936 was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Owensboro, Kentucky, in spite of his verbal and written request that his body be returned to his family in South Carolina.


It remains to be seen what will become of the three men who gunned down a neighborhood jogger in Glynn County because he had the courage to seize the rifle barrel aimed at his heart. They are in jail on charges of murder. The trial is scheduled for the summer of 2021.


These three violent episodes are full of crimes, but at the center of each is the long-standing, now-unwritten rule governing what black people can’t do to white people and what white people can do to black people. Some things never change.




(November 2020)