Over the last decade, America has finally begun to come to terms with its sordid history of lynchings.

Although not exclusive to the South, many of the lynchings here were tied to efforts by white leaders to control and intimidate free black men who had been given the right to vote following the Civil War.

Three things make this history relevant this week: A presidential election in which black voting may be the deciding factor; the ongoing, confrontational street protests over the modern-day deaths of black men such as George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery; and the 122nd anniversary of a lynching in Banks County that has been forgotten and isn't part of any lynching database.

•••

At the end of the Civil War, slaves were given their freedom, but the specter of free blacks scared white Southerners. 

It was in that period that the first incarnation of the KKK happened. To many whites of that era, the KKK was revered as having "saved" the South from what whites considered to be marauding former slaves.

For the most part, however, former slaves had no where to go and no resources at their disposal. Most stayed on the farm, working for their former slave master. Slaves who could — mostly younger men — left the farm and began to concentrate in larger towns, such as Athens and Atlanta.

Whites considered the former slaves as inferior and resented their emancipation. But what really set the South aflame was that former slave males had been given the right to vote. 

At the time, politics was the exclusive domain of white men and more specifically, middle and upper class white males. Black men voting was seen as an existential threat to that power, especially since black voters were mostly Republican at the time and the South was largely the domain of white Democrats.

•••

During the 1870s-1890s, tensions between whites and blacks began to grow. Anti-black propaganda became common in popular culture and white Southern newspapers.

Much of that propaganda was designed to project all black men as lazy, thieves and an extreme danger to Southern white women.

Black men were, in short, made out to be evil demons.

In that heated, anti-black atmosphere, lynchings became a tool of the white power structure. Although lynchings were often excused by those who claimed the courts were too slow, the real underpinning of the lynching culture was as domestic terrorism. It was designed to intimate black citizens both socially and politically.

•••

By the late 1890s, lynchings had become a common story in newspapers across the South. The stories were widely repeated and reprinted, which is how we know about most of the lynchings of that era. 

Black leaders, notably Booker T. Washington, began to track and catalogue lynchings. States had also begun to keep records of lynchings.

But one lynching escaped notice.

On Nov. 9, 1898, Will Gober of Homer, Ga., a black man, was lynched outside the Banks County courthouse by a white mob who took him from the county jail.

That story was reported in two local newspapers, The Banks County Journal and The Jackson Herald and an Atlanta newspaper. But it has faded into obscurity, never making it to the various lynching databases.

•••

According to The Journal, here's what happened.

Will Gober was riding a bicycle on the street in Homer when he ran into Mr. Sam Ayers, a white man. The two exchanged some words, but Gober supposedly apologized and the two went their separate ways.

Later in the day, Sam Ayers, his son Jasper Ayers and Sam's son-in-law Mr. Henderson started down the street to dinner. According to the newspaper account, Gober went after the three and "used some very insulting words to Mr. Sam Ayers." 

Ayers supposedly got a rock, but his son, Jasper took it away and after some more words, threw it at Gober just as Gober fired a pistol. The bullet hit Jasper Ayers in the stomach and he died 24 hours later.

After the shooting, Gober reportedly ran, chased by a mob, but was caught by the "sheriff elect."

The following is how The Journal reported what happened next:

"Gober Lynched

"Will Gober, slayer of Jasper Ayers, hangs by the neck under the large oak West of the court house this morning.

"Last night, a large crowd of unknown men marched to the jail and demanded the keys from Sheriff Parks; upon refusal the leader informed him they would have the keys or his life. Mr. Parks then complied with their request, being unable to defend himself against so large a crowd of armed and determined men. After unlocking the door, they handcuffed Gober took him to the tree, tied the rope and drew him up; then volley after volley was fired from guns and pistols and then the soul of Will Gober passed from this to an unknown world there to give an account to the deeds done in the body."

The Atlanta newspaper said the lynching took place at 11:45 p.m. in front of the courthouse by 50 men wearing masks.

•••

That was about all that was ever said about the lynching.

But before the lynching, Will Gober had been mentioned in the paper a couple of times.

In 1889, Gober and another man were supposedly involved in a duel along a river in Banks County. The newspaper account of the incident is fanciful and has verbiage the writer couldn't possibly have heard, so it's not clear how accurate that story really is.

In 1890, Gober was involved in another shooting incident during an altercation, but Gober reportedly missed his target. He was released on bond, the article said.

Given that history, Gober may not have been a sympathetic victim to many in the community when he was lynched. But the story of his lynching is suspect.

That he ran into Sam Ayers on a bicycle is likely true. But it seems unlikely that Gober would have later chased three white men on the street in Homer just to insult Ayers. More likely, the men went looking for Gober and the altercation took place.

It also seems unlikely that the sheriff was simply overpowered by a large mob and gave over the jail keys unwillingly. The sheriff would have certainly known in advance if a large mob was going to raid the jail; that wouldn't have been a secret in a small town in 1898.

•••

And then there is this mysterious tidbit.

A Nov. 11, 1898 story in The Jackson Herald had this to say:

"At the election in Homer, Banks County, the mayor of Homer was shot to death by a negro. On Thursday morning, the negro who committed the crime was found hanging from a tree with his body riddled with bullets. We did not learn the particulars of the killing."

What?

Election? Mayor?

The Banks County Journal said nothing about Ayers being mayor (and it's not clear that he was.)

But it does mention in passing in another column that "Tuesday was election day." 

Indeed. There was a hotly-contested election that year between local Democrats and local Populists for county offices. The newspaper, however, didn't report the results.

Could that shooting and lynching have actually been more about the election than it was about a black man simply shooting a white man in an argument?

At the time, the Populist movement openly courted black voters, much to the consternation of powerful Democrats. 

I don't know if election tensions had anything to do with the shooting of Jasper Ayers or the subsequent lynching of Will Gober.

But it does seem strange that a shooting and lynching took place on an election day night.

Strange, strange indeed.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstream Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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