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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

White community reaction to crime commited by an African American woman

In this excerpt, Turner describes in an incident that occurred in Clarksdale, Mississippi shortly after she moved there in 1920. An African American woman had murdered a white man who had tried to attack her, at which point a lynch mob gathered. Despite the white communities initial response, however, the woman was welcomed back into the community at the behest of the Doggett family—a white family that exercised power over the community. Turner suspected that the fact that the crime had been committed by a woman outweighed the fact that she was African American, otherwise she almost certainly would have been met with a more grisly demise. This anecdote offers an interesting complement to historical understandings of lynching as a means of waging terror over African Americans and exercising control over black male sexuality.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Viola Turner, April 15, 1979. Interview C-0015. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Clarksville was an interesting place. I had another experience there-talking about lynching. When I went there, the place Mr. Cox got for me, the lady could house me, but she couldn't feed me. She was working, herself. So, there was a little cafe, or cafeteria-what did they call it? I guess it was a cafe. These people were in it for the money, and they served you, and everything. So I was taking my meals there. This was right after I got there, so you can imagine how Clarksville affected me, when I first got there. There was a lynch mob, looking like it was going to be. Then, I got around here, very shortly thereafter, and this place is busting with the news. This little black woman has killed a big white man. [laughter] And so the town is. Well, see, now I'm really scared. I wonder what am I doing in Clarksville? I need to go somewhere else. But the lady who ran the place says-she's telling the story-the man had decided he was going to strike her, and she had a little pocket knife and when he raised up like this, she ran right up under him. But she stuck him right in the heart. Or someplace. Anyway, he died. She whirled out of the place, gone. So the cops were looking for her. And the story goes-and these people were pointed out to me at another time-there was a white family there called the Doggetts, D-O-G-G double T or something like that. And, like in so many places, Clarksville was their town, so-to-speak. They were the big people in the town, and they said when you did this, that, or the other thing. So, then, Mr. Doggett finds out that this is one of his servants, one of his people. When they loved you, they loved you, and when they didn't, they didn't. So she was one that had the Doggett approval. So he tells the sheriff, "Oh, don't worry about Mary (I don't know what her name was), just drive on down, and when the train pulls up at Mount (that's a Negro town), get on there, and you tell Mary I said come on back here to Clarksville." So that happened. He goes down, gets on the train, goes in and finds Mary and says, "Mr. Doggett says 'Come on back to Clarksville'." So now, this is still the story that you're hearing. So, she's in jail. A couple of weeks after that, I'm in having dinner, and the lady says, [whispering] "That's Mary!" [laughter] Mary was back in town and walking down the street. That's right. That's all that happened to Mary.
WALTER WEARE:
So that big family had. . . .?
VIOLA TURNER:
Yeah. He told him to go get Mary and come back home; she had nothing to worry about. And apparently Mary didn't have anything, because that's how I saw Mary. The lady in the place called me and says, "There goes Mary." So that's the kind of place the South is. You can't explain it.
WALTER WEARE:
You think if a black man had committed the murder, it would have been altogether different?
VIOLA TURNER:
Well, I think this: it all depends on what Mr. Doggett would have decided. Now, if Mr. Doggett decided that he didn't want John in jail, or John did exactly what he should've done, or someone's always imposing on John, it would've been the same. But now, whether Mr. Doggett had any John's in his life I don't know. But that's what it would've been, if he's influence with the man and his family. Incidentally, they were supposed to be expert marksmen. They had made many, many medals and things for their marksmanship. Both the man and the woman, so the story went in Clarksville. But that's the truth all over. It was, in those days. If you were in the favor of some people, you had very few problems.