Late on the night of September 7, 1940, a band of armed men, possibly in hoods, gathered outside the city jail in LaGrange, Georgia. Inside was a 24-year-old black man named Austin Callaway (also known as Austin Brown), who had been accused earlier that day of assaulting a white woman. That night the jail was in the hands of only one person, a 20-year-old jailer who was also operating the police radio. The men rushed in, forced the jailer to open Callaway’s cell and hustled him into a waiting vehicle.
The police did not pursue or raise an alarm. They did not call the sheriff. They made no move to save Austin Callaway. The next morning a passerby found him on Liberty Hill Road, several miles outside town, bleeding to death from gunshot wounds to the hands, arms and head. He died a few hours later.
The word lynching refers to any murder carried out by a group acting outside the law but with expectation of impunity. (It is not just death by hanging.) That definition fits Callaway’s death exactly. Police did not protect Callaway. They also failed to pursue the lynchers or investigate his death. There was no autopsy. There was no grand jury inquiry. In addition, the police chief faced no critical questions from the press or City Council. Giving assent by their silence, most white civic and religious leaders failed to speak out to condemn the lynching.
Meanwhile, the African American community did call for justice. Reverend L.W. Strickland, the pastor at Warren Temple, led mass meetings and helped charter the first local chapter of the NAACP. It was to no avail. In late October, Strickland wrote Thurgood Marshall, concluding, “[The city has] settled the matter by ignoring it.”
No police agency or grand jury ever investigated the lynching of Austin Callaway. No one was ever held responsible for it.
The Georgia Commission on Interracial Cooperation, a private group of citizens, did conduct an inquiry at the time. CIC investigators raised serious questions about the role of the police and the press: Why was Callaway left virtually unguarded? Why did the police fail to sound an alarm as soon as he was taken? Why did the press hold the story until Monday? Satisfactory answers to these questions never came.
Thousands of black people were victims of lynching between 1877 and 1950. Nearly 600 documented lynchings took place in Georgia alone.
In January 2017, LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar and other City leaders formally apologized for the city’s role in the lynching of Austin Callaway.
Troup Together has conducted extensive archival and oral history research related to the lynching of Austin Callaway. It has drafted a report, Erasing Austin Callaway, that details his lynching and the times he lived in. It will be released later this year.
Troup Together continues to collect stories and documents related to this crime and its era. If you have information to share, please contact Troup Together.