“I am not surprised.” That is one reaction.
“I had no idea.” That is another.
These are the most common responses of people in Troup County today when they learn the story of Austin Callaway. He was a young African American man who was lynched in LaGrange in September 1940.
His tragic story is not well-known. However, it should be. A band of armed men removed Callaway from the City Jail in LaGrange in the middle of the night, took him to a rural road and shot him several times. They left him there to suffer and bleed to death–and to become a warning to the black residents of the county for his alleged assault on a white woman the day before.
Many people believe the word lynching refers to a mob death by hanging. It actually means any murder carried out by a group outside the law, acting with expectation of impunity. That definition fits Callaway’s death exactly. Police in LaGrange did not sound an alarm that night. They did not investigate or attempt to find Callaway’s killers in the days after. Very few white civic and religious leaders spoke out to condemn the lynching. Most, including the editors of the local newspaper, were silent.
As a result, when people hear the story today, it is usually for the first time. Many doubt it actually happened. If it did, they wonder why it needs to be brought up now, so long after it took place. Why stir up the past? What good can come of it? Who is looking to gain?
Others who hear the story take on a look of pain and recognition. They may not know Callaway’s story, but they know similar ones–even in their own families. For them, history is filled with unspoken tragedy and trauma. Their stories were not in the paper either. Silence surrounds these violent events, just like Callaway’s death. What is it like to suffer grief and be unable to speak about it?
Both of these reactions are honest and true to the experience of the people hearing the story. There should be no shame or condemnation regarding either response. This is simply where we are.
Where do we go from here, though? This story and the differing responses to it tell us something important about our community–namely, that we as people of different races may share the same space but we do not share the same history. History has been quite different to us based on race. We do not always know or appreciate this difference or its legacy today. That is perfect ground in which to grow misunderstanding and mistrust.
History is ultimately just the stories of people. In Troup Together, we believe in sharing stories, of the past and present. We do not share Austin Callaway’s story so people will feel shame or guilt for historic wrongs. We do it so we can learn to hear and respect one another today. We do it to ensure the poison of the past is not present in us now. This kind of dialogue is hard, but it is the way to grow love instead of bitterness.
As people of faith, we are called to love our neighbor. How can we love our neighbor if we do not hear our neighbor’s story? We can learn to love and respect one another in new ways only if we hear each other’s stories. True listening will come only if we break down some long-established walls of racial division. Beyond those walls is something called justice and beloved community.
Why talk about past injustices? Because speaking plainly about the past honors what our neighbors have suffered. It is an act of respect.
Breaking the silence around the lynching of Austin Callaway is a sign of hope. The apology by city leaders in January 2017 should be a beginning, not an end, though.
Structured conversations about history can help us understand one another today. We need to hear each other’s stories, no matter how painful they are.
And they are painful. Our region’s history includes years of brutal violence and racial suppression. There were over 4,000 lynchings of African Americans in the South between 1877 and 1950, including nearly 600 in Georgia alone. Austin Callaway’s story is just one of many.
There is a history in our own community that we do not know. We can only learn it from each other. Troup Together wants people to learn that history, one story at a time. Pull up a chair and join us.
A version of the article above appeared in the LaGrange Daily News on January 26, 2017.