on June 23, 2007 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

The legend of Willie Earle

CENTRAL — The gruesome death of Willie Earle served as proof to at least one life motto, said James Shannon: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Shannon, editor of “The Beat,” presented research on the Willie Earle legacy at Central-Clemson Regional Library. Attendees packed the library’s conference room to speak of their link to the 1947 death and accompanying murder trial, as well as hear the correlation between Earle and South Carolina.

In observance of the 60-year anniversary of Earle’s death, Shannon’s Greenville-based magazine printed an in-depth essay describing what happened with 31 white men accused of murdering a 24-year-old black man, and why it matters.

“Black men died to white hands that were never held accountable,” Shannon said. “It cries out for justice.”

BRUTALITY IN THE UPSTATE

Though Shannon said the case was a Greenville crime conducted by a Greenville mob in defense of a Greenville cab driver, a Pickens County historic landmark served as a centerpiece in Earle’s infamous death.

The events took place against a post-World War II backdrop, when textile mills were still principal employers in the Greenville area. Taxi drivers were abundant, with 300 drivers serving the Upstate.

On Saturday, Feb. 15, 1947, one driver, 48-year-old disabled World War I veteran Thomas W. Brown, was found beaten and stabbed at around 10 p.m. on the side of the Liberty-Pickens Road.

Upon discovering Brown, police followed heel prints to Tessie Earle’s home in Liberty, where they confiscated a bloody pocketknife. Earle’s son, Willie, was arrested Sunday morning at the house and taken to Pickens County Jail, now the Pickens County Museum of Art and History.

Upset over Brown’s injuries, a group of drivers and friends boarded cabs at around 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 17 and drove to the jail. There, J.E. Gilstrap, a jailer who lived in the building answered the door at 5 a.m. to discover a gang of men with guns, asking for a black man.

Not seeing justification for defending his prisoner in exchange for trouble, Shannon said, Gilstrap handed Earle over to the gang.

“There was no Atticus Finch to sit on the porch,” said Shannon, referring to the “To Kill a Mockingbird” character that fought for justice against a lynch mob.

Earle was transported through a street known now as Highway 124 and ended up at Bramlett Road, now Old Bramlett Road. Near the Southern Provision Company slaughterhouse, Earle was stabbed, shot at and beaten.

A funeral home accepted an anonymous phone call an hour later. A mortician found Earle’s warm body on the scene.

SOUTHERN JUSTICE

News of Earle’s death brought a key South Carolina political figure into the story.

Shannon said Strom Thurmond’s effort to enforce the law against white men accused of murdering a black man was unfounded among governors in the Southern states. He immediately issued a statement against lynching and ordered state law enforcement to Greenville.

Federal interest in the case soon followed, with FBI agents investigating.

Thirty-one suspects were arrested in connection with Earle’s death. The trial drew reporters throughout the United States, as well as family and friends of the suspects and Greenville’s black community. Events surrounding the trial made Earle’s possible guilt in the Brown trial a moot point to law enforcers, Shannon said.

By the end of May, the jury reached a verdict on all defendants — not guilty.

NOT EVEN THE PAST

In a recent retracing of moments leading to Earle’s death, Shannon began making comparisons to Kashef White, a black Clemson teenager struck by an SUV driven by a white man who was never charged for murder or tested for blood-alcohol levels in connection to White’s death.

Shannon said a quote from William Faulkner, “The past is not dead, it is not even the past,” came to mind.

Despite contemporary incidents reflecting past crimes, Shannon said the Earle trial marked progress in the south. Thurmond’s call for action had an effect on the South Carolina criminal landscape, according to Shannon, who said the 1947 murder was the last recorded lynching in South Carolina history.

Furthermore, the black community stuck together in a bond that would continue throughout pivotal points of social justice in the state.

“Even in this horrific event, there is reason to go on,” Shannon said.