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A Field with No Name
“This is a story of how we begin to remember.”
We knew we would end up in Newnan.
I'd brushed by Newnan many times in the past, but never gotten close enough to hear what it had to say—or to hide. Growing up in Atlanta, the Waffle House at the Newnan exit off of I-85 was the exchange point where we would meet my aunt Susie either to ride on with with her to West Point or to bring my cousins back with us to Atlanta for a few days. My aunt Susie died in 2017. My cousins live in Birmingham and Chattanooga now. There hadn’t been much of a reason to pause in Newnan for years, until it became the inevitable final stop on our last day of Tour Seven in 2019.
Newnan isn’t just a pitstop town anymore. Whatever Newnan was like during the cousin-swaps at the Waffle House, today it is a lively small town within range of Atlanta. As a result, it’s absorbed some of the capital city’s commuters along with an uptick in diversity. In central Newnan in July 2019, there are visual avatars of Newnan’s self-aware diversity. A series of large photographic portraits by Rhode Island-based photographer Mary Beth Meehan hang on structures around town. One pictures two Muslim sisters in hijabs. Another, on the side of an aluminum warehouse behind a chain-link fence, features Cliff and Monique, a young African-American couple standing in a field that will soon look familiar to me. Taken together, the seventeen photographs represent a Newnan that is richly diverse, and not at all the white stronghold that many of its citizens imagine it to be.
But not everyone in Newnan wants their city to be remembered the way Meehan has pictured it. The images seem to portend a changing populace that does not entirely square with the old Newnan many locals want to remember. Some fear Newnan will lose its “small-town charm,” or become too much like Atlanta, which is a conventionally indirect way of saying “too Black.” But the photos have occasioned difficult and sometimes healing conversations among locals about its present, if not necessarily about its past.
Tired and a little haggard from ten days on the road, we wander around the courthouse square looking for something to catch the eye. Nothing takes. I haven’t shot a frame of film since Columbus. By the end of these trips, you tend to become more selective about what you shoot. On day one, you click the shutter a lot more than you do on day ten, when you have a better idea about what you are looking for.
In Newnan, I know exactly what I am looking for. I am in no danger of running out of film, but I have come here for one image. In downtown Newnan, there is—unsurprisingly—no mention the darker side of this town’s history. But a few blocks away from the courthouse is something I did not come looking for but found anyway: an empty lot on Farmer Street is shaded with tall poplars and oaks, covered with a carpet of fallen leaves. There is no marker here either, but it is sacred ground. Beneath the soil, intertwined with deep root systems of soaring hardwoods, are the bodies of over 200 enslaved African-American men and women. Once endangered by the inevitable forces of development and once a playground for unknowing kids in the neighborhood, the site is now undisturbed. If the estimates are correct it is the largest slave cemetery in the southeastern United States.
As with much of African-American history, it is not often permitted by white culture to announce itself: as if not to disturb the comfortable consciences of local white residents or their real estate values, if you want to find it, you’re going to have to look for it yourself, or be fortunate enough to stumble upon it. You have to come to these places armed with at least a modicum of curiosity and be prepared to leave them with your presuppositions no longer intact.
Newnan’s past—particularly the past at the corner of Roscoe and Jackson—has become a central crossroads for the Deeper South story, since I first learned that it was the site of Georgia’s most notorious spectacle lynching in 1899. On April 11th, a local African-American laborer named Sam Hose (also referred to as Sam Holt or Samuel Wilkes) asked his employer, Alfred Cranford, if he could go visit his ailing mother in Macon County. Cranford refused, and the two men got into a heated argument. “On the following day, while Hose was chopping wood,” as Leon Litwack writes, “Cranford resumed the argument, this time drawing his pistol and threatening to kill Hose. In self-defense, Hose flung the ax, striking Cranford in the head and killing him instantly. A frightened Hose fled to his mother’s cabin.”
Hose was on the run for eleven days. In the meantime, Governor Allen D. Candler offered a reward for his capture, as did The Atlanta Constitution and others. The passage of time between Hose’s initial flight and his capture only allowed rumors about his crime to become more and more extravagantly exaggerated in white newspapers. The story had transformed into a tale about “a monster in human form” who attacked his boss without provocation, and raped his wife repeatedly. The newspaper accounts of Hose’s alleged crime stoked white fury along with the by-now daily paranoia of an impending race war.
News of Hose’s capture on April 23rd excited white readers in Newnan and Atlanta thirsty for blood. A special train was commissioned from Atlanta to take spectators forty miles south to Newnan for the anticipated lynching.
On April 23, former Governor William Atkinson ascended the courthouse steps in Newnan and pleaded with a white mob to “let this affair go no further.” It was, as he must have known, in vain. A white mob wrested Sam Hose from the authorities, bound him in chains, and took him ultimately to Troutman Field, crying “Burn him!” and regularly pausing at street corners to hold him aloft for the ladies on nearby porches to view him, wave their handkerchiefs, and applaud.
Once at the field, anticipating the imminent arrival of the state militia, the crowd urgently set to its grim, “fully premeditated” work. “It was no sudden outburst of a furious maddened mob” as Louis P. Le Vin—a Chicago detective working for Ida B. Wells—wrote at the time. “And it was not the irresponsible rabble that urged on the burning, for it was openly advocated by some of the leading men” of the area.
By the end of Sunday, August 23rd, 1899, Sam Hose had been subjected to unimaginable cruelty. White readers who could not attend the spectacle themselves were served both horrifying and titillating accounts in the white press. Those further details of Hose’s lynching are incredibly gruesome. I do not recommend reading them if your belief in human goodness is not extremely durable. But I believe every white person needs to read an account with careful attention, as difficult as it may be to stomach it. The earliest treatment is in Ida B. Wells’ 1899 pamphlet Lynch Law in Georgia, a work of courageous journalism that provided much of the groundwork for later full-length analyses, such as Donald G. Mathews’ At the Altar of Lynching: The Burning of Sam Hose, and Edwin T. Arnold’s What Virtue There is in Fire; concise versions are recounted in Leon Litwack’s Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, and Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (links below).
When, later that day, Allen Candler decried “the most diabolical in the annals of crime," he was referring to the murder of Alfred Cranford, not the torching and dismembering of Sam Hose. He criticized Black leaders, but not white lynchers, of being “blinded by race prejudice.” His response was classic whitespeak at the time (and not uncommon now): express outrage at one Black man’s crime, and go soft on the savagery of thousands of white men.
“The negroes of that community lost the best opportunity they will ever have to elevate themselves in the estimation of their white neighbors,” Candler said. In his view, it was the responsibility of Blacks voluntarily to participate in a legal process that had utterly failed them. Blacks in 1899 had no reason to trust that the judicial system would come to their defense, and Candler had little political motive to take their concerns with any genuine seriousness. In language by now de rigueur for white leaders intent on maintaining the white status quo, he said that Blacks “must learn to look at both sides.”
In my high school physics class, I learned about the principle of momentum and centripetal force: the rule that an object orbiting around a center or gravity will continue in a straight line once its binding attachment to that gravitational pull is severed. That is how the Sam Hose story seems to me now. At one time my family's public life orbited tightly around the Sam Hose episode and its aftermath: it was the center of gravity for my distant cousin Allen and my great-great-great-grandfather John, both of whom were personally involved in the state’s official response to the lynching in Newnan. In the ensuing decades family—and local and regional—memory moved directly away from those days in April 1899 in a straight and concerted line and—according to the laws of physics and of human memory— seemed destined never to come into its orbit again. But the nature of human experience is far more strange and unpredictable and inscrutable than physics. The arc of my own particular inheritance of family memory bent back to the Sam Hose episode after a seemingly ordinary lunch meeting with a friend in November 2017, and has been orbiting tightly around it ever since.
The courthouse where Hose was kidnapped is no longer there. A new one was built in 1904. From the square, we retrace the route of Hose’s via dolorosa north on Jackson Street to its intersection with Roscoe Road, the site of Old Troutman Field. There is little there to distinguish it: on one corner, a Sunoco gas station. On another, Sprayberry’s, one of the oldest barbecue operations in the state, an ghoulish juxtaposition to the site of the site of a human burning. A friend of mine tells me that she is no longer able to eat there, knowing what she does about Sam Hose.
It is approaching six o’clock in the evening, but the hot July sun has turned the sky into that peculiarly southern concoction of heat, light and humidity that transforms a blue sky in the morning into an undifferentiated haze of luminous vapor by evening. There is no cloud and no sky. Even before looking into the viewfinder, the scene looks washed out, like the white-washed history of this particular spot in the universe. I stand alongside Jackson Highway in front of an old phone booth and shoot couple of poorly-composed, over-lit frames of the intersection of Jackson and Roscoe. As scenes go, it is altogether uninteresting. In this case, it’s not what you see that’s the point; it’s what you don’t. It’s also what you bring to the viewfinder.
What I brought to this spot was an intention to record it visually, to mark its new place in my own memory with a kind of celluloid historical marker. Somehow returning to that intersection adjacent to what used to be Troutman Field where Sam Hose was lynched before thousands of spectators cheering “Glory to God” at the sight of a man being burned to death seemed like it would be some kind of reckoning, some act, however inadequate, in paltry restoration of this notorious episode to its rightful place in collective and personal memory. Or maybe as a sort of anti-souvenir to counteract the pieces of Hose’s body passed around the crowd like perverse relics of a demonic religious sacrifice.
As in film photography, digging into local or family history carries with it a certain amount of risk: you could turn over something you did not expect to find and be either happy with it, or be completely thrown by it.
When I return home to Asheville, I gather rolls of film from the trip to send them off to be processed. Winding the final roll from Newnan back into its canister inside the Nikon, I feel a disconcerting lack of tension, an absence of centripetal force. A palpable sense of dread and regret gurgle in my stomach. When I pop open the back of the camera, the film chamber is empty.
I forgot to load the film.
It is the most boneheaded unforced error a photographer can make, and I make it at the worst possible time. Or over a period of time, since there is a whole segment of that tour for which I have no photographs.
Months later, on returning to Asheville from Columbus, I stop through Newnan again, to make some reparations for my earlier screw-up. With just a digital camera this time—as if to ensure there is no way of repeating my mistake—I finally take that picture of the intersection of Jackson and Roscoe. It’s not much to look at, because there is not much to see, which was sort of the point.
Across the street in the parking lot at Sprayberry’s Barbecue, waiting for traffic and the clouds to clear, gently leaning up against a beautiful Mercedes 280 ST, I shoot an image or two of the restaurant’s catering truck. Suddenly a man's face appears in the viewfinder. Because I am standing in a place heavy with the burden of moral guilt, I am perhaps already attuned to remorse, prepared to be chewed out. I know instinctively that the man forcing his face into my field of vision is the owner of the Mercedes. I apologize profusely in my most southern and charming way, tell him how much I admire his car. We end up talking for a while, about the barbecue, about what happened in this spot, about how no one around here talks about it. I tell him why am here, to get this shot I didn't get the first time, how I’d failed to load camera with film.
He looks at me me pointedly and says maybe there's a reason why you didn't get that picture. You know? Maybe you weren't supposed to. Maybe there's a reason why you came back.
I cross the street for one final shot, as if hoping something will appear this time.
There is still nothing to see here. Just a white fence, a traffic signal switch box, a thick grove of magnolias sprouting from a field with no name. On this site in 1899 was an act of monstrous white barbarism the city of Newnan does not wish to remember. There are obvious reasons for that. For now, as Chip Arnold writes, the site of Sam Hose’s lynching “remains off-limits, an island of jungle in an urban landscape, a cordoned sanctuary where once none was to be had.”
But directly across Roscoe Street, there is a sign of what someone thinks we ought to summon to mind: a small granite monument to Duncan’s Barbecue, “a well-known and successful Newnan establishment for 44 years.” It is a small yet powerful reminder to the way in which public monuments simultaneously ask us to remember one thing, and forget another.
As with so many more prominent claimants to collective memory across the South, it seems designed to divert attention, some pleasant memory to displace one we do not wish to call up again. On this most consequential site, there remains no marker to Sam Hose, no signpost to guide us back into the past with honesty and contrition. I have returned with nothing but a sense that only such a way back into the lived past can enliven our present, and any possible future. Way-marking erased histories, patiently traversing the hitherto anonymous acreage of our shared past, and giving names to it, and coming back again and again, even when we do not find what we think we are looking for: this is how we begin to remember.
Ida B. Wells’ Lynch Law in Georgia is reprinted in The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader
Donald G. Mathews, At the Altar of Lynching: Burning Sam Hose in the American South
Leon F. Litwack, Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow