Taking Back What Was Once Lost

“Met His Fate by the Rope Route”

All of us know about the horrid history in this country of slavery, racism, white supremacy, Jim Crow and the types of discrimination that persist to this very day. Violence was at the core of those systems. Without violence, those systems couldn’t exist. Far from being passive or willing subjects, African peoples and their descendants fought back in myriad ways (so did Native Americans). That’s why slave rebellion plots were often dealt with by using ever-increasing levels of depravity, such as burning bodies and cutting off heads.

The practice of lynching is what I call the original American brand of terrorism. I see a clear difference in these types of murders; they were meant to send a message to the community and to elicit a set of behaviors that maintain white rule. This is evident in the detailed files on  lynching that the NAACP kept (and their subsequent push for legislation), as well as the efforts of brave journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. It must have been a frightening time in general, but especially to our ancestors who risked their lives to try to vote, buy land, educate blacks or any of the other things that whites believed looked too much like being an actual citizen. I am glad I live in a time and place where I can have friends and family of all colors, ethnicities, religious beliefs and pretty much anything else.

Early in my research, oral history from Tennessee ancestors noted the lynching of one of my Holt ancestors. Never did I think I would find documented proof, but I did. The local paper, which in the 1880s and 1890s was replete with mentions of race riots and lynchings in other parts of the country wrote the following in May, 1887:

“George Holt, col., who lived near Sibley met his fate by the rope route last Friday.”

George Holt

I was shocked by the sarcasm and  brevity of it, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They had the audacity to write “Suicide” as the header, which of course it was not. George, I later discovered, was the brother of my gggrandfather John W. Holt. He owned hundreds of acres of land at the time of his death, and he had a young wife and children. This was a  rural West Tennessee community that never had a large black population. Though slavery and racism existed, this small African-American community must have been rocked and terrified y the act of terror. The reasons for the lynching are lost to time, although some of George Holt’s descendants believe it had to do with a dispute over his land.

Did he know his assailants? How did his family go on after that? I don’t know how. Do you leave the area? How do you rebuild? Is revenge ever an option? His brother John W. became one of the most prominent blacks in the county– land wealthy, a merchant and former Postmaster. But even his own brother was not untouchable. How did John react? I am in awe of their strength and endurance.

These are questions for which I’ll never know the answer. Our ancestors take many of their secrets with them, never to be discovered. Years ago, while searching through the local black cemetery in the community, I dug through the bushes and came face-to-face with George Holt’s headstone. I remember the vines and roots had come out of the ground and were wrapped around the headstone, eerily reminiscent of the way he died. I got chills up my spine. When I find that picture (one of those prehistoric pre-digital pictures) I will post it here.

Today, I am remembering George Holt and all the others, named and unnamed, who met their fate “at the hands of persons unknown.” May they rest in eternal peace.

PS—Check out the Project HAL database—Historical American Lynchings


  1. carolyn atkinson's Gravatar carolyn atkinson
    July 12, 2012    

    My g grandmother’s brother was lynched by Pinkerton agents 1 Aug 1917 in Butte, Montana. He was a Wobbly and was working to get a strike up against the Anaconda Mine. He is on findagrave #36564678. Until I started researching my family, I knew nothing about it. No one in the family did. They kept quiet because they were afraid of reprisals. My g grandparents were living in a tent in Drumright Oklahoma when they fights and riots were there.

    • msualumni's Gravatar msualumni
      July 12, 2012    

      Carolyn, isn’t it sad when we find these things out? How did you find out about it? Yours is an interesting story because it ties into economics. Southern whites were desperate to keep their agricultural labor force. They also wanted to keep mining and other industrial jobs–as dangerous as they were–the domain of the white man.

      • carolyn atkinson's Gravatar carolyn atkinson
        July 12, 2012    

        My grandmother’s sister was doing genealogy back in the 70’s She found some information on it. I found the rest. I started by following the census records, and then searching for newspaper articles and books.

        Another brother of my great grandmother married and had children. I am in contact with one of those descendants, and we have become friends. She is writing a book on him and I am helping. I had the pictures, and the FBI files from the FOIA program. There were even telegrams from the president and J Edgar Hoover regarding their spying on him, and using the Pinkerton agents. They “investigated” his death and “determined” it was a group of unknowns who hung him on a railroad trestle after they had dragged him behind a car tearing off his kneecaps.

        They grabbed him out of his bed in the middle of the night. They called him a half breed hobo. They believed he was Native American, I have never been able to verify any of that story to date, but hobo, he probably was. He was poor, but very strong in his determination for safety for the workmen. He dedicated his life to it. We have not yet figured out what was the deciding factor in his life to lead him this way. He has been a very interesting person to research. I so admire his dedication, stubborness, and his strength in following through his ideas and beliefs. He was of German, Irish, and Scottish descent.

  2. July 12, 2012    

    OMG! I am also in awe of their strength and endurance. I haven’t yet found anyone in family history who was lynched, but with the thousands of lynching/hate murders (many unreported) I’m sure it’s touched most Black famils in the US. I made a brief post about it in honor of Black History Month last year http://stylesource01.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/oh-freedom-oooooh-freedom-oooh-freedom-over-me/.

    I’m so sorry that this form of terrorism touched your family and others who’s lives where cut short by racism, hate and violence.

  3. July 12, 2012    

    Lynching IS indeed America’s original brand of terrorism and I shudder to think that I too will eventually find an ancestor in my tree who fell victim to this brand of terrorism. Your excellent post also brings to mind a promotional book review my colleague and I had to do for the book – “Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America” – http://withoutsanctuary.org. That was one very difficult book to read, view, and review . . . and it is one book I’ll never forget!

  4. July 13, 2012    

    Robyn an excellent post and a sad story for your family. I am always amazed and impressed with the strength of our ancestors. They had to endure so much. So many of the “problems” we complain about today pale in comparison to what they experienced on a daily basis. Yet, they found the strength to forge ahead and make things better for the next generation.

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About Me

I blog, teach, write and lecture about family history research and it's just as rewarding today as it was when I began 18 years ago. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my past and I've taken back--reclaimed- my kin and some of that lost memory.  

Post History

What I Talk About

Locations and Surnames

Hardin, Chester and Lawrence Counties, TN
Holt, Barnes, Harbour, Bradley Springer and Fendricks
Lawrence County, AL
Springer and Fendricks
Montgomery County, MD
Prather, Simpson
Somerset County, MD
Waters, Fountain, Curtis
Duval and Madison County, FL
Smith, Harris, Garner

Favorite Family History Quotes

"The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."
-William Faulkner

"Call it a clan, call it a network, all it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one"
- Jane Howard

"Friends are God's apologies for relations."
-Hugh Kingsmill

"No matter what you've done for yourself or for humanity, if you can't look back on having given love and attention to your own family, what have you really accomplished?"
-Elbert Hubbard

"Families are like fudge; mostly sweet with a few nuts."

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you might as well make it dance!"

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city;)"
-George Burns

"Where does the family start? It starts with a young man falling in love with a girl. No superior alternative has yet been found."
-Winston Churchill

"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never ever introduce yourself to had life not done it for you."
-Kendall Hailey

"If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all the generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people."
-Thich Nhat Hanh