Laurens Legal History: The Tragedy of Joe Stewart
This week, I was at the Laurens County Courthouse, and I ran across a memorial to the lawyers who have lived, worked, and died in this county. Among them was the name of the former owner of my house, Homer Blackwell, who served as the Solicitor for the Eighth Circuit in the early part of the 20th Century. I knew Mr. Blackwell was a laywer and legislator, but I knew little about him personally or his career. So, I browsed through old copies of the Laurens Advertiser to see where he might pop up in the news. One story I discovered was shocking and tragic, but it also gave me reason for hope - the story of Joe Stewart.
According to Bruce Baker in his book This Mob Will Surely Take my Life: Lynchings in the Carolinas, 1871-1947, Joe Stewart was a black man, and apparently, he happened upon some white men beating a black boy, and he stepped in to stop them. The Laurens Advertiser reported the story somewhat differently on April 7, 1920:
"According to reports circulated on the streets the trouble started on the steps of the local picture show, which has a gallery set apart for negroes but steps used in common. Two or three young white boys were coming down the steps when they had a collision with a young negro man, still unidentified, coming up. In the exchange of words which followed the negro cursed the white boys and later went in the direction of the negro quarter behind the opera house. The white boys, with several friends, followed shortly afterwards with the object of chastising him for the insult, but were not able to locate him. Instead they were met by Joe Stewart, who applied the vilest epithets to them...Brandishing a long knife said to have been brought back from France, he dared the white boys to come on. About this time one of the boys struck him on the head with a stick and a regular free-for-all fight ensued, a considerable crowd of negroes looking on and a few other white boys standing by awaiting developments...Being finally laid out by one of the [white] boys the negro was so seriously cut that he was hardly able to get up from the ground."
After this horrible incident, Stewart's friends carried him to a drug store for treatment, and it was there that he was arrested and put in the city jail. While police were allegedly out looking for the "negro who started the trouble" (that would be the man who bumped into the white youths and allegedly cursed them), a "small crowd of men entered the station house unobserved" and took the badly injured Stewart to the Little River Bridge and lynched him by putting a rope around his neck and throwing him over the side.
If we take the Advertiser's account as accurate, one cannot help but notice the glaring injustice in this story. The unknown black boy's only apparent offense was bumping into white people and cursing them, yet the police left the jail unguarded while they went to search him out. Despite the fact that there were also identified white men involved in this fight which left Stewart so badly hurt he needed to be helped up off the ground by his friends, Stewart was the only one arrested. Another sad detail which might be easily overlooked is the fact that the knife Stewart was carrying allegedly came from France, which means that Stewart was likely a veteran who had served his country fighting in WWI.
Shortly thereafter, the Coroner assembled a jury, had them view the body at Kennedy Mortuary, and then convened a hearing at the Courthouse. The Chief of Police, explained that he had been out looking for the other unknown man, and pointed the finger at the Sheriff, saying that he had charged him looking after Stewart. The Sheriff, in turn, said that he told the Chief that he would be around, but he happened not to be near the lock-up when Stewart was carried away. Unsurprisingly, members of the police and bystanders who were on the square when Stewart was carried out were put on the witness stand, but nobody could seem to be sure of the identity of the members of the mob who carried out the lynching.
If the story ended here, it would be truly tragic, and we could simply chalk it up to another example of injustice in the deeply divided racial environment of the Jim Crow South. But it does not.
The event was the talk of Laurens, and many in both the white and black communities were outraged. The "Laurens Ministerial Union" requested all citizens of the city and county of Laurens to attend a meeting at the Courthouse to "express our condemnation of the recent lynching and to advise authorities that we are looking to them to enforce the law." Laurens Advertiser, April 14, 1920, p. 1
Homer Blackwell and the Sheriff went to Columbia to have a conference with Governor Cooper, who also just happened to be from Laurens and had, until recently, held Blackwell's job as Solicitor. It seems that Blackwell knew that this injustice could not stand and that the murderers must be found. The Advertiser tells us, "after the conference with the Laurens men [Blackwell and Sheriff Reid] yesterday, Gov. Cooper said he was confident that a thorough investigation will be made and the case rigorously prosecuted." Governor Cooper continued, "I know the solicitor will discharge his duty fearlessly. The Sheriff assures me that he has been continuously at work gathering testimony and will continue to do so until the guilty parties are brought before the courts. I know the people of Laurens county and I am sure the officers of the law will have the active assistance of all good citizens to the end that justice may be done and the majesty of the law vindicated."
This is truly a horrible event in the history of our city, and it should be remembered. But we should also remember that while there were those who were driven by rage and prejudice to commit such a horrible act, there were still others who were outraged by this murder. The community of Christians in Laurens churches stood together to declare this to be wrong and called for justice in the legal system. There were also brave individuals like Homer Blackwell who were willing to stand up against powerful forces in society at that time to call for justice. And, the state could boast that it was led by a Laurens native who was at least publicly concerned for justice and vinidication of the majesty of the law. This is reason for hope. While we may live in troubled times, there will always be those who are willing to stand up and defend our system of justice and equality under the law.