Inger Williams first heard about the lynching of Charles Hale from her father years ago. But the significance of what happened didn’t fully hit her until she was older.
For Williams, the story of what happened to Hale — who was killed April 8, 1911 — is a personal connection to an issue that persisted in the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries: the lynchings of Black people by groups of white people.
In Williams’ case, her father was the brother of Willie Williams, who was Hale’s wife.
In other words, Inger Williams is the niece of a lynching victim. It’s something she had to grapple with as she grew older.
“At the time, it was just history because I didn’t get to know him because I wasn’t even born,” said Williams, who lives in Atlanta.
Hale’s life, as well as his lynching, was remembered by local government and community leaders on Saturday — the Juneteenth national holiday — with a soil collecting ceremony at the corner of the Lawrenceville Square where he was lynched.
The Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition partnered with several groups, as well as the Gwinnett County and city of Lawrenceville governments to host the ceremony. Soil was collected from the edge of the square into two jars that will be included in the Equal Justice Initiatives museum, which honors the lives of Black people who were killed in lynchings.
“It’s the most documented and most recent lynching that occurred in Gwinnett,” Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition member Steve Babb said. “There are others, but you know, it’s very well documented, partly because of that awful photograph (that is held in the Georgia Archives collection) that was made into a post card and widely distributed, and that is readily available.”
Equal Justice Initiative staff attorney Ashley Adams said the soil collected at the ceremony will help ensure Hale’s story does not go untold in the future. More than 4,400 people were the victims of lynchings in the southeastern U.S. between the 1870’s and the 1950s, Adams said.
“What we want people to realize, and to learn is that, across the entire history of this nation and the 400 years that Black people have been here, our lives have been cut short by white supremacy and our freedoms have been taken by white supremacy,” she said. “We want people to learn about people like Charles Hale, whose life was cut short by white supremacy.”
Hale was arrested in early April 1911 on an accusation that he had assaulted a white woman. A mob gathered on the night of his death, and stormed the county jail, holding the sheriff and deputies at gun point before taking Hale from the jail.
The mob then tied a noose around Hale’s neck and hung him from a pole nearby, at the corner of what is now Pike and Perry Streets on the square. News reports from the time indicate his body was also shot as it hung from the light pole. It was left hanging from the pole into the next day, and the photo that the Georgia Archives has of a large all-white crowd gathered around his body was taken the day after the lynching.
“We do not want to forget the racist and violent past,” Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition’s Ray Harvin said. “Instead, we want to open up that history, study it and learn about the negative effect it had on entire neighborhoods of mostly Black individuals, and sometimes others that supported the cause.
“Those lynchings resulted in voter suppression, voter intimidation and violence against citizens.”
For Williams, she was initially hesitant about attending the ceremony until organizers explained what they were trying to do. After it concluded, she said the ceremony brought mixed emotions.
“I’m happy that it’s at least acknowledged, sad that it even had to happen but hopeful that we move forward from here,” Williams said.
Lawrenceville Mayor David Still said the ceremony was important for the city to be involved in as it comes to terms with its history.
In addition to 2021 marking the 110th anniversary of Hale’s death, it is also the 200th anniversary of Lawrenceville’s formal establishment as a municipality. So the city’s history is on the mind of its leaders this year. Still pointed out that city leaders issues a proclamation denouncing racial discrimination, and racial injustice, in July 2020.
“The Lawrenceville of today is very different from the Lawrenceville of 1911,” Still said. “I’m saddened that Mr. Hale and his family, and so many others, never saw the modern day Lawrenceville of 2021 where we can all sit together, shoulder to shoulder here on this square, and remember, acknowledge and educate and memorialize and move forward as a unified community as we build individual relationships of healing.”
There was a significance to the date when the ceremony was held. Babb said the Gwinnett Remembrance Coalition initially wanted to do it in April, closer to the anniversary of Hale’s lynching, but he said county officials suggested doing it on Juneteenth.
Juneteenth marks the anniversary of federal troops arriving in Texas and proclaiming on June 19, 1865, that slaves had been freed two years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation. It is considered the official end of slavery in the U.S., as well as the Black Independence Day.
The ceremony remembering Hale came two days after President Joe Biden signed into law an act that made Juneteenth a federal holiday.
“As we acknowledge the horrors of our past, I also want to celebrate the journey onward, and the fight of all those who led us to come so far,” Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson said as she presented a Juneteenth proclamation to the United Ebony Society of Gwinnett.
But, Hendrickson also said Hale’s death brought the history of lynchings in America home to Gwinnett.
“It would be easy to write this off as just an African-American issue, but it’s not,” she said. “Lynchings are an American issue. Lynchings are a Georgia issue, and the fact that one occurred here makes it a Gwinnett issue.”
Attendees were invited to take shuttle buses to a private property where Hale and at least 21 other people were buried in a paupers’ field.
Williams said she is not quite ready to visit Hale’s grave, which is near the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville.
“I’m glad to know (where it is) and, one day if I want to come back, I will. But today won’t be that day because I’m not emotionally ready for that,” she said.