About 100 people turned out on the front lawn of the Oconee County Courthouse in Watkinsville on Monday to join in recitation of a poem, explain why they had chosen to participate in the vigil, and read aloud the names of the eight victims of vigilante violence near that site 115 years ago.
About half of those present then proceeded funeral-style to a recently discovered grave of one of those victims, where they added soil and flowers and told personal stories about their experiences with race in this country.
Early in the event, which began at noon, organizer John Cole Vodicka of Athens told the group why he had taken the initiative to bring people together.
“This vigil in Watkinsville will lift up these victims of mob violence and allow us to speak truthfully about this difficult racist history that, unless brought to light, will remain overcome by the darkness,” Vodicka said.
“I came here because I feel like I’m a part of this,” one of those who followed Vodicka said. He said he grew up in this community, but the event had not been openly discussed in the past.
“I’m here because I want to recognize and show respect for the people who had no respect and who died unknown and I want to help remember their names,” another person said.
A mob descended on the old jail, which sat behind the current Courthouse, and seized nine prisoners, all but one of whom was African-American, early in the morning of June 29, 1905.
|Vodicka At Courthouse|
The mob then tied the prisoners to a line of fence posts behind the jail and shot them.
One of them somehow lived through the night and survived.
Among those killed was Sandy Price, then 20 years old.
Vodicka discovered his grave site in what was the Negro section of the Watkinsville Cemetery, and the vigil moved to that location after the group spent about a half hour at the Courthouse.
Vodicka told me in a telephone conversation on Saturday that he was motivated to investigate the Oconee County lynching after visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
Vodicka, who had recently retired to Athens and has a background in criminal justice work, started reading about the lynching in contemporary media reports and elsewhere.
He said he read somewhere that all of the victims had been buried in a mass grave, but then he later read that one of the victims, Lon Aycock, the only White victim, had been buried at the Watkinsville Cemetery.
He subsequently was told that Price’s body had been recovered by the family and buried at the Watkinsville Cemetery as well.
He found the gravestone, broken and turned on its face, and set about restoring the site.
He decided to organize the vigil to commemorate the victims and to visit the grave site.
“Here’s why I feel we’re gathered here,” Vodicka said at the Courthouse. “Why I’m gathered here.
|Speaker At Cemetery|
“We believe we are called to recognize and remember a significant part of our history, to repent for what happened in our names, to recover and then reconcile with those families who lost loved ones to vigilante violence and to offer redress and resist all attempts to cover up, excuse or forget past wrongdoing while speaking truth to power,” he said.
“You can’t change the past,” one of those speaking at the grave site said. “And you can change the future to a better. And let’s hope we’re going in that direction.”
“I have to get in touch with the pain and what people were feeling when they were pulled from that jail knowing that they were going to be lynched,” another person said in response.
“What it was like for Black men who had recently been killed by the hands of police officers,” she added.
“What does it feel like to be taking your last breadth as someone’s knee is on your neck,” she continued.
“Until we can truly feel that pain, and get in touch with what people went through, that’s when this will be a better world,” she added.
“Let us think what we can do individually to make this county better,” another speaker said.
A listing based on the database of the Tuskegee University Archives shows Oconee County had 12 deaths attributed to lynching between 1890 and 1968.
Eight were those in 1905 and four were in 1921.
Oconee followed Brooks County (24), Early County (23), Decatur County (18), and Fulton, Lee and Mitchell counties (13).
Jasper County also had 12 lynchings.
Lynching is defined as putting to death by mob action without legal approval or permission.
The Board of Commissioners voted in late 2017 to tear down the old jail to make way for expansion of the Courthouse.
Oconee County Commission Chair John Daniell told me in an email message on June 17 “We are actively working on how to accomplish recognizing the victims.
“I have some additional information to gather and hope to meet with some more citizens on what to do. I hope to have something to discuss in the next 30 days,” he said.
I did not attend the vigil on Monday because I am immune compromised.
Sarah Bell did attend and recorded a video of the entire session at the Courthouse and the cemetery. She also provided the crowd estimates I used above.
It is difficult to hear the speakers at both locations because many were wearing masks and because of background noise.
At 15:54 in the video someone raced the engine of a passing vehicle, causing Vodicka to pause his comments.
I edited out segments of the video shot at the cemetery when the speaker was not facing the camera and the voice was not picked up by the microphone.