Saturday, July 04, 2020

Participants At Oconee County Courthouse Vigil Recognize Victims Of 1905 Lynching

***Also Attend To Grave Of One Of The Victims***

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.

June 29,1905

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.

Montgomery Memorial

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.

Comments Offered

“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.

Database Listing

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.


Dr. P said...

Nice article. Is a typo: "...between 1990 and 1968." Perhaps, 1890 and 1968.

Chuck Rosenberger said...

Thanks for sharing

Michael Prochaska said...

I think it should be noted for the public record that two trucks drove by revving their engines several times. At the end of the program, one of the drivers shouted the F word and flipped the bird to those in attendance.

- Michael Prochaska

Lee Becker said...

Thank you for the correction. Yes, it is 1890 to 1968. Sorry for the typo.

Michael, I was not present. I noted the noise and the interruption it caused to John Vodicka, which is visible in the video.

I also asked Vodicka and Sarah Bell about the truck. Sarah said she was turned to the speaker, focusing on the recording, and only heard the truck noise behind her. Vodicka said he did not hear anything other than the traffic.

I know you were present and thank you for your observations.



Pam Davis said...

Lee, The truck flying two American flags made two disruptive runs by the event. The second run had anothe truck. Also flying a flag and making loud noise. The last go round, as Michael said, we got the bird and F you.
I don't know if any law was broken except speeding recklessly on Main street. Many people got pictures of their tags. Ken saw him ealier at the hardware store and they were spotted after the event at BP. There was no social distancing for the most part but all but two people that I saw were wearing masks. Sarah was one of the two not wearing a mask.

If the cowards in the trucks had a statement to made they should have come to the event and if civil would have been allowed to say whatever they liked.

It was very hard to hear. I will offer our PA system to John if he would like to do another event.

Michael Prochaska said...

Lee, came here to say there's a Facebook group in which someone said the lynching victims deserved to get shot. Its one of about a dozen nasty comments i have seen this week. Some of the comments have been harassing The Oconee Enterprise for simply covering a non partisan event but others are directed at the event itself and the victims

Unknown said...

Thank you for not forgetting! 😢

Lee Becker said...

Please either use a Google Account that lists your real name or type your real name at the end of your comment.