Just more than 70 people turned out at Harris Shoals Park in Watkinsville on Saturday to remember the nearby lynching deaths of three African-American men on that date 100 years earlier.
The group then walked across Experiment Station Road to the approximate site of the lynching and drove three wooden crosses into the ground.
The crosses bore the hand-lettered names of Aron Birdsong, 36, Wes Hale, 55, and George Lowe, 45, Oconee County farmers killed on Dec. 4, 1921.
The death certificate for Birdsong states he was “resisting officers and killed by bullets.”
The certificates for Hale and Lowe say they were “killed by unknown parties.”
Robert Harrison of Athens, one of those who turned out for the event, told the group that “Aron Birdsong was one of my great uncles.”
Harrison said he and his family have been meeting in reunions since 1978 and reconstructed the story of Birdsong’s death.
Harrison thanked those gathered for “acknowledging him and all of those whose lives were cut short” through the racial violence of the period.
John Cole Vodicka of Athens, retired from a career in criminal justice work, said on Saturday he organized the event in collaboration with an informal group interested in and concerned about lynching in northeast Georgia.
|Memorial To Three Victims|
“We have decided over the course of the last year and a half to come together, to kind of observe these lynchings as best we can, to remember them, to acknowledge them, and to go from there,” Vodicka said.
“We’re also trying to just get people to talk about this part of our history,” Vodicka said, "as awful as it is.
“We need to acknowledge it,” Vodicka continued, “and we need to come together to talk about how we can repair what’s happened, how we can make reparations--those of us who are classified as White--and what in our communities needs attention, even today.”
Vodicka said where he was standing at the shelter in Harris Shoals Park “I’m literally within 10 miles of 17 different lynchings.”
That included the lynching of eight people at the Oconee County Courthouse in 1905, which Vodicka and his colleagues had recognized with a memorial service in the summer of 2020.
Another lynching took place in 1917 off Simonton Bridge Road in Oconee County, followed in February of 1921 by a lynching on Barber Creek near where it empties into McNutt Creek at the Clarke County line, and the three lynchings on Dec. 4, 2021.
Vodicka said it also is his hope that,” at some point, in addition to the three simple crosses we are going to plant across the highway, we’ll also have some historical markers or memorial markers to put in this vicinity as well.”
Story of Murders
Vodicka acknowledged that details of the three murders on Dec. 4, 2021, were incomplete.
“As much as we can find out,” he said, “Aron Birdsong, a farmer who worked for a farmer in Oconee County, asked his boss, the plantation or the farm owner, for money or land, to get a piece of land, and he was denied.
“And later, the accusation was,” Vodicka continued, “he went to the farmer’s house and the farmer wasn’t there. He was shopping in Athens.
“The farmer’s wife and daughter were there, and that just incensed folks, as so many of these lynchings are all about,” Vodicka said. “It’s threatening white womanhood.
“In most cases, it’s totally unfounded,” Vodicka said, “but he was accused of frightening the farmer’s wife and daughter, and that led to a posse being formed.”
The posse then went to Birdsong’s house, saying it was interested in finding a place to hunt, Vodicka said.
Birdsong fired some shots at the crowd, a deputy was wounded, and another person was injured, according to the account by Vodicka.
Birdsong fled and was captured, Vodicka said, and was “led to a spot not far from where we’ll be in a few minutes. He was shot.
“Then word got out that the other two gentlemen, George Lowe and Wes Hale, had assisted Mr. Birdsong in his escape attempt,” Vodicka said.
The crowd chased down Lowe and Hale at their homes and brought them back to this site of Birdsong’s murder “and set them on fire and put bullets into their bodies as well.”
Shortly after the group assembled on a piece of property across Experiment Station Road from Harris Shoals Park owned by the Georgia Department of Transportation, Robert Harrison stepped forward.
Vodicka told me in a telephone conversation on Monday afternoon he had not met or talked to Harrison before the event on Saturday.
“It just so happens that Aron Birdsong was one of my great uncles,” Harrison told the group.
“Since 1978 the family has always celebrated our reunions,” Harrison continued, “and we’ve been able to pull things together” about the death of Birdsong.
“So I just want you to know that we’re really, really happy that you have captured this and then acknowledging him and all of those whose lives were cut short,” Harrison said.
Harrison said Birdsong’s wife, Pearly, had two sons, one of whom stayed in Athens until he passed away in the late 1970s.
“It took a long time,” Harrison said, “but about a year ago I was contacted by Aron Birdsong’s great granddaughter. She lives in California. And we wound up reconnecting.
“So it’s just come full circle,” Harrison aid. “I just wanted you to know we really appreciate it. It certainly makes it real for us that all of you thought enough to care enough to come out here and celebrate. Thank you so much.”
Comment By Rev. Nunnally
Rev. Joseph Nunnally, an Oconee native and resident, told the group that “what is happening today is necessary. We cannot deny what took place. For a healing to take place there must be an acceptance of the reality, pain, of the evils that took place.”
“It takes somebody who can agitate, somebody who is willing to say we’re not going to roll over and deny things, to take a stand,” he said. “So this is necessary. This is really important.”
“I truly believe that one person can make a difference,” Nunnally said. “And there are lot of us here today, and we need to have conversations on purpose with our family members.
“Some of them may not want to hear it,” Nunnally said. “But there needs to be some conversations going on about things that took place, about things that were wrong. So that a true repentance can take place in this country.
“I think not only of what happened to the African-Americans, but the story of the Indians,” Nunnally continued. “I mean we could go on and on with this. But there is so much that this country has to repent of because of the injustices that were done.”
“Go back and have a conversation with family members who deny things,” he said in finishing.
Following the comments by Rev. Nunnally, a woman who did not give her name said “I would add one thing, and that acts of this violence also do severe damage to the hearts and souls of the perpetrators. It is also for them, in a sense.”
“I’ve lived in Oconee since I was nine years old,” another unidentified woman said. “I didn’t know it was right here.
“You know, a lot of times we think, 'Oh, that’s awful, but that’s not my community',” she continued.
“And it was right here,” she said. “It was right here in our own back yard, and I’m really excited about, we need these memorials.
“We need the acknowledgment,” she said. “We need public acknowledgment that it is everywhere. It is right in your own back yard.”
Following the comments, Vodicka asked those who had agreed to put the crosses into the earth to do so.
|Planting The Crosses|
This was followed by a collection of soil in a jar that will be given to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. The Equal Justice Initiative documents lynchings in the U.S.
By the Equal Justice Initiative count, Oconee County has had more lynchings than any of the counties surrounding it, and the count does not include two of those identified by Vodicka.
Participants then came forward placed flowers at the bases of the crosses.
Finally, participants came forward and placed stones at the bases of the crosses.
Prayers And Song
“Stones don’t die,” Vodicka said before the placing of the stones. “They are with us. They signify the pain of losing someone dear to you.”
“Of all the souls that God watches over,” he prayed. “We wish to add this stone that symbolizes the souls of our departed, Aron Birdsong, Wes Hale, and George Lowe.”
“May their memories continue to live on, in and through us,” he concluded.
The group then sang a verse of “We Shall Overcome.”
After the ceremony, a woman stepped forward for a final comment.
She said she is an archeologist who is doing research in the area.
“I’ve researched the individuals that were affected,” she said. “Their families are still here. And we need to remember those actions that were taken back then reverberated,” she continued.
“There was a very clear message that was being sent to people of color in this county. Again and again and again. Horrifying. But I have to sing "We Shall Overcome."
“I always am amazed at the tenacity and the endurance that the community has shown through time, and how they remained and stayed,” she said.
“We’re remembering them,” she concluded.
In 1900, 51 percent of the population of Oconee County was African-American, and that percentage dropped sharply from that time until the 5 percent today.
I attended the first part of the event on Saturday at Harris Shoals, but I did not go to the site where the group assembled again for the second part of the program.
I am immune compromised and, on the advise of my doctor, I avoid crowds.
Courtney Davis recorded both the initial part of the program at the park and the second part at the approximate site of the lynching near the intersection of Lampkin Branch Calls Creek and the main part of the creek, which flows through Harris Shoals Park.
That video shot by Davis is embedded below.
Vodicka began talking as the video begins and continued talking for nearly 16 minutes.
The video continues at 15:57 at the site where the three crosses were to be put into the ground.
Harrison made his comments at 17:03 in the video.
Rev. Nunnally began speaking at 23:31.
Planting of the crosses begins at 29:04 in the video.
There is a short break at 44:50 in the video where the late speaker came forward to make comments after, it seemed, all who wished to speak had done so.