TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In the fall of 1933, Dennis Cross, a 50-year-old black man who was paralyzed from the waist down, was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman in Tuscaloosa.
Though his need for assistance in dressing himself and getting around town shed doubt on the accusation, he was still arrested for the alleged crime.
But his case would never go to trial.
After bailing out of the Tuscaloosa County Jail, a mob of white men dressed as police officers showed up at his house on Sept. 24 and took him. They dragged him out of his home and shot him more than 20 times near a place called the Tuscaloosa Community Center.
Cross’s lynching was the last of 10 documented lynchings of black men in the Tuscaloosa County area since 1884 – only eight technically occurred in Tuscaloosa County, but the two that happened in Bibb County were from Tuscaloosa.
As part of a new history class called “Southern Memory: Lynching in the South,” which was started at The University of Alabama this fall by Dr. John Giggie, 15 students have spent the semester learning about the history and stated rationale of lynching, as well as tracking down the history of the documented lynchings that took place in Tuscaloosa County.
“This class meets twice a week,” said Giggie, a UA associate professor of history. “The first component to the class is literature based where we’re reading about lynchings, the history of them, the rationales, why was this such a problem for so long in America?
“Then after four weeks into the semester, we began our research phase where students were assigned lynching victims, and we teach them how to do the research to track their lives.”
Giggie said he got the idea for the class after talking to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit human rights law firm out of Montgomery committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S. as well as challenging racial and economic injustice. EJI has documented more than 4,000 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950 – at least 360 were lynched in Alabama.
He took their baseline data on lynchings in Tuscaloosa County and asked his students to research them further.
Giggie said the goal of the class is for students to use their research to create a digital humanities website that will be accessible to the public and gives testimony to the circumstances surrounding the victims’ murders.
Aaron Drake, a 21-year-old senior from Selma, double majoring in history and communication studies, said the class made him realize that researching lynchings from 100 years ago is difficult work.
“To be completely honest, my main take away at this point is I realize this kind of research is hard,” he said. “It’s not like your traditional research because we don’t have much there, and it forces us to do some heavy, creative digging. We have to utilize sources, such as newspaper databases, court records, census records and other legal documents.
“Although the research is difficult, it’s also rewarding. I’m convinced lynchings have such a strong historical and contemporary relevance, and its history needs to be seen and taught more. I’m grateful for the opportunity to shed light on the importance of one of the darkest moments of our nation’s history.”
Giggie said during the 49 years that the documented lynchings in the Tuscaloosa County area took place, lynching didn’t mean just hanging. It meant hanging, shooting, a combination of the two, or just the murder of a black person by white people.
“The key is they were murdered to resolve some kind of tension that whites felt in the community at the time,” he said. “Often, the stated reason was for sexual tension – that a black man had somehow disrespected a white woman.
“But, as we pushed deeper, you see a much more complicated rationale for the killings. As stories have stated for years, that stated reason of black men assaulting white women is often fictitious.”
The nine black men, in addition to Cross, whose lynchings were documented in the Tuscaloosa County area from 1884 to 1933 were:
- Andy Burke – accused of assaulting a 10-year-old white girl who was the daughter of a prominent Tuscaloosa citizen. He ran from a mob of white men who found him, scalped him, disemboweled him, hung him from an oak tree and shot him five times as he begged for his life on the corner of Ninth Street and Greensboro Avenue. He was murdered July 16, 1884.
- Bud Wilson – accused of attempting to assault a white woman at her home in Tuscaloosa. He was arrested and then kidnapped from police custody by a mob of white men who hung him and shot him multiple times on Dec. 27, 1889.
- Charles McKelton and John Johnson – McKelton and Johnson were both accused of robbing and burning down a grocery store in Romulus. They were arrested and remained in jail until a mob of between 30 and 50 white men broke them out on Feb. 11, 1892, and killed them. No further details about their murders have been discovered.
- Sidney Johnson – Johnson, a homeless man, was accused of harassing a 13-year-old white girl and possibly assaulting a white woman who was working in her yard. A mob of white men found him, dragged him to the girl’s father who identified him as the culprit and hung him. While he hung, the mob armed with shotguns “filled his body with led,” as a newspaper described it. He was killed in Coaling July 13, 1898.
- John Durrett – In retaliation for the lynching of Sidney Johnson just three days earlier, Durrett allegedly attempted to cause an uprising to expose the injustice of the lynching. After being told to flee the county, he refused, and a mob of white men came to his house in the middle of the night on July 15, 1898. The “notorious negro,” as he was described by newspapers of the time, fled his house out the back door, but was shot down no more than 50 feet from his home. His body was described as being “perforated” with bullets.
- Cicero Cage – Cage, a black male in his late teens or early 20s, was accused of attempting to assault a white woman in the town of Hickmans near Ralph. He was never charged with the alleged crime, but a white mob chopped him into pieces March 13, 1919. The lynching was covered up in white newspapers, which said that he escaped. But his dad and other documents confirmed that his lynching actually occurred. His lynching was cited in multiple anti-lynching bills.
- A.T. Hardin and Dan Pippen Jr. – Hardin, 15, Pippen, 18, and another man, Elmore Clark, 28, were accused of murdering a 21-year-old white woman named Vaudine Maddox less than a quarter mile from her home near Moundville. Maddox was bringing flour to a neighbor’s house but never returned. Several days prior, she had gotten into an intense argument with a suitor, police reports said. Reports also showed that she knew the assailant and had talked to him for a long time before she was killed. There was no sign of a struggle. The murder was blamed on Hardin, Pippen and Clark, who were arrested. The sheriff, who had heard that a white mob was headed to the jail to break them out and lynch them, told two deputies to transport the trio to a jail in Jefferson County. The bodies of Hardin and Pippen were found the next morning in Bibb County, 100 yards from the Tuscaloosa County line. Clark was nowhere to be found. All three had been handcuffed together, and the bodies of Hardin and Pippen were still handcuffed, but not Clark. Later, it was discovered that Clark had been shot and brutalized but survived the ordeal by playing dead.
On Feb. 21, the class visited EJI to present its research to its staff. With that research now added to their own, EJI will come to Tuscaloosa March 6 and unveil the first historical marker to memorialize the lives of the black men lynched in Tuscaloosa County.
The marker, which will bear the names of the victims, will be unveiled at 4:45 p.m. directly in front of the old Tuscaloosa Jail on the corner of Sixth Street and 28th Avenue, according to an EJI news release.
Following the unveiling, a short program commemorating the importance of the marker will begin at 5:30 p.m. at First African Baptist Church, 2621 Stillman Blvd.
“I hope to build on this class,” Giggie said. “There are hundreds of lynchings in Alabama. Each one is a story that deserves to be told. The next class will be offered in the fall, and students will look at lynchings in Bibb or Jefferson County.”