We’ve all seen it in movies and on TV. We’ve read about it. Most of us, hope­ful­ly, learned some­thing of it in school. The famed African American jazz singer Billie Holliday famous­ly sang about it. 

It goes by dif­fer­ent names. Vigilante jus­tice. Racial ter­ror­ism. Lynching. 

Someone would be accused of a crime. Before the jus­tice sys­tem had a chance to process the case, a group of men — a “lynch mob” — would gath­er, kid­nap the accused, take him out some­where, and sum­mar­i­ly exe­cute him, usu­al­ly by hanging. 

To be sure, the vic­tim was not always a Black man. But in the his­to­ry of our nation, that was more often than not the case. Particularly in the American South, fol­low­ing the Civil War and the eman­ci­pa­tion of four mil­lion for­mer­ly enslaved Black peo­ple, many of these new­ly-freed per­sons were the tar­gets of lynch mobs. 

According to one source I found, there were 4,743 known lynch­ings in the US between 1882–1968. Of those, 3,446 of the vic­tims were Black. 

But that was in the South, right? Kentucky was nom­i­nal­ly a Union state. Lynching was­n’t a thing here, was it? Again, accord­ing to the source linked above, there were 142 lynch­ings of Black peo­ple in Kentucky dur­ing that peri­od. Now we’re hit­ting close to home.

Want to get closer? 

Would it sur­prise you to know that local his­to­ri­ans have iden­ti­fied at least six Black men who were the vic­tims of lynch­ings right here in Clark County, Kentucky? 

I want to list the names of each, but even doing that reveals a truth about the his­to­ry of Black peo­ple in America: only four of the six have their full names record­ed for his­to­ry. In the case of one, we only have his last name, and in anoth­er, we are only told the name of the white per­son to whom he “belonged.”

Ben Johnson

Bob Haggard

“A young Black man named Knight”

“A Black man ‘belong­ing’ to Daniel Sphar”

Fielding Waller

William Hart

It’s dif­fi­cult to process the truth that there was such a time in our his­to­ry. A time when a man was known only as the prop­er­ty of anoth­er man. A time when such a man could be accused of a crime and then exe­cut­ed with­out a tri­al by his neigh­bors. A man whose very name is lost to history.

Read more

Local his­to­ri­ans have doc­u­ment­ed cas­es of lynch­ings in Clark County. 

Terry Foody, a Kentucky author and mem­ber of the Kentucky Humanities Speakers Bureau, wrote a piece for us about one inci­dent that took place in south­ern Clark County in 1895 she calls the Ford fias­co.

Our own Harry Enoch, who has writ­ten numer­ous books and news­pa­per arti­cles about local his­to­ry, com­piled a detailed inves­ti­ga­tion into all six of the known lynch­ings that took place in Clark County in a piece called racial ter­ror in Clark County.

Thankfully, we don’t have that par­tic­u­lar prob­lem any­more, right? 

Except that lynch­ing is dead only in name. 

To take one exam­ple cur­rent­ly in the news, what about Ahmaud Arbery? Is the fate of that young Black man real­ly all that dif­fer­ent from the fates of some of those 3,446 Black men who were lynched in this country?

Some of my white friends want us to “get over the race thing.” The truth is, only some of us have the priv­i­lege to do so. Ahmaud Arbery’s fam­i­ly can­not. George Floyd’s fam­i­ly can­not. Breonna Taylor’s fam­i­ly cannot. 

Black par­ents who feel oblig­ed to teach their chil­dren that they must be extra vig­i­lant when deal­ing with white author­i­ties can­not “get over it.”

They live with the his­to­ry and the present real­i­ty every day. The real­i­ty that sys­temic racism is still alive and well in the United States of America. That jus­tice for white folks is not always the same as jus­tice for Black folks. 

Until more of us wake up to that real­i­ty and begin to demand change, none of us is tru­ly free. The first step is learn­ing the truth. This is why his­to­ry is so impor­tant. This is why we need to keep teach­ing each gen­er­a­tion about our past –both its glo­ries and its travesties.

And when we exam­ine his­to­ry in a new light, per­haps we can learn to rec­og­nize the ways in which we have moved for­ward, but also the ways in which much more progress is still needed. 

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.