By Margaret Burnham
Featured Image: Solicitation for Dorcheat Museum, 2016
In October 2011, with Brett D. Watson, then a student in our Civil Rights & Restorative Justice clinic, I traveled to Minden, Louisiana to investigate the 1946 lynching of John C. Jones. An army corporal and a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, Jones had only recently returned to Webster Parish when in August of ’46 he was killed. Visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture can imagine Jones’ life and lynching, for on display under the caption “The Death of John C. Jones” are photographs of the veteran with wife and child, his lifeless body lying in a ditch, and his death certificate.
I juxtapose that 2011 investigative trip to Minden with the Smithsonian exhibition to say something about the competing narratives that still define the study and representation of the history of racial violence in our country.
A brief word about John Jones: Killed by a mob on August 8, 1946, Jones was abducted, imprisoned, and assaulted along with his 17-year-old cousin, Albert Harris, Jr, who lived to report the lynching. Young Harris was first arrested, allegedly for peeping into the home of a white neighbor and disturbing the woman within. Held for days, then released to a mob and beaten, Harris was tortured into naming his cousin as the guilty party. Thirty-one-years old and married with a child, whites deemed Jones “uppity,” and particularly resented his military service and his possession of a German automatic pistol that he brought home from Europe. Harris and Jones were thrown together in the Minden jail, which sits across the street from the Webster Parish courthouse. Jailors released the two to a mob, which transported them to a swampy area in Dorcheat Bayou, where they were severely beaten. Only Harris left the woods alive; his older cousin died in his arms. An NAACP investigation described Jones’ body as bearing evidence of “bestial sadism.” His death certificate, on the other hand, was more legalistic: it described the cause of death as “shock, multiple bruises and abrasions due to wounds received while being beaten by unknown persons.” There followed a federal prosecution; the defendants were all acquitted.
Brett and I met with the unofficial historian of Webster County, John Agan, a pleasant gentleman who at the time taught college-level history and, on a volunteer basis, operated the Dorcheat Historical Association Museum in downtown Minden. Agan met us at the museum. Pursuing the motto, “preserving our past for our future,” the museum features pioneer artifacts, including a log cabin, and material from the Civil War era. One exhibit deals with the Great Depression in Minden, and another with the damage done by a tornado. Hanging right at the entrance to the museum, we spotted a large photograph of downtown Minden, circa 1940s, prominently featuring the courthouse. The descriptive material provided no provenance. In response to our inquiries, Mr. Agan reported that he had obtained the photograph from the federal court records in the prosecution of Jones’ alleged lynchers. Brett and I snuck around the museum to see if there was any mention of the Jones matter. None. There were photographs of African American parish residents from the Reconstruction era, and of the graduating classes of the black high schools, but no mention of Jones, Harris, the trial, or Webster Parish’s case of the century – one attended by journalists from all over the country.
After our visit to Minden Brett retrieved the Exhibits file from the federal trial, which was in a storage facility in Fort Worth. Among scores of documents, Brett found the photograph we saw in the Dorcheat Museum: as the trial had been moved from Webster to neighboring Monroe Parish, the Justice Department attorneys had used it to show the jurors, who were unfamiliar with the area, the location of the jail from which the men were kidnapped, and the route the lynch mob took from Main Street, at the top of the day, within spitting distance of the halls of justice. Also in that file were several pictures taken by law enforcement officers on the day John Jones’ body was found in the bayou: in them he lay shoeless, face tipped up to the sky. Although, according to the testimony of Harris, the men had been stripped of their clothes when they were beaten, the assailants put Jones’ shirt and pants back on him after he lost unconsciousness. These pictures of the dead man, too, had been shown to the trial jury. They were also in John Agan’s personal collection when he curated materials for the Dorcheat Museum, but he chose not to display them.
We posted photographs of Jones with his family, and Jones prone in the bayou, when we released the story on our site. That lead a few years later to a call from archivists from the Smithsonian, and ultimately, to the display case in Washington.
Hence a resident of Webster Parish seeking to explore the case of John Jones would have to travel to her nation’s capital. The president of the Minden NAACP, Kenneth Wallace, was deeply offended by this enforced forgetfulness. He tried unsuccessfully to obtain an apology from public officials in Webster Parish for its role in the lynching. He also was unable to obtain support for a public memorial to Jones, although a confederate soldier memorial holds a prominent place in the town square.
This is only one vignette in the American war on memory. It was once said that we have the obligation to remember everything that we cannot reasonably expect our fellow citizens to forget. Meeting that obligation must include overhauling our museum practice by forcing open quasi-public spaces like the Dorcheat Historical Museum. These collections are scattered across the South, and like confederate monuments and flags, they must be seen to be political spaces of white hegemony. Dorcheat Must Fall
John Jones and his Family
John C. Jones, Dorcheat Bayou, August 8, 1946