They Stole Him Out Of Jail

Willie Earle is shown in a police mug shot. Accused of robbing and killing a white taxi driver, Thomas Brown, he was lynched by a group of whites in 1947.

South Carolina Author Probes Into The State’s Last Lynching.

Shortly before daybreak on Feb. 17, 1947, the last lynching in South Carolina’s history took place. A young African-American named Willie Earle was dragged from the Pickens County Jail, then beaten and shot to death in an act of vigilantism that drew international scrutiny. Accused of killing a Greenville cab driver, Earle had been detained less than 24 hours before a gang of enraged cabbies wreaked revenge, only to be acquitted later by an all-white jury. But for William Gravely, a Pickens County second-grader who lay sleeping as the lynch mob passed his door, these events would remain shrouded for decades.

This year, Gravely offers a complete reconstruction of the crime in “They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina’s Last Lynching Victim.” Published by the University of South Carolina Press, the book provides a comprehensive look at the social and historical context surrounding the case, as well as sensitive portraits of those involved. Gravely hopes his efforts may bring healing and reconciliation.

“I believe I did have an emotional link to what was going on around me as a second-grader in Pickens,” says Gravely, who never learned of the crime until 1978 when he heard a Methodist minister refer to the anti-lynching sermon he had courageously preached at the time of Earle’s death. “I was driven by a quest to learn all I could and understand the local world into which I was born.”

Now retired as professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, Gravely launched his investigation in 1981 by delving into contemporary print sources and seeking out people with living memory of the case. He recorded numerous conversations with law enforcement, legal professionals, journalists who covered the trial, civil rights activists and Earle’s mother, who at the time of his death was a widowed mother raising seven children.

“I tried to present each character as realistically as possible,” said Gravely. “I sought to avoid feeling morally superior to those who lived through these events, and I faced the challenge of how to handle my findings responsibly. Reading about lynching is not everyone’s preferred subject, but I do hope that serious readers will not only note what they gained in terms of new information, but will consider what they learned about themselves.”

Growing up in what has been called the “whitest” area of the state, Gravely experienced frustration toward the openly racist views of some of his elder relatives. He recalls having one black playmate, until it was decided by their families that they should stop seeing each other. Segregation effectively prevented him from having another black friend or colleague until well into adulthood. Yet despite being the product of a society encoded with racist assumptions, Gravely went on to dedicate a large part of his career to advocating for equality. He considers capital punishment the most obvious carryover from lynching in that it perpetuates eye-for-an-eye revenge rather than the potential for redemptive and restorative justice.

“‘White’ is not in the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence,” asserts Gravely, who will turn 80 this year. “However, at a practical level, the color codes of race are socially constructed and politically enforced, which invites chaos and violence. The re-emergence of public racism pains me. For there to be a political movement explicitly devoted to white nationalism is to walk into the future facing backward. Clearly, we are not freed from our histories. We resist being faced with uncomfortable versions of who we have been, but all truth and reconciliation begin with that necessary engagement.”  

As books like Gravely’s shed light into the dark corners of our collective past, the future grows that much brighter. “They Stole Him Out of Jail: Willie Earle, South Carolina’s Last Lynching Victim” is available on Amazon and at bookstores now. 

So What Happened?

Thomas Brown (left): The Greenville cab driver whose assault triggered the lynching. Brown gave investigators a description of his attacker and the items taken. He died just hours after Earle was slain.

William B. Gravely professor emeritus at the University of Denver, is the author of “They Stole Him From Jail,” “Gilbert Haven,” “Methodist Abolitionist,” as well as numerous articles on religion and social change. He is a native of Pickens County, South Carolina, where the murder of T. W. Brown occurred and where Willie Earle was jailed before his abduction.

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