How do we remember history that is painful to remember? It’s a question community members in neighboring Shelbyville confronted recently when a coalition sought to commemorate the lynchings of six Black men in Shelby County from 1878 to 1911.
Between 1877 and 1950, the period between Reconstruction and World War II, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states. Supplemental research also found racial terror lynchings to be commonplace in eight other states as well, such as Oklahoma and Maryland.
In Kentucky, there were 169 reported lynchings during this time, and Oldham County isn’t excluded from this stain in American history.
On Nov. 20, 1878, 18-year-old George Williams was hanged from a tree in Oldham County. He’s the only recorded lynching in Oldham County.
EJI defines racial terror lynchings as “horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable.” They also define racial terror lynchings separately from hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial proceedings.
It’s uncertain if Williams was born in Oldham County, or if he and his family were at some point enslaved by people in the county. However, information provided by the University of Washington’s CSDE Lynching Database claims there was no indication Williams was “a stranger or marginalized.”
Williams was accused of an “outrageous assault” on Lillie Barbour, an 8-year-old white girl.
Barbour was the daughter of Jack Barbour, former deputy sheriff of Jefferson County. The alleged assault took place in Brownsboro, near Crestwood, at the home of Preston Yaeger, who was the younger Barbour’s uncle.
Of available press accounts, the Courier-Journal details the alleged assault, lynching and lead up to the lynching the most in-depth, and is where most of this information is obtained.
Other press reports note that the Era also included a story about the event; however, the archives both at the Era office and the Oldham County Public Library don’t date back to 1878.
Williams was employed on Yaeger’s farm. On the afternoon of Nov. 19, Williams was in a cellar sorting apples when Lillie Barbour came down to get some. It was at this time Williams allegedly “seized her” and “by intimidating her, succeeded in accomplishing his foul designs.”
Or as the Cincinnati Enquirer put it, Lillie Barbour was the “unfortunate victim of the black brute’s lust.”
Williams was arrested and, according to accounts, denied what happened at first but later allegedly confessed. A trial was never held, and there’s no corroboration to Williams’ guilt aside from those who said he confessed; meaning there’s no way to definitively prove his guilt, or conversely his innocence.
Williams was then lodged in the county jail in La Grange. The Courier Journal reported that on the streets of La Grange the sentiment amongst the citizens “was by no means favorable to
Williams, and it was freely spoken on the street by many that his hours were numbered, and it was doubtful if he was alive Wednesday morning.”
A mob arrived at the home of county jailer James Russell in La Grange. The mob forced Russell to open the county jail. At this time, the jail was located on Main Street in La Grange.
It’s believed most of the mob was made up of people from Brownsboro, especially those who lived in the vicinity of Yeager’s home, as there was “considerable talk in the neighborhood about lynching.”
Once the mob had gotten Williams, he was taken out of the jail, put on a horse and was taken out of town going toward Buckner.
The exact site of the lynching is not entirely known. Press accounts say Williams was lynched near Brownsboro Station, a stop along the former Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which is today part of CSX Transportation.
At the time, Brownsboro Station would have been in close proximity to Buckner and the CSDE database notes the lynching occurred just a few miles to the west of La Grange.
“Sullen, defiant and apparently entirely indifferent as to his fate, he stared vacantly at this crowd of men who were eager for his life’s blood and anxious to take him away immediately and hang him to the nearest tree,” the Courier Journal wrote.
Williams was raised about three feet off the ground with his hands and feet securely tied.
As news traveled around town, allegedly 300 some people gathered at the spot of the lynching as they watched Williams “swinging slowly to and fro.”
An inquest into the matter was held but no member of the mob was convicted of any crime and ultimately ruled that “parties unknown” hanged Williams.
As The Sentinel-News reported, the Shelbyville Community Remembrance Project Coalition (SCRPC) recently held a ceremony to honor the victims of lynching in their county by partnering with the EJI’s soil collection project.
The soil collection, which takes soil samples from the places Black people were lynched and exhibits them at Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama and local communities where these crimes occurred, project is one of two other community remembrance projects the EJI oversees.
Other remembrance projects headed by the EJI is the historical marker project and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice monument placement initiative.
Representatives of the EJI Racial Justice Team told the Era the efforts made in Shelby County could also be implemented in Oldham County.
Oldham County Historical Society Director Nancy Theiss said she knows little about the lynching in Oldham County but is aware of the work done by EJI and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, informally called the National Lynching Memorial, in Montgomery.
“I understand what they did in Montgomery is very important,” Theiss said.
Theiss said with the history center’s limitations on time and resources, they haven’t tackled this particular subject. She said the board of the center also hasn’t talked about pursuing a remembrance project like Shelby County has done, but it’s not something they’ve ruled out.
She also noted that historical awareness around terror lynchings has been growing within the past year.
An online search for “lynching memorials” shows a broad swath of interest across the United States memorializing these events in their respective communities. In Kansas, Georgia, Missouri, Alabama, Tennessee and even Delaware.
“We have to acknowledge the places, we have to recognize the places where terror lynchings took place,” EJI Director Bryan Stevenson said in a recent video.