A century ago today* Laura Nelson and her son Lawrence were lynched outside Okemah, Oklahoma.
“Two weeks ago,” mused the May 26, 1911 Tulsa World “Deputy Sheriff George H. Loney went to the Nelson home in search of some stolen meat. He found it and started to make an arrest when he was shot and killed. Both the Nelson woman and her son at first claimed to have fired the fatal shot, but it was later admitted that it was the son who fired it.”
So Laura found her way into the annals of lynched women by that most quintessentially maternal act: attempting to protect her child.
As is typical in lynchings, the perpetrators remained permanently wink-wink “unknown”; indeed, the resulting investigation contributed some outstanding exemplars of racist patronizing — like the investigating judge’s charge to his grand jury of “the duty devolv[ing] upon us of a superior race and of greater intelligence to protect this weaker race from unjustifiable and lawless attacks.”
If your organization would interest itself to the extent of seeing that such outrages as this [i.e., the appointment of black federal officials in the state] are not perpetrated against our people, there would be fewer lynchings in the South than at this time, and you can do a great deal more to aid the Negro by seeing that other people of our section of the country are considered in these matters than you can issuing abusive statements against this country when a crime of this kind is committed.
Actually, a tweak here and there and that paragraph could go right into a present-day stump speech. The past, as they say, is not even past.
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The site of the lynching: present-day Route 56 where it crosses the North Canadian River west of Okemah.
One face in the crowd — his exact role in the lynching seems to be unknown — was a local real estate man by the name of Charley Guthrie.
This blustery conservative southern Democrat would, the next year, name his third child for the Confederate-friendly academic Woodrow Wilson, who was then making a run for the White House that would see the U.S. to the nadir of its race relations.
Young Woodrow Wilson Guthrie — you know him as Woody — grew up with some different principles from dad; the counterculture folk troubadour was sufficiently haunted by his father’s proximity to this horrific exercise of mob justice to expiate it in song.
* Many web sites give the date as May 23, but the primary sources are unequivocal; the correct date is May 25.