Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Murder of John Walthall

Maria Carter (1844–?)
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality

“Visit of the Ku-Klux,” illustration by American artist Frank Bellew (1828–1888) for Harper’s Weekly, February 24, 1872. Library of Congress.
Twenty-one-year-old Tilda Walthall was called to testify in front of a congressional subcommittee in Georgia in October 1871 and asked to describe the horrific night she had experienced the previous spring. “They came and hallooed to open the door; my husband got up and got out of the house; he crawled in under the house,” she recalled. “Then they came around and went into the garden and pulled off a plank, and he was lying there; and they shot him. . . . He lived until the next night about dusk, when he died. They beat him after they shot him.” John and Tilda Walthall had been married for less than six months.

The Walthall couple was one of dozens of households terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan in Haralson County, Georgia, during the months of April and May of 1871. The organization’s steady rise across the South during the previous five years motivated Congress to form the Joint Select Committee on the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. The committee’s task was complicated by the unwillingness of many potential witnesses to appear, and even those who did were frightened by the risks. “We are now all afraid to go home,” one white farmer told the subcommittee assigned to conduct interviews in Georgia, “because they know that we have come here. I was summoned and brought here. I know that the whole crowd who are with me are afraid they will be killed. They threatened that if anybody ever reported on them they would kill them.” Another witness declared, “I am not going back. There is not a thing in my house now; I rented out my place before I left.”

John Walthall first ran afoul of local white citizens when he quit his “job” after working for more than a year without receiving any wages from Duncan Monroe, a man described by one former sheriff as “a leading Democrat in that county” and universally regarded as among the region’s wealthiest landowners. When Walthall insisted upon receiving the wages due to him for his months of work, Monroe claimed not to owe anything because he hadn’t worked his “full time.” Monroe had a reputation for corralling men freed from slavery with the promise of a substantial payout after an vaguely defined period of employment; he became equally notorious for never paying a dime of it. As more of his unpaid workers quit, Monroe turned to threats and eventually to violence. Two other witnesses reported experiences similar to Monroe’s treatment of Walthall; neither received the wages due for more than eighteen months of work in the field. When one of the men quit, he demanded his pay and told Monroe he planned to attend school. Monroe refused to pay him his back wages. “He said that if I went off to school with the other negroes, the first thing I knew the Ku-Klux would have me.” The second man was told he wasn’t owed anything because he hadn’t worked long enough and was likewise warned that the Klan would be after him for being no longer employed.

After Walthall left the Monroe farm, he apparently lived for a short period in a house with several white women, who may or may not have been prostitutes, with clients primarily among local landowners and other dignitaries. Rumors began to spread that Walthall was sleeping with one of the women, although, as one man testified, “I never heard anybody say anything about running after women—only Monroe and his son-in-law; I never heard anybody accuse him [Walthall] of anything.” But the rumors had their effect, and Walthall ignored the advice of friends who urged him to leave the county. As Eric Foner writes in his landmark book on Reconstruction, “Those most certain to suffer abuse were interracial couples in which the male was black,” and he cites the example of another Georgian, Marion Bellups, whose pregnant white wife had been brutally whipped by Klansmen. She and her child from a previous marriage were then jailed.

According to the testimony, Monroe and at least one of his sons led the large gang that shot, whipped, and killed his former employee. The band of men broke up into groups that terrorized the neighbors: driving them out of bed, beating them with hickory sticks and additional weapons, and destroying furniture and other property. The terror continued during random nights over a period of weeks, and the families of men who had quit their nonpaying jobs were particularly targeted. The Klansmen wore “something over their bodies similar to gowns,” said one white farmer who was whipped for supporting the Republican Party. “I have a cap here with me that was found there. This is it [showing a covering for the head, made of calico]. There was a stick placed in the hind part of this cap in order to make it stand up straight. And there are holes here, as you can see, for the eyes, mouth, and nose, marked with some red stuff.” Some of the disguised marauders were identified by various witnesses because they occasionally removed the cumbersome hoods to see what was going on around them. Yet, as was the case with most of the Klan’s acts of terror, none of the perpetrators had been indicted or punished for John Walthall’s murder or the subsequent violence in Haralson County.

The congressional committee submitted its reports on February 19, 1872, along with twelve volumes of testimony taken in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. The hearings and the reports reinforced the implementation and enforcement of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which led—in the short term—to the organization’s demise. “By 1872,” Foner writes, “the federal government’s evident willingness to bring its legal and coercive authority to bear had broken the Klan’s back and produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South,” but it wasn’t enough to prevent the formation later in the decade of white militias and other supremacist groups.

The congressional subcommittee dispatched to Atlanta for the hearing in Georgia in the fall of 1871 was chaired by Representative Horace Maynard, a Republican from Tennessee. Among the eyewitnesses of the events during the night of the murder of John Walthall was his neighbor Maria Carter, whose vivid testimony we present below. Thomas F. Bayard, a Democratic senator from Delaware, also asked questions during the proceeding.

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