Georgia Police Chief Apologizes for 1940 Lynching of 16-Year-Old Boy

James Callaway and his wife, Willa Mae. James was born after his cousin Austin Callaway was lynched in 1940. He didn't know anything about his relative's story until recently. (Credit: CNN)

When it happened, news of Austin Callaway’s lynching on September 8, 1940, was buried on the last page of his hometown newspaper in LaGrange, Georgia.

“Negro succumbs to shot wounds,” read the LaGrange Daily News headline, squeezed between the personal ads and a report on a church fish fry. “Dies Sunday at Hospital, Struck by Seven Bullets,” the subhead followed.

LaGrange police did not investigate, the courts did not act and the media never pursued his story beyond day one.

It would take 76 years for city officials to admit what really happened: “We failed Austin Callaway.”

The words echoed through LaGrange’s Warren Temple United Methodist Church Thursday night, where residents, police and clergy gathered to remember the 16-year-old in a rare public acknowledgment of a lynching.

“Some would like to see us bury the past and move on,” said Mayor Jim Thornton. “Until we have a full and complete acknowledgment of the past we can never heal.”

‘The past shapes the present’

The story traveled in whispers among African-Americans of that era. But in the absence of official records, media accounts or a gravestone, Callaway’s story was erased from the town’s collective memory. Almost no one in LaGrange today knew Austin Callaway’s name until recently — not his descendants, not the mayor, not even the police chief.

Recognizing the impact that the lynching has had on the police department’s relationship with the African-American community, Police Chief Louis Dekmar sought to rebuild those bridges.

“This is an acknowledgment and an apology,” Dekmar told those gathered in the church Thursday night.

In an interview before the event, Dekmar described the then-now situation succinctly.

“The past shapes the present,” he said.

“No one working here today is responsible for that lynching, but those working here today are impacted by it through the nature of the relationships that are hindered because of it.”

Killing faded from history

Much of the 1940 report of Callaway’s killing was written in passive language, misidentifying the victim as Tom Callaway and failing to give his age. He was 16 years old. “It was reported that shots were fired into Callaway’s head and others struck about the body,” the article said.

The lead was buried, as they say. Publications outside of Georgia, including The New York Times, called it what it was: “Negro Lynched in Georgia.”

“A 16-year-old Negro, charged with an attempted attack on a white woman, was taken from the city jail here early today and lynched,” read the first paragraph of the Associated Press wire that ran in The Times.

A group of six masked men, at least one of whom was armed, had snatched Austin Callaway from jail by forcing the jailer at gunpoint to open his cell, according to the report. A search party later found him about eight miles from LaGrange — with bullet wounds in his head and arm. They brought him to a hospital where he died.

At the urging of a local pastor, the NAACP called for an investigation that never came, and Austin’s name and story faded into history. Until recently, few in this former mill town of about 30,000 some 70 miles south of Atlanta knew or spoke of his story — not the police department, the local chapter of the NAACP, not even his own family.

That has changed, thanks to an unusual joint effort from city officials, the local NAACP branch and a citizens’ group. Their efforts culminated in Thursday’s rare public acknowledgment and attempt to atone for Callaway’s lynching more than 75 years after the fact.

Dekmar said he first found out about the lynching through comments from two African-American women visiting police headquarters. As the women looked at historic photos of members of the force, someone overheard them say “they killed our people.”

The comment was passed on to Dekmar who investigated it and learned about the Callaway case. As he learned more about it he came to discover its lasting impact on the community.

“This in an effort to evolve our relationship and partnership with the African-American community and allow us a city as a whole to move forward,” he said.

“That can only be done if trust is established. That trust can only occur if past wrongs are acknowledged and addressed.”

Callaway’s descendants, who only learned about him recently, welcomed the occasion as a chance to right wrongs and bring about healing in the community.

Deborah Tatum, a descendant of Callaway, learned his name and his story in 2014 while researching genealogy. She was surprised to learn about the terrible secret but could understand why her relatives may have kept it hidden.

“They tried to protect us as much as they could from the bad things happening,” said Tatum, 55, a lifelong resident of LaGrange. “I don’t think they had the luxury of being able to go to the police and or the officials for help. It was such an era of hatred.”

Official acknowledgments rare

Tatum later learned that Dekmar was investigating the killing for the police department. Meanwhile, another local resident, Wesley Edwards, was looking into it, too. Edwards had been shocked to find that there was no official record of what happened.

“Now we’re able to talk about it and move forward. You have to have a conversation about things in order to heal,” she said.

Tatum’s uncle, James Callaway, has a harder time understanding how the killing remained secret so long — or why it happened in the first place.

“Why would they be that down-low and dirty to do something like that to a kid?” he said. “It was like a black mark on the family.”

LaGrange’s event is a rare official acknowledgment of a dark period in the history of the South. The Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, has documented 4,075 racial terror lynchings 12 in Southern states between 1877 and 1950, with few of those ever publicly acknowledged.

CNN found four instances of apologies, including one in 2005 in Abbeville, South Carolina, site of the notorious 1916 lynching of a black farmer named Anthony Crawford at the hands of neighbors. White ministers apologized for racism, church burnings and lynchings, including Crawford’s murder.

‘We need to know the truth about what happened’

The known facts surrounding Callaway’s death have barely changed since those brief 1940 news articles.

“There’s still much about this we don’t even know or understand and there are still people today who don’t even know it happened,” LaGrange NAACP President Ernest Ward said.

“Before we can even apologize we need to know the truth about what happened — so what we want to do first is acknowledge what happened.”

Coming in a moment of heightened racial tensions in America and the fraying of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, Ward hopes LaGrange can be a model of mutual respect and reconciliation.

“When you stop to think about it, the fact that in this day and time the chief of police and the president of the local branch of the NAACP can come together and do what we feel is right for the community as a whole and neither one of us compromised, that’s a powerful thing.”