Lynching of John Campbell

March 7, 1908

On March 8, 1908, dawn arrived in Navasota, just as it did every morning. The fields that surrounded the East Texas town had begun to fill with bluebonnets, and local citizens prepared for a beautiful spring day. Yet the appearance of normality proved deceptive. That very morning, coroner J.L. Francklow had been called to the corner of Washington and Farquhar streets to cut down the body of John Campbell, a black man who had been hung from a telephone pole the previous evening by a mob of local whites. For the Campbell family, waiting for the return of their loved one's tortured body, that Sunday morning proved anything but normal. [1]

The night before, around 11:15 p.m., a crowd of angry white men had surrounded the city jail, where officers held John Campbell, a black ex-convict. Campbell had allegedly assaulted a Grimes County commissioner, J.T. Barry, earlier that afternoon. The local newspaper, the Examiner-Review, reported that two intoxicated black men had pushed Commissioner Barry as they made their way into a saloon. As a result, Barry followed the men into the saloon and started an altercation. At that point, Campbell intervened. After insulting the two black men for their lack of courage, Campbell allegedly cut Barry's throat with a knife. Accounts vary on what happened next, but authorities captured Campbell "after a chase of several miles," quickly arrested him, and charged him with attempted murder. [2]

At the city jail, Campbell was placed in the custody of Deputy Sheriff J.H. Hiel (who himself had only recently been cleared of a murder charge). Hiel and the Grimes County Attorney Michael Spann grew concerned when a white mob surrounded the jail. Newspaper reports later claimed that the officer and attorney tried "to talk the crowd" out of lynching Campbell. Such attempts at diplomacy evidently bore little fruit. In desperation, Mayor Charles J. Kirk ordered the immediate closure of all local saloons. Yet this did little to calm the mob. [3]

For his part, Campbell apparently remained defiant to the end. A former slave born in 1852, he had scars from a life shaped by racial violence. Described as a "vicious character" who had previously served a five-year sentence in the Texas Penitentiary for cutting the throat of a white farmer, Campbell was portrayed as a local "dare devil." Indeed, the Houston Post reported that he sauntered "out of the jail in answer to his name" and told the mob that "he knew what was wanted and was ready to accommodate them." The mob then seized Campbell, dragged him to a nearby corner in front of the Farquhar meat market, and hung him "to a convenient telephone post." Campbell's body was left exposed until the following morning. [4]

Although Campbell had been in police custody before he was lynched, law enforcement officers did not find his violent murder to be a criminal act. In fact, local white leaders including Barry, Heil, Spann, and Kirk could claim membership in a white supremacist organization called the White Man's Union of Grimes County. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when the Grimes County sheriff addressed the lynching in a letter to Texas governor, Thomas Campbell, he explained that peace had returned to town after a "very orderly" lynching. This view of racial violence had long been customary in Grimes County, where at least seven black men had been lynched during the last decade of the nineteenth century. [5]

White controlled newspapers across Texas revealed no more concern for the murder of Campbell than had the local press. The Houston Post, for example, stated that Campbell had been "quietly strung to the telephone pole," and that the lynching had been "done so smoothly and with so little noise that few people not on the street knew of it." The Palestine Daily Herald made a similar argument, noting that "all [was] quiet in Navasota following the lynching of the negro Campbell." [6]

Northern newspapers briefly reported on the murder of Campbell but seemed more taken with the notion of "orderly lynching" than outraged by the murder of an African American. The New York American noted, for example, that it "must have gratified the victim that everything was decorous." The New York Tribune concurred that the lynching "was evidently in imitation of the very orderly violation of the state constitution which the racetrack gamblers of New York have practiced." The editor was "glad to learn that the uncouth ruffians of the great Southwest have at last been touched with the gilt of civilization." [7]

It is important that we recall the contested nature of lynching in the early twentieth century and that we challenge the story of "orderly" violence that appears in the Campbell narrative. As in many other stories of lynching, John Campbell was not only killed, but erased from public memory. Conveniently forgotten, the account of Campbell's "orderly" murder, as well that of others before and after him, remains only in crumbling old newspapers as an urgent warning for our present and future struggles.

City: Navasota, Texas

County: Grimes County

Race or Ethnicity of Victim: Black

Gender of Victim: Male

Age of Victim: Unknown

Alleged Crime: Assault

Manner of Death: Hanged