Photo credits: The New Orleans States
John Hartfield moved from his home in Ellisville, Mississippi to East St. Louis, Illinois in search of a better life.
He returned to Ellisville in 1919 to see his white sweetheart, Ruth Meeks. In Laurel, Mississippi, he accepted work as a hotel porter. When several white males learned of the connection, they resolved to assassinate Hartfield. They blamed Hartfield for raping Meeks, who they said was 18-years-old at the time. She was, however, in her mid-twenties. For a while, Hartfield evaded them but they chased him for many weeks.
Laurel police chief Allen Boutwell solicited funds to sponsor a bloodhound hunting party at the request of Jones County Sheriff Harbison. Hartfield was caught on June 24, 1919, while trying to board a train. He was given over to Sheriff Harbison, who entrusted him to the custody of a deputy and escorted him out of town. He was promptly released by the deputy to an angry white mob.
The Jackson Daily News, the New Orleans States, and other newspapers published headlines stating that “John Hartfield will be lynched by the Ellisville mob at 5:00 this afternoon” and additional text stating that “The officers have agreed to turn him over to the city’s citizens at 4 p.m. when it is expected he will be burned.”
Hartfield had been injured, and a white physician, A. J. Carter treated his wounds — in order to keep him living long enough to be assassinated. On June 26, 1919, around 5:00 PM, a huge, all-white applauding throng gathered to see John Hartfield’s gruesome murder. Mississippi Governor Theodore Bilbo took no action.
Hartfield was lynched from a tall sweet gum tree, then taken to the ground.
Angry white mobsters then hacked apart his corpse for mementos, eventually burning what remained. Following that, memorial lynching postcards were manufactured and distributed. Among whites, a tale arose that Hartfield was hung from the same tree where the Confederates executed three rebels during the Civil War.
Governor Bilbo of Mississippi declared:
“This is a white man’s nation, with a white man’s civilization, and any hope for social and political equality on the side of the Negro race will be crushed in the end.”
Days later, another angry white mob massacred a black man in Perry County for mentioning Hartfield’s killing. Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese leader from the 20th century, acknowledged Hartsfield’s approach in his Selected Works.