Lynching in the Novels of Sutton E. Griggs

By John Grusser

On August 19, 2018, Rudolph Giuliani, legal spokesperson for US President Donald Trump, declared on NBC's Meet the Press program, "truth isn't truth." In many ways, this statement represents the apotheosis of the current era in which inconvenient truths are regularly dismissed as "fake news," and people in the United States and elsewhere increasingly get their information from sources skewed by partisanship. More than a century ago, Africans Americans found themselves in a similar society in which the truth about mob violence, the denial of their civil rights, the effects of segregation, and the sexual exploitation of women of color was not recognized as truth.

As one of the few Southern black novelists of the era, Sutton E. Griggs addressed his countrymen’s denial of the truth in five long works of fiction between 1899 and 1908. In a pamphlet promoting his third novel, he characterizes storytelling as a form of warfare, predicting that thenceforth "the scene of battle is to be the family fireside, where the American people are to learn from books what to think and do with regard to the Negro" and declaring that blacks must themselves turn to literature to drive home the truth because the "man who has an iron heel upon his fellow's brow must not be conceded a monopoly of telling how it feels."

Sutton Elbert Griggs was born in Chatfield, Texas, in 1872 to former slaves Allen Ralph Griggs, originally from Georgia, and Emma Hodge Griggs, originally from Kentucky. The family moved Navarro County to Dallas in 1875, where Griggs’ father became the pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church. At the age of thirteen, he entered Bishop College, a black institution in Marshall, Texas, that his father had helped to found, graduating in 1890. He then worked as a teacher and assistant principal in the segregated Dallas public schools and played an active role in the Dallas Literary Society and Debating Club before enrolling in Richmond Theological Seminary, from which he earned a Bachelor of Divinity in 1894. He was a founder, editor, and writer for the Richmond-based Virginia Baptist newspaper, participated in state and national Baptist conventions, and between 1896 and 1899 served as the pastor of the Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Portsmouth and the First Baptist Church in nearby Berkley, now part of Norfolk. In 1899, he published his first novel and relocated to Nashville where he worked on the editorial staff of the National Baptist Publishing Board, became pastor of the East Nashville First Baptist Church, and founded the Orion Publishing Company, which issued four of his novels. In 1913, he moved to Memphis where assumed the pastorate at Tabernacle Baptist Church and started the National Public Welfare League, which regularly published his books and pamphlets. He was instrumental in establishing and was chosen as the first president of the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville. Over thirty years later, several of its students, living in Griggs Hall, played pivotal roles in the Civil Rights Movement. After Tabernacle closed in 1931, Griggs led the Hopewell Baptist Church in Denison, Texas, and in 1932 he moved to Houston where early the next year he died.

In his novels, Griggs uses the word "lynch" (in various forms) forty-three times: twelve times in Imperium in Imperio (1899), eight times in Overshadowed (1901), once in Unfettered (1902), twenty times in The Hindered Hand; Or, the Reign of the Repressionist (1905), and twice in Pointing the Way (1908). Throughout his fictional corpus, Griggs addresses issues at the heart of civil rights legal cases on the local, state, and US Supreme Court levels and depicts instances of white-on-black violence that are at times nothing short of surreal. In most cases, he roots these scenes in events taken from the headlines of the day and occurrences that he witnessed personally.

In Imperium in Imperio, Griggs uses lynching to indict racist science and underscore the federal government's inability and/or refusal to protect the civil rights of its black citizens. On first seeing the physique of Belton Piedmont, a small-town Louisiana doctor longs to cut him into pieces and exhibit the black man’s body parts to other physicians. He makes an arrangement to trade a keg of choice whiskey for Piedmont's corpse, on the condition that it be relatively unscathed, should the local Klan-like organization find a reason for lynching him. When the vigilantes have the pretext they need, they hang Piedmont from a tree and shoot him in the back of the head but do not actually kill him before turning him over to the doctor. Regaining consciousness during the vivisection, Piedmont feigns death, kills the man who would have dissected him, and makes his escape. Branded "sensational" by some literary critics, this scene certainly strains credulity. Nevertheless, it serves to portray in a vivid manner how the scientific community has worked in concert with white mobs to brutalize and commodify black bodies. In the novel's final chapters, the lynching of US Postmaster Felix Cook (based on the February 1898 killing of Frazier Baker by a mob in Lake City, South Carolina) and the national government's unwillingness to punish the culprits bring the Imperium, a secret black organization dating to Revolutionary times, to its moment of truth. Piedmont, the organization's Secretary of State, proposes that African Americans move en masse to Texas and take over the state politically. Meanwhile, Bernard Belgrave, the Imperium's President, advocates attacking the United States militarily and establishing an independent black empire in Texas.

In Overshadowed, Griggs uses lynching to expose political and legal corruption. A Virginia legislator organizes the lynching of an innocent man so that he can attempt--but fail--to prevent it in order to win the black vote and get reelected. A lifelong temperance advocate, Griggs depicts the wanton killing of a defenseless young black woman by intoxicated white men in rural Tennessee in Unfettered. In doing so, he uses lynching in this novel, as he does in his others, to connect alcohol consumption with not only mob rule but also homicidal and degenerate tendencies, impoverished and unsafe living conditions, and shocking and deadly violence.

Lynching in Griggs's fourth and longest novel highlights the inequality and iniquity of the criminal justice system, racist violence against women, and the "sensational" reality of white mob violence. Two of the most seemingly surreal scenes in the writer's fiction appear in The Hindered Hand. In Chapter 7, more than a thousand people line a bridge to watch the end of the pursuit and the fatal shooting of a teenager after he flees the courthouse to avoid being taken to the brutal county farm for a trivial offense. The episode is based on the killing of Robert Howard in the waters below Nashville's Woodland Street Bridge in 1902, an event extensively covered by the local press that Griggs in his notes to the text claims to have seen firsthand. Similarly, in Chapter 20, the portrayal of a lynching in front of a Mississippi African American church, in which a mob elaborately tortures, mutilates, and incinerates an innocent black couple, meticulously duplicates the February 1904 Doddsville, Mississippi, killing of Luther Holbert and his wife, an outrage that received widespread national attention. Although some literary critics have labeled them "sensational," Griggs, in fact, models these scenes on actual occurrences and renders them with considerable scrupulousness. If they seem surreal, that is precisely his point: the ferocious levels of judicial, police, and mob violence routinely directed at African Americans in the early 1900s exceed what people then and now are willing to believe is possible in the United States.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Griggs had become disillusioned about the ability of fiction to improve US race relations and he did not write another novel after Pointing the Way. However, he continued to believe in the power of the printed word to effect social change, publishing over thirty nonfictional texts between 1909 and the end of his life. In a lengthy 31 August 1908 Letter to the Editor of the white Nashville American newspaper, Griggs made one of his most explicit public statements about lynching, choosing not to emphasize its demoralizing effect on African Americans or to assert the innocence of the murdered black man but rather to spell out how the horrific practice is affecting white people, American ideals, and the future of the United States and other nations. Referring to a lynching three days earlier in nearby Murfreesboro, he claims that the mob murdered two men: "One of the victims lynched was . . . a depraved colored man. So far as he is concerned, few tears will be shed for him. His own race views him with abhorrence, for he has added just that much to its load of shame." "But," Griggs goes on to state, "along with him there was another man lynched. His name was Law. He was the favorite child of the imperious Anglo-Saxon race, and it has been through him that her great civilization has been wrought and her every hope for the future was bound up in him. . . . All citizens loving their homes, their country and their God, laboring to move the world forward toward the good, were depending upon that virile son of the Anglo-Saxon race, Law, to preserve and transmit all that they achieved." He then poses a series of questions: "Is it not too great a price for the Anglo-Saxon race to pay, to lynch its noblest child, in order to wreak vengeance upon a depraved son of Africa? Would it not have been far better to have spared this Anglo-Saxon offspring and to have given this colored man into his stern hands rather than to have lynched him along with the accused? . . . If there be this continuous lynching of the Law, will he not eventually die?" Griggs concludes by making clear the consequences of unchecked mob violence: "when the reverence for law finally dies out of the bosoms of men, and discontent shall feel free to lay its hands on whatever he may covet regardless of the law, the world will indeed have fallen on evil times."