Racist History

The Real Lynchings in SAE’s Oklahoma Backyard

If the boys at Sigma Alpha Epsilon are so good at learning songs, perhaps they can learn one about a mother and son murdered by a white mob in their state a century ago.

03.12.15 9:25 AM ET

The fraternity of blacks lynched in Oklahoma has 50 known members, including a man named Ben Dickerson who was spirited away from the jail in Norman just ahead of a mob, only to be seized and hanged a few miles away.

“That was fortunate,” a Norman newspaper said of the 1911 incident. “We would have had a lynching right under the shadow of the state university.”

This being the same University of Oklahoma where members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon were recently filmed on a party bus chanting a racist ditty that included the lines “There will never be a n----r SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he will never sign with me.”

One of the students who have since been expelled has said in a statement that “the song was taught to us.”

The obvious questions are: Who taught it to them, and where did those people learn it?

A Reddit posting suggests that the song was also being sung at SAE’s University of Texas chapter at least two months ago.

A photo taken of an SAE house on another Oklahoma campus shows that one of the members had a confederate flag hanging in his room for passers-by to see, as if the romanticism over the fraternity’s roots in the Antebellum South could be separated from the accompanying evils of slavery and racism.

The song they all should have been taught is one written by the son of an undersheriff said to have been part of a mob that lynched a black woman and her son from an Oklahoma bridge.

The woman was 35-year-old Laura Nelson, who was with her husband, 14-year-old son, and toddler daughter in their cabin outside Paden when a four-man posse arrived in search of a stolen cow on the night of May 4, 1911.

The lawmen found the butchered remnants of one, and the husband, Austin Nelson, later admitted that he had stolen the cow because his kids were hungry.

What happened next remains in some dispute. The most likely scenario is that one of the lawmen moved to disable a shotgun that was hanging on the wall. The teenage son, L.D. Nelson, would later say he thought the lawman intended to kill his father with the shotgun.

The son grabbed another weapon, a rifle. His mother stepped in to wrest it from him and it discharged. The bullet passed through the first lawman’s pant leg and chanced to fatally wound a 35-year-old deputy sheriff named George Loney.

The father was immediately arrested and charged with the theft of “a domestic animal, to wit one cow.” He pleaded guilty and was sent to state prison on a three-year term that might very well have saved his life.

The mother and the son were arrested the day after the shooting and charged with murder. They were denied bail and consigned to the county jail pending arraignment on May 25.

The lawyers for Laura Nelson and her son would later suggest that an intervening preliminary hearing had called into doubt whether the prosecution had enough corroborating evidence to make a prima facie case.

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In another Oklahoma case, in Idabel, local white guys had remedied a weak prosecution performance in a preliminary hearing against a black man named Oscar Martin by simply staging a lynching right then and there in the courtroom.

In the Laura Nelson case, local white guys decided to take more pre-emptive action.

Late on the night of May 24, a mob stormed the jail. Laura Nelson had been allowed to care for her young daughter, Carrie, and the mother is said to have been clutching the girl as she and her son were gagged and dragged away.

Other Oklahoma mobs had been known to shoot as well as hang their victims. They sometimes lowered a victim before he was dead and burned him alive.

“When he was nearly dead, his body was taken down and a fire kindled under it,” a newspaper wrote of the 1906 lynching near Norman of a man named John Fullhood. “The fire soon consumed his body and all that was left was a pile of bones. A hole was dug and all the ashes and bones were gathered up and buried.”

The mob that carried off Laura Nelson and her son is said to have raped her, but it otherwise stuck with just a pair of hemp ropes. Mother and son—she with her arms hanging loose, he with hands bound—were found dangling dead from a bridge the next morning by a black youngster who happened by with, of all things, a cow.

The mother is said to have set little Carrie down by the foot of the bridge as she was being hustled to her execution. A neighbor apparently found the child and took her home.

As word spread, white people came to get a look. A photo of the crowd on the bridge shows numerous kids among those gawking at the dangling corpses.

The more prominent members of the lynch mob are said to have included Charles Guthrie, a real estate broker and local pol who was also an undersheriff at some point. He continued on with his life and had a son he named Woody the following year.

Woody Guthrie grew up to become America’s preeminent troubadour of social justice. He would suggest that part of what formed him was the shock of seeing a postcard reproduction of that photo of the lynching in which his father seems to have played a role. A song the younger Guthrie wrote about the lynching goes in part:

“You can stretch my neck on that old river bridge,
But don’t kill my baby and my son.”

Another song that Woody Guthrie wrote is the one that the boys of SAE should have been taught, along with so much more about fundamental fairness and justice.

The SAE boys showed that they are pretty good at learning lyrics, so they should not have any trouble with these:

“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.”