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“Prominent White Farmer Convicted of Murder” – Moments In Time: April 9, 1921

Newton County Moments In Time

April 9, 1921

In the early 1920s, Georgia’s cotton farmers were faced with labor shortages, the destructive boll weevil, and consistently uncertain markets for their crop.  Those who survived these adversities were forced to drastically change their farming practices.  They used better fertilizing, planting and cultivating practices, introduced insecticides to kill the boll weevil, and diversified into other crops.  But on local farmer, John S. Williams, picked the wrong way to solve his labor shortages.

In February, 1921, two Special Agents of the US Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation showed up unannounced at William’s farm in Jasper County.  They had been sent to investigate reports that Williams had violated Federal laws regarding “peonage” – keeping convict laborers against their will, which was, in fact, little different from slavery.

Faced with spending many years in a Federal prison, the horrified Williams decided to do away with the evidence against him.  Over the next several weeks, Williams and Clyde Manning, a laborer Williams appointed his overseer, murdered eleven of Williams’ black laborers.

Two of the laborers were found drowned in Newton County’s Yellow River, so the trials were held in the Superior Court of Newton COunty.

By today’s standards, Williams and Manning were indicted and tried very quickly.  The murders occurred in February and early March, with the trial being held during the March court term.

Williams continually professed his innocence.  But Manning confessed his part in the murders and testified against Williams.  Both men were convicted.  The unprecedented thing was that, for the first time in Newton County history, a prominent white landowner was convicted of murdering poor ignorant balck criminals, based primarily on the testimony of a poor, ignorant, black fellow defendant.

John S. Williams was convicted of eleven counts of murder on April 9, 1921.  Today – a Newton County Moment In Time.

For additional information on the story of peonage and john Williams’ conviction, see the following sources:

“Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves” by Gregory A. Freeman

“Slavery By Another Name,”  – a Documentary by Georgia Public Broadcasting at PBS.org

Williams’ detailed story reported by Marshall McCart in his “Piedmont Chronicles Blogspot”

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