Remembering African American WWII veterans lost to lynching

by John Vodicka

“First, it confirmed how inextricably interwoven the past is in the present, how heavily that past bears on the future; we cannot talk about Black lives mattering or police brutality without reckoning with the very foundation of this country. We must acknowledge the plantation, must unfold the white sheets, must recall the Black diaspora to understand what is happening now….We’re tired of feeling futile in the face of this ever-present danger, this omnipotent history, predicated as this country is, founded as this country was, on our subjugation.” — Jesmyn Ward

The 2023 Memorial Day holiday weekend is nearly upon us. For me, it will be a time to reflect on Jesmyn Ward’s quote above, which is from her profound 2017 book, “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race.” The book contains powerful essays penned by some of America’s foremost African American activists and thinkers. 

The Memorial Day weekend should also be a time for all of us to remember the 10 known African American WWII veterans who died not in Germany or France or North Africa or Japan or on some remote Pacific Island, but who were lynched by their own countrymen in Georgia. In the United States of America

These 10 men enlisted, perhaps with the hope that fighting for America in the “war to destroy fascism and preserve democracy” would earn them respect and human dignity at home —something they’d not experienced in their own country. 

Instead, these Black soldiers were targeted by white terrorists while they were on active duty or after returning to their homes. White America feared that Black veterans asserting and demanding equality would disrupt the social order built on white supremacy and that Black soldiers would reject their second-class status in the country’s racial hierarchy. These 10 veterans became a threat to the country’s — and especially the South’s, and Georgia’s — caste system. Black WWII veterans threatened to upend the myth of racial superiority. Racial insubordination had to be swiftly and violently crushed. 

Athens’ Veterans Memorial Plaza sits adjacent to the county’s courthouse. The courthouse, in my estimation, is in many respects the present-day place where Black women and men are routinely and systematically subjugated by a system that believes Black lives don’t matter.

I walk through or near Veterans Plaza almost every time I go to observe court proceedings. 

On Friday May 26, 2023, I will carry with me to the Athens Veterans Memorial Plaza Jesmyn Ward’s penetrating words and remind myself once again that our past is “inextricably woven” to the present, and that the past bears mightily on our future. “We must acknowledge the plantation, must unfold the white sheets, must recall the Black diaspora to understand what is happening now.”

I’ll also remember and say the name of each known lynched Georgia WWII veteran. They are listed below. I invite you to join me on May 26 and do the same.

Felix Hall.  In February, 1941, Private Hall went missing the day after an alleged argument with his white boss at the saw mill on the U.S. Army base at Ft. Benning, Ga. His body was discovered two weeks later in the woods on the base. He had been strung up by the neck in a shallow ravine, feet bound by bailing wire, with hands tied behind his back. He was 19 years old. An investigation determined that there was more than one assailant; no arrests were made. The FBI has never released the full details of its investigation. A photograph of Private Hall’s dead body was taken by Ft. Benning military police.

Willie Lee Davis.  An Army corporal, 26-year-old Mr. Davis was shot and killed by Summit, GA Police Chief James Bohannon on July 3, 1943. The soldier was on a two-week-long furlough and was visiting his mother. When the police chief put his hands on Corporal Davis, the veteran objected and a fight broke out, leading to the murder. The War Department initiated an investigation but no action was ever taken against Bohannon. 

George Franks.  “Attempting to Slash Policeman, Negro Killed” read the headline in the January 21, 1944 Atlanta Constitution. This story followed: “George Franks, 34, Negro, of Ellenwood, Ga., was shot and instantly killed last night by policeman G.M. Ellis, reports showed. Franks had been ordered to report to Ft. McPherson (Atlanta) today for induction into the Army. The shooting occurred at 91 Decatur St., when the Negro attempted to slash the policeman with a knife, Ellis reported.”

Curtis Hairston.  In November 1944, Mr. Hairston was discharged from the Army after being diagnosed with dementia. He had previously served overseas. Shortly after returning to his home in LaGrange, Ga., police sought to arrest him because they determined he’d been disorderly at a local café the night before. Mr. Hairston was taken from his family home, shortly after which gunshots were heard. Mr. Hairston’s sister found her brother with a bullet wound to the head at a city dump one block from her home. The police claimed Mr. Hairston “came at them with a knife.” Eyewitnesses saw no knife and described the killing as an execution. Curtis Hairston was just 21 years old.

Maceo Snipes.  In July 1946, Maceo Snipes, having discharged from the Army after serving 30 months in the Pacific theater during the war, became the first African American to vote in Butler (Taylor County), Ga. On July 18, one night after the election, four white men came to Snipes’ family home, pulled him out to the porch and shot him in the back. Mr. Snipes lived long enough to be refused admittance to the local whites-only hospital. He died two days after he was shot. He was 37 years old. The assailants were well-known in the Taylor County community; a coroner’s inquest refused to find any of them culpable in Mr. Snipes’ lynching. Maceo Snipes’ family mostly fled Taylor County. He’s buried in an unmarked grave.

George Dorsey.   On July 25, 1946, a mob of as many as 50 men and women murdered Mr. Dorsey along with his wife Mae Murray Dorsey, and fellow sharecroppers Roger and Dorothy Malcom. The lynching took place below the Moore’s Ford Bridge on the Apalachee River in Walton County, Ga. Private First Class George Dorsey served in the U.S. Army from 1941-45. He fought in the Pacific theater. George Dorsey was 29 years old when he was killed. Despite the fact that the white mob members were unmasked and known to the wider community, and federal and state investigations were conducted followed the lynching incident, no one was ever charged, indicted, prosecuted or convicted for the mass murder.

Walter Lee Johnson.  On September 28, 1946, a white streetcar motorman shot and killed Mr. Johnson, a 22-year-old honorably discharged veteran, in downtown Atlanta, Ga. Mr. Johnson, an Army veteran, spent three years serving his country in Europe. The killer, W.D. Lee, claimed Mr. Johnson swore, cursed and attempted to hit him after Lee got off the streetcar to confront the soldier. Lee shot Mr. Johnson once and tried again but his pistol jammed. Lee said later that the only reason he stopped shooting was because of the faulty pistol. After Mr. Johnson was shot, white men from nearby businesses with guns stopped Mr. Johnson’s friends from carrying his body away from the incident site. W.D. Lee was charged with “disorderly conduct and shooting another” and arrested. He was driving his streetcar the very next day. In October, an Atlanta judge dismissed the case, saying he believed “no jury on earth would convict (Lee).”

Joe Nathan Roberts.  In June 1947, Mr. Roberts, living in Philadelphia and studying at Temple University on the GI Bill, returned to visit his family in the small town of Sardis, Ga. A group of white men confronted Mr. Roberts after he allegedly refused to call them “sir.” Later that night the men abducted Mr. Roberts from his parents’ home and shot him to death. 

Isaiah Nixon.  On September 8, 1948, a group of white men shot and killed 28-year-old Black veteran Isaiah Nixon outside of his home in front of his wife Sallie and their six children, just hours after he had defied threats and voted in the local gubernatorial primary election in the Montgomery County, Ga. town of Alston. Two white men, Johnnie and Jim Johnson, were arrested and charged with his death but later acquitted by all-white juries.

Lemuel Penn.  On July 11, 1964, retired Army Lt. Col. Penn was returning to his Washington D.C. home with two other WWII veterans after a Reserves training at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga. Driving through Athens, in the middle of the night, the Penn vehicle was followed out of town by three members of the Athens KKK. When Penn and his companions reached the Broad River Bridge in Madison County, the Klan car drove along side and at least two shotgun blasts were fired into the soldiers’ car. Penn was driving and was killed instantly. Three Klansmen were indicted and a sham trial was held in Danielsville. Two were acquitted by an all-white jury. The third, who was prepared to testify against his fellow Kluxers, recanted. He was never brought to trial. Lt. Col. Penn is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. He was 49 when he was murdered.

Please plan to attend an hour-long Lynching Remembrance Vigil on Friday, May 26, noon-1 p.m. at Athens Veterans Memorial Plaza.

John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street UMC and is one of the leaders of the Courtwatch program.