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Carrollton Courthouse Massacre

(1886) In February of 1886, Ed and Charley Brown, who were both part Indian and part African-American, were delivering molasses when they ran into James Liddell, a white man, spilling molasses on Liddell. A fight ensued in which Lidell and Ed Brown exchanged heated words. Later, Liddell, who was joined by a group of men, had another encounter with the Brown brothers. This encounter turned into a shootout during which Liddell was injured. The Brown brothers were jailed two days later. A white mob came to the jail, presumably looking for Ed Brown, but got the wrong prisoner. The armed and masked men demanded that Sheriff T.T. Hamilton turn over the keys to the jail. The mob then took Will McKinney, a nineteen year old African-American who had been convicted of manslaughter the year before, and shot and hung him.

On March 12, 1886, the Brown brothers charged James Liddell and six other men with assault with the intent to kill. Before the trial, there were warnings to both African-Americans and whites to keep away from the courthouse on the day of the trial. On March 17, 1886, the trial commenced. Disregarding the warnings, a large number of African-Americans were in the courtroom to witness the trial. During the trial, a mob of armed white men rode into town and entered the courthouse from all four entrances. They flooded upstairs into the courtroom where gunfire erupted. Since the mob was blocking the doorway of the courtroom, the only way out of the building was through two large windows. Many jumped out of the windows to escape.

One newspaper explained, “The crowd around the courthouse, all being strangers, supposed each man trying to escape one of the Browns.”The mob shot at anyone coming out of the windows. There are conflicting reports of the number of men that died that day. In his book, The Negro in Mississippi 1865-1890, Vernon Lane Wharton writes that “ten met immediate death and a large number of others died later from their wounds.”It is known that all the men that died that day were African-American and that both Brown brothers were killed that day.

After the massacre, there was public outrage at the events that occurred on March 17, 1886. The Raymond Gazette called for the identification and punishment of the murderers. Wharton observes, “This seems to be the first example of such a suggestion in the entire history of the period.”The Jackson Clarion also expressed outrage, but indicated that it was unrealistic to think that the members of the mob would be punished for their actions in Carrollton. The editor of the Clarion wrote, “To such considerations we can close our eyes and our ears; but we cannot be blind or deaf to the appeals of the weak who claim and deserve our protection, nor can we be unmindful of the indelible blot that has been put upon the reputation of the State.”Wharton writes that, “such a stand on the part of a paper that for years had insisted that reports of such affairs be suppressed was an indication of remarkable progress.”The massacre was reported across the country. Newspapers reported that even Southerners who were used to a violent racial climate were shocked.

One reason suggested for the violence that occurred in Carrollton, Miss., on March 17, 1886, is that the whites were afraid of the African-Americans gaining political power. Freed slaves were given the right to vote in 1867 as part of Reconstruction and the majority of the voters were African-American. At the time of the 1880 census, Carroll County’s population was 56% black and 44% white. The Cleveland Gazette wrote an article about the Carrollton massacre and explained that “it was, in short, plainly and beyond a doubt a deliberate, cold-blooded massacre, the sole aim of which was to cow the colored voters of the whole region.”The Gazette writes that the effect was that “the colored voters [were] duly intimidated by the wholesale slaughter of their fellows. And the solidity of the South [was] strengthened by the cement of innocent blood.”

After the massacre “balls were lodged in all the walls, ceiling, doors, window sash, piercing the glass, mutilating the benches, etc.” Carrollton native and writer, Elizabeth Spencer, describes seeing the courtroom as a child: “At what age did I first actually see it—the shattered plaster, left just as it had been at the end of a fateful day, the gray lathes exposed beneath, pocked with countless bullet holes?”There is no longer any physical evidence of the massacre at the Carrollton Courthouse. The only evidence that remains is a plaque saying that the courthouse was restored in 1992.


Susie James, Carrollton Courthouse “Riot”of 1886, GREENWOOD COMMONWEALTH, March 12, 1996.

VERNON LANE WHARTON, THE NEGRO IN MISSISSIPPI 1865-1890 223 (Harper & Row 1965) (1947).

Susie James, They Didn’t Want Us To Hate, CLARION LEDGER, Dec. 9, 2001, at 1B.

GreeneSpace, (August 11, 2005, 10:52 AM).

The Carrollton Massacre, CLEVELAND GAZETTE, April 17, 1886, at 2, available at

Bingham Duncan, A History of Carroll County From 1871 (Aug. 4, 1982) (unpublished Masters thesis, University of Mississippi) (on file with J.D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi).


George, James Zacharian (J.Z.)

One of Carroll County’s most prominent citizens was James Zacharian (J.Z.) George. George fought both in the Mexican War and the Civil War. He practiced law in both Carrollton, Miss., and Jackson. In 1879, he was made a judge on the Mississippi Supreme Court and was immediately elected to be Chief Justice. The following year, George resigned this position to become a U.S. Senator.

One of Senator George’s most significant contributions to Mississippi history was his participation in drafting the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. George is considered to be the principle author of the constitution and is specifically credited with drafting the suffrage clause.

The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 is significant to civil rights history because it established the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters that was copied across the nation. In 1890, African-Americans were not only the majority in Carroll County, but in Mississippi as a whole. As a result, the state constitutional convention undertook ways to constitutionally disenfranchise black citizens.

Previously, Mississippi law only required that a male over the age of twenty-one have lived in the state for six months and the county for one month in order to register to vote, but Article 12 of the 1890 constitution added new requirements. Section 241 increased the residency requirement to two years in the state and one year in the county. Section 243 imposed a two dollar poll tax on every inhabitant between the ages of twenty-one and sixty. The 1890 constitution also required a literacy test; before it was amended in 1954, Section 244 required that the registrant be able to read a section of the constitution, or, if unable to read, be able to understand a section of the constitution when read to him or give a “reasonable interpretation”of the section.

The 1890 constitution was successful in disenfranchising black citizens. In Mississippi, African-American voter registration was only one-tenth of white voter registration. This disenfranchisement was particularly important because many other civil rights are connected to being registered to vote, such as holding office and, until 1960, serving on juries. Most of these requirements for voter registration have now been repealed.


Gabriel J. Chin, The “Voting Rights Act of 1867”: The Constitutionality of Federal Regulation of Suffrage During Reconstruction, 82 N.C. L. REV. 1581, 1592 (2004).

HUEY B. HOWERTON, ET AL., YESTERDAY’S CONSTITUTION TODAY, 6-7 (Edward H. Hobbs ed., University of Mississippi 1960).

Miss. Const. art. XII, § 241 (amended 1972).

Gabriel J. Chin, Rehabilitating Unconstitutional Statutes, 71 U. CIN. L. REV. 421, 422 (2002) (citing U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS: THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT: TEN YEARS AFTER, 43 (1975)).

Goldsby v. Harpole

(1954) Another concern about the disenfranchisement of African-American citizens was their exclusion from serving on juries. Bryant Nelms and his wife Moselle McCorkle Nelms were shot on September 4, 1954 at Nelms’ gas station and dairy bar near Vaiden, Mississippi. The Nelms, who were both white, were shot by one or more African-Americans firing from a car after Nelms asked them to leave. Mrs. Nelms was killed in the incident. Robert Lee Goldsby, among others, was arrested later that day. Goldsby was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Goldsby appealed to the Fifth Circuit asserting the systematic exclusion of African-Americans from the jury lists. The court considered this issue in Goldsby v. Harpole. The Fifth Circuit found that more than 57% of the population of Carroll County, Mississippi, was non-white at the time of the 1950 Census. Furthermore, none of the Carroll County officials called as witnesses could recall any African-Americans being on jury lists and the only two proven African-Americans who were registered to vote in the county died before 1954. From this evidence, the court concluded that African-Americans were systematically excluded from serving on the jury. The court gave the state eight months to retry Goldsby and mandated that “[any] such re-trial must of course be before a jury from which Negroes have not been systematically excluded, or before some court or tribunal so constituted as not to violate his constitutional rights.”


Goldsby v. Harpole, 263 F.2d 71, 73 (5th Cir. 1959).

Beckwith, Byron De La

Medgar Evers was killed on June 12, 1963, and in 1994, some thirty years later, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of murdering Evers. Although originally from California, Beckwith bought seventy acres of rural property in Carroll County, Mississippi. Beckwith intended that the property be used as a retreat for himself and his friends in the Ku Klux Klan. His plans were to “establish his own racist movement, where he could preach his ideas and theology to those who wanted to listen.”Beckwith envisioned a firearms range, offices, barracks, and gardens that would serve as a retreat. Beckwith married Thelma Lindsay Neff in 1983 and they moved to Signal Mountain in Tennessee.

Beckwith also registered to vote in Carroll County. While he was jailed in Tennessee in 1991, The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, ran articles about Beckwith’s eligibility to vote in Carroll County. Apparently, Beckwith contacted several law firms in Tennessee and no one was able to help him. Beckwith then contacted the Circuit Clerk of Carroll County, who was an old friend, and was reassured that he could still vote in Carroll County. In a letter to Beckwith on March 6, 1986, the Circuit Clerk wrote, “As long as I am Circuit Clerk, you can vote at Black Hawk. Of course, if someone contested it we might have to do different.”The Carroll County Election commission voted on August 6, 1991, to allow Beckwith to vote in Mississippi’s gubernatorial race. Commissioner Edward Corder explained that “Beckwith has a ‘lifetime residency’ in Carroll County through a 1984 deed on property Beckwith sold.”


REED MASSENGILL, PORTRAIT OF A RACIST: THE MAN WHO KILLED MEDGAR EVERS? 2 (St. Martin’s Press 1994)., Medgar Evers, (last visited April 15, 2007).

See Jerry Mitchell, Beckwith Eligible To Vote In Carroll County, Circuit Clerk Says, CLARION LEDGER, June 9, 1991, at 1A; Jerry Mitchell, Carroll County Says Beckwith Can Vote From Tenn. Jail, CLARION LEDGER, Sept. 4, 1991, at 1B.

Voter Registration in Carroll

(1960’s) The Voting Rights Act worked to counteract the harsh requirements of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution. In The Voting Rights Act:the first months, the United States Commission on Civil Rights collected data from selected counties in Mississippi shortly after the Voting Rights Act was passed. The non-white population of voting age in Carroll County was 2,704 at the time of the 1960 Census. In 1964, five non-white residents of Carroll County were registered to vote. During August and September of 1965, 167 non-whites were registered to vote in Carroll County. The commission also reported the number of whites and African-Americans that were accepted and rejected in selected Mississippi counties. As of September 25, 1965, 48 whites and 167 African-Americans were accepted as registered voters. County registration officials did not keep rejection statistics by race but estimated that two whites and two African-Americans had been rejected as registered voters.



Spencer, Elizabeth

Elizabeth Spencer was born in Carrollton, Mississippi on July 19, 1921. In 1953, Spencer went to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship. She wrote The Voice at the Back Door while there. Summarizing her novel, Elizabeth Spencer says, “It takes place in a small Mississippi county seat around the late ’40’s and concerns a race for county sheriff in which the hero, Duncan Harper, a one-time Ole Miss football star, is persuaded to enter. His fine but somewhat simplistic character leads him to believe that a new approach to race can be introduced in this traditional society.”

The book also deals with events that occurred in the generation before. Years earlier a white mob killed a group of African-Americans at the courthouse seeking a hearing. In her memoir, Elizabeth Spencer writes about the old crime that no one would ever talk about. The old crime was the Carrollton Courthouse Massacre of 1886. Spencer recalls seeing the bullet holes in the courtroom but never really understanding exactly what happened March 17, 1886. Spencer remembers that when it came time to write The Voice at the Back Door, she just made up a story about the massacre. She says, “But the fact that it happened in the courthouse, the center of a Southern town, the symbol of justice; and the fact that county politics centered there too—these two things gave me my tale.”

Spencer came back to Mississippi with her unpublished novel to find that things had changed while she was away. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education. Shortly after, in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in the nearby Mississippi Delta. Spencer writes:

“I realized to my horror that in my absence from the state a precipitate moment had come and gone, and that the local scene which in my manuscript I had hopefully allowed to contain the action—with its many ramifications in love and blessing—had already as good as vanished.”

Though Spencer’s character, Duncan Harper, seemed “hopelessly idealistic”in the changing climate of the South, Spencer ultimately decided to publish the book as she had written it.


ELIZABETH SPENCER, THE VOICE AT THE BACK DOOR xviii (McGraw-Hill Book, Co. 1965) (1956)., Elizabeth Spencer Works, (last visited April 15, 2007).


347 U.S. 483 (1954).

Desegregation in Carroll

(1965) Until 1965, Carroll County maintained separate schools for white students and African-American students. In Carrollton, the white students attended J.Z. George High School, and the African-American students attended Marshall High School. Similarly, in Vaiden, the white students attended Vaiden High School, and the African-American students attended the North Vaiden School (later known as Percy A. Hathorn Public School, which is now closed, and all students go to J.Z. George High School in Carrollton).

During the summer of 1965, the parent of an African-American student in Carroll County filed a complaint with the office of U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. On Aug. 23, the petitioner met with school officials to request desegregation of the schools because Marshall School suffered from a lack of facilities, such as access to only one typewriter for students taking a typing class.

On August 26, 1965, twenty-seven African-American students attempted to register at J.Z. George High School, which was still an all-white school. The students were given transfer slips to be submitted to the board for consideration. Carroll County had opted to forfeit federal funds in order to retain segregation in the schools. As a result, the school lost its home economics course and its vocational program.

On August 31, Judge Claude F. Clayton, United States District Judge at Oxford heard arguments from Carroll County school officials as to why an injunction should not be issued to end segregation in the county schools. The judge ruled that by the following day the county must submit a plan for desegregating the first grade, twelfth grade and two others. The county had to also submit a plan for desegregating four grades per year for the next three years. The order from Judge Clayton required that students be permitted to transfer from one school to another in order to take classes not offered at the original school. Additionally, it required teacher salaries and the student-teacher ratio to be equal at all schools. The judge also demanded that new students entering the county be allowed to select their school regardless of whether that grade has been integrated. On Sept. 2, Carroll County school officials announced that as of September 8 they would integrate grades one, two, three and twelve. On September 8, African-American students enrolled in the all-white schools in Carroll County without incident.

In 1965, Carrollton residents established Carroll Academy, a private school offering pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. The student body is reported to be almost 100% white.


Negroes Apply At Carrollton, Greenwood Commonwealth, Aug. 26, 1965, at 1., Vaiden’s Schools, (last visited April 15, 2007).

Tuesday Hearing for Carrollton School System, Greenwood Commonwealth, Aug. 30, 1965, at 1.

Four Grades Named to Mix at Carrollton, Greenwood Commonwealth, Sept. 2, 1965, at 1.

Negroes Enter Carrollton Schools Today, Greenwood Commonwealth, Sept. 8, 1965, at 1., Carroll Academy, (last visited April 15, 2007).