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Smoky Water Elegy

Up on the Chickasawhay River just north of Shubuta, Mississippi, is a steel truss bridge largely forgotten to time. You can’t reach the bridge by land. The road it connects, East Street, is no longer in service. If you go toward the bridge from Shubuta, you’re stopped by padlocked cattle gates, big orange highway signs and bills forbidding hunting and trespassing. Beyond that, a dirt path cleared for power lines soon curves out of view. You realize the bridge is extremely off limits. But no one is crossing the Chickasawhay at that point anyhow. These days around Shubuta there’s very little commerce or recreation, no industry, almost no migration.  It wasn’t always so. Shubuta (pronounced shuh-BOO-duh) was once a mill town, a textile center and an agricultural nexus. Nestled at the bottom edge of Clarke County, it once thrived as a trading post between Meridian and Mobile, but when the town’s population peaked more than a century ago, the steel truss bridge over the Chickasawhay (pronounced CHICK-uh-suh-hay) had already outlasted its usefulness. It became even less necessary when a four-lane highway was built a few miles to the west, bypassing the town of Shubuta and further isolating it from commercial traffic.  Yet the Shubuta bridge is anything but insignificant. It also goes by another, more colloquial name: the Hanging Bridge. This name refers not to its engineering, but to its history as the site of two documented lynchings that resulted in the deaths of six black Shubuta residents.  The first lynching, in December 1918, occurred after four black farmhands were indicted in the assassination of their white employer. Of the farmhands, 22-year-old Major Clark confessed to the shooting, while his younger brother, Andrew Clark, and the sisters Maggie and Alma Howze were implicated as co-conspirators. On the night after their preliminary hearing, the power went out across Shubuta and a mob occupying more than a dozen automobiles convened outside the jailhouse. The deputy sheriff surrendered the Clarks and Howzes, and the next morning their bodies were found hanging from the deck of the Shubuta bridge, two on either side. From there they were loaded onto a mule cart and hauled into town, where, after relatives refused to claim the corpses, they were placed in pine coffins and hastily buried outside the town’s white cemetery.  The second lynching, in October 1942, occurred after two black teenage boys were accused of attempting to rape a white girl. Despite conflicting accounts, town officials detained the boys, Ernest Green and Charlie Lang, and rushed them up north to the county jail in Quitman. Later that week, the town marshal and de facto jailer was overtaken by an anonymous mob while Green and Lang were abducted into the night. They were discovered the next morning hung from the same bridge as the Clarks and Howzes years before. Again the victims’ relatives refused to claim their bodies, and by noon that same day Green and Lang were buried in pine coffins outside the town’s white cemetery.  Neither of these lynchings led to an arrest. They were largely dismissed by local officials, many of whom were not-so-subtly implicated in the acts themselves. And when outsiders arrived in Clarke County to investigate, they discovered a culture of insularity, obstruction and resistance.  The Shubuta lynchings are now obscure enough to seem like folklore, but they’re not. They are documented fact. They were the subject of newspaper editorials, civil rights debates, even a protest poem by Langston Hughes titled “The Bitter River.” Yet today you could pass through Shubuta and find no evidence they ever happened. There are no murals, no roadside markers, and certainly no museums or interpretive centers. Even the gravesites of the six victims are unmarked. And in the absence of memorials, there is no structure more emblematic of the region’s sordid history and collective ambivalence than the Shubuta bridge.  When I was a graduate student in nearby Hattiesburg, I kayaked beneath the Shubuta bridge. I competed twice in the Great Chickasawhay Race, a paddling event covering 22 river miles from Shubuta to Waynesboro. I first learned about the bridge from an article and amateur news video I came across in 2016 while searching for local campgrounds. Although the article and video were inaccurate, as I would later discover, at the time they were among the very few sources online about the bridge or the lynchings. Both featured the same unsettling photo, in which the bodies of Ernest Green and Charlie Lang are suspended from the bridge while more than forty townspeople span the deck, posing for a photographer on the water below.  I was intrigued by the bridge, though less for its backstory than its structural properties. Bridges fascinate me the way seashells or cathedrals or sports cars fascinate other people. Against all common logic they defy gravity and land erosion, and like railroads they embody the ambitious ideals of American expansion and manifest destiny. I’m a bridge nut. Back in my home state of South Dakota, I even worked on a bridge and concrete crew for the Department of Transportation. That in mind, I meant to watch for the Shubuta bridge my first summer in the Great Chickasawhay Race.  As it happened, no sooner had I launched my kayak than I spotted an ancient-looking truss bridge immediately downriver from the Shubuta boat ramp. You couldn’t miss it. The bridge was all frame, like the bones of an animal picked clean and left to bleach in the open sun. Vines wrapped around the struts and posts, and barn swallows had left markings of waste along the undercarriage. The bridge looked weak and obsolete, its beams so thin you could model them accurately with toothpicks and popsicle sticks. Its persistence seemed an enormous feat of civil engineering. I didn’t have time to linger, though. The race soon began, and out of the chute I had to navigate other canoeists and kayakers.  The Chickasawhay is a mild, muddy river, and accordingly the name Shubuta derives from the Choctaw word meaning cloudy or smoky water. In dry periods the river is prone to shallows and snags, and paddlers who try cutting corners will often dredge their keels through imperceptible sandbars. From the outset near Shubuta I drafted behind the other, swifter boats, between lush, leafy trees and beneath large dark birds overhead. And then after a mile the riverbed curved and I saw, oddly, another steel truss bridge, younger and more muscular, yet in many ways similar to the previous one.  The two bridges had me confused. I wasn’t sure which was the site where the Clark brothers, the Howze sisters, Ernest Green and Charlie Lang had been hung. Perhaps it made no difference. For a moment I thought to set down my paddle and be still, as though honoring a moment of silence at a sporting event, but what that might accomplish I wasn’t sure. As I understood it then, the Shubuta bridge was merely a symbol of abstract violence, a violence I lacked both the knowledge and experience to interpret.  I must have hesitated in my thoughts, because other paddlers now steered around me, navigating toward the current at the far bank. So without delay I dismissed the two bridges and charged forward on the dark, twisting river. 

One year later, the researcher Jason Morgan Ward visited Hattiesburg to speak about the Shubuta bridge. Ward is a professor of history—then at Mississippi State University, now at Emory—and author of two books documenting American race relations, most recently Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century. His lecture was hosted by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Mississippi. It took place on a rainy Monday in June, one month before I was registered once again to compete in the Great Chickasawhay Race.  Jason Morgan Ward is a young scholar, short in stature but large in presence. He grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Duke University, taught elementary school in the Mississippi Delta, then as a graduate student at Yale began publishing research on segregation and racial politics in the American South. He is a serious man. On this night in Hattiesburg he showed almost no sense of humor, not that his subject matter invited humor. Dressed in a crisp shirt and sport coat, Ward conducted himself very much as a professor. He was at times gruff, almost willfully aloof, a posture I later recognized as intentional.  Ward spoke this night about the investigations into the 1918 and 1942 Shubuta lynchings. First, however, he made clear, one should know that these lynchings weren’t isolated incidents. In 1918 alone in Mississippi, there were also documented lynchings in Natchez, Poplarville and Hazlehurst, at least two of which were in response to the alleged murders of whites. When the NAACP released its pamphlet Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889–1918, it tallied 3,224 total lynchings, about three-quarters of whom were blacks and the other quarter whites. (For the same period, the Tuskegee Institute counted 3,135 lynching deaths; further research has estimated both totals to be somewhat low.) And while Georgia, Mississippi and Texas were the worst offenders, only six of the then 48 states recorded no lynchings at all.  It was the NAACP, in fact, which sought most feverishly to expose the lynching epidemic and encourage legislation against it. Among the organization’s early leaders was Walter F. White, a light-skinned black man who canvassed the American South passing as Caucasian and gathering intelligence on racial violence. In 1918, White visited Shubuta posing as a traveling hair-straightener salesman, thus evading suspicion as he conversed openly with the local black community. Afterward he produced a report—a version of which was later published in The Crisis, the NAACP journal edited by W.E.B. Du Bois—that detailed the brutality of the lynchings and characterized them, in the words of Jason Morgan Ward, as “a community-sanctioned action.”  Lynchings in the United States declined dramatically in the years to come. In tandem, opposition to vigilante extremism became more vocal at the state and federal levels. Whereas Mississippi governor Theodore Bilbo had stated he would tell the NAACP “to go to hell” following the 1918 Shubuta lynchings, governor Paul B. Johnson publicly denounced the 1942 lynchings and dispatched FBI agents from the Jackson field office to investigate. Even so, the efforts of those agents—led by John Falkner, cousin to the novelist William Faulkner—seemed motivated less by criminal prosecution than by public relations. As a Meridian newspaper noted, black residents in Clarke County considered the FBI’s investigation to be an empty gesture.  Once again, fact-gathering was left to members outside the community. First was Victor Bernstein, a Jewish reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier who conducted numerous interviews to reveal for his northern readers the spate of mob violence in the American South. Bernstein’s attention to Shubuta was diverted, however, by yet another black lynching only five days later in the nearby town of Laurel. And there was Sara Craigen Kennedy, a white sorority alumna from Alabama who questioned Clarke County residents under the guise of a quantitative survey on racial attitudes, the true purpose of which was to ply details of the recent lynchings and collate them into reports for the NAACP.  As Ward explained it, the most daring and consequential investigations into the Shubuta lynchings were led by independent parties—journalists, civil rights groups and activists for social justice. Their findings ran contrary to the tidy narratives touted elsewhere, which seemed intent on dismissing the violence and obscuring its origins. To wit, one newspaper referred to the assailants in 1918 only as “unknown parties,” and a coroner’s jury in 1942 declared that the boys were hanged “by parties unknown.” Were it not for White, Bernstein and Kennedy, the details of the Shubuta lynchings might have remained forever suppressed.  After an hour or so, Ward opened the floor to questions. First to speak was a man who identified himself as the grandson of the Quitman jailor on the night Ernest Green and Charlie Lang were abducted. In Ward’s account, the mob party had smothered the jailor with a blanket and stolen his keys, but this man disputed that claim. He said his grandfather had always insisted there was no blanket, and he asked why Ward included this detail in his book. It was a trivial point, but the man’s motive was clear: he meant to undermine Ward’s research methods, proving them biased or incomplete. Ward responded that in reconstructing the lynching narratives he’d relied mostly on archival sources: newspaper accounts and federal case files. Next, a woman argued that Ward’s book had done great harm to Shubuta, scaring away industry and reinforcing the town’s low reputation. She was 89 years old, she said, a lifelong Shubutan. She claimed Ward had gotten only one side of the story—that of the blacks and the NAACP—and had subsequently vilified Shubuta’s white community. She reminded him she’d sent a letter voicing these same concerns.  It was then I came to understand Ward’s brusque demeanor: he was anticipating this criticism. He must have known from the early responses to Hanging Bridge that he was entering a forum that would be resistant, if not hostile, to his research. To his subjects in Shubuta he was a pest and a rabble-rouser, an outsider critic disturbing the status quo.  More people spoke up, and they were unanimously critical of Ward’s study. They faulted him for cherry-picking his sources and ignoring Shubuta’s more positive qualities. They accused him of producing a smear campaign against the town. And they questioned the value of rehashing these bygone incidents—Shubuta today is not the Shubuta of last century, they argued. What began as a dialogue was now an inquisition: people spoke out of order, questions became incriminations, and the mood in the room turned patently uncivil. Through all this Ward remained admirably stoic, reiterating that his research was objective and that most everyone in Shubuta had declined to be interviewed on record.  Calmer heads soon prevailed. By then it was getting late, and the rain had let up outside. The lecture moderator took the front of the room and thanked Jason Morgan Ward for his visit. He urged us in attendance to continue these difficult conversations, and to embrace dialogue and dissent. There was a brief but sincere round of applause.  I should note, finally, that in the audience of forty there wasn’t a single black person. 

The next week I read Ward’s Hanging Bridge and realized I was wrong about something. I hadn’t paddled beneath the Shubuta bridge the previous summer. Or rather, I’d paddled beneath different Shubuta bridges. The actual truss bridge on which Major and Andrew Clark, Maggie and Alma Howze, Ernest Green and Charlie Lang were hung stands three river miles north of the Shubuta boat ramp. The Great Chickasawhay Race doesn’t cross that stretch of river. Instead, it launches southward from Shubuta and concludes beside a highway bridge west of Waynesboro.  I retraced my steps, so to speak. I cross-referenced Google Maps and my Rand McNally state map, and the Clarke County inset map in the front matter of Hanging Bridge. As it turns out, there are three local bridges that might be called, generally, the “Shubuta bridge.”  The first bridge is immediately northeast of town, just beyond the terminus of East Street, also known as County Road 275. This bridge is anchored by broad concrete piers spanning the width of the deck. It abuts privately owned land and is no longer under the jurisdiction of Clarke County. Although this bridge had fallen into disrepair, it was recently rehabilitated—new access ramps installed and wooden planks laid across the deck—so the current owners could cross it on ATVs. This bridge was the site of the 1918 and 1942 lynchings.  The second bridge spans an abandoned stretch of County Road 612, just below the boat ramp on West Eucutta Street. Its piers seem to be cylindrical concrete poles, two on either side, set back from the riverbank and now draped with vines and foliage. The access ramps have been demolished, and its plank-wooden deck has either rotted or been discarded, giving the bridge an eerie, skeletal appearance. In 1986, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History surveyed this bridge for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.  The third bridge, directly south of town, is in fact a railroad bridge operated and maintained by Meridian Southern Railway, an industrial transport company. Because this bridge supports heavier loads, its steel beams are thick and weighty, only now transitioning in hue from silver to rust. Its piers are wide and stout, built of sturdy brick. The riverbanks, however, have shifted in recent years, and as a result one pier has been surrounded by riprap, loose rock meant to halt erosion.  These bridges all look about the same, although there are differences. Most prominent is the shape of each bridge’s top chord, the upper beams that compress tension and stabilize the truss unit. In the first and third bridges, the chord is flat and parallel to the roadbed, producing a truss shape that resembles a shoebox. In the second bridge, a “Camelback through” design, the chord is rounded like an arch, or, as the name indicates, the hump on a camel’s back. Next, the bridges differ in their number of panels, which are the “boxes” or “sectors” visible when viewing the structure in profile. Not counting the triangular segments at either end of each truss, the first bridge consists of five panels, the second bridge seven, and the final bridge four.  These structural differences are rather minute, of course. Certainly I hadn’t recognized them my first summer in the Great Chickasawhay Race. Nonetheless, later on when I tried clarifying among the bridges, I kept stumbling over the same conflicting details. The problem, I found, originated with the article and amateur news video that had first informed me about Shubuta’s Hanging Bridge.  The video in question was uploaded to YouTube in December 2012 by a Shubuta resident who goes by Oldcat1959. Titled “THE HANGING BRIDGE ~ Shubuta Mississippi,” it adopts the tone of a short documentary. Voiceover narration describes the bridge and its historical context, while establishing shots and archival photos provide visual backdrop. For an amateur production, the video is pretty well done. It’s quite informative given the dearth of information about the Shubuta bridge in 2012.  The article, however, is less impressive. Written by a freelancer in Picayune, Mississippi, it appears on a clickbait website called OnlyInYourState, which mimics the Buzzfeed template of large images surrounded by one- or two-sentence captions. Posted in May 2016 as “This Bridge in Mississippi Has a Dark and Evil History That Will Never Be Forgotten,” the article lacks both substantive detail and editorial rigor. It’s too brief to be coherent and too breezy to be credible. And with so little text, the article is dominated by images.  Here is where the confusion begins. Of the ten images in the OnlyInYourState article, four erroneously show the bridge beside the boat ramp on West Eucutta Street, while at least three are misleading archival photos cribbed from the Oldcat1959 video. For instance, one photo shows a dozen well-dressed black men lowering a bright white coffin into a cemetery plot, although the Shubuta victims were all buried unceremoniously in pine coffins. Another shows a mob of white men attacking an unidentified victim, although no photographic evidence of the Shubuta lynchings is known to exist. (Those two photos, I learned from online image searches, relate respectively to the 1946 Moore’s Ford Bridge lynchings in Georgia and the 1961 assault on George Webb, an onlooker at the arrival of the Freedom Riders in Birmingham.)  And what about the image of Ernest Green and Charlie Lang suspended below forty townspeople on the deck of the Shubuta bridge? No such photo exists. The image I’d seen the previous summer actually shows Laura Nelson and her son, L. D. Nelson, who in May 1911 were charged in the fatal shooting of a deputy sheriff in Okfuskee County, Oklahoma, and hung from a truss bridge over the North Canadian River. In both the video and article, the image of the Nelsons is cropped to remove the copyright watermark. (Surprisingly enough, in the early 1900s it was common practice for photographers to produce commemorative postcards of public lynchings.)  It was this photo of the Nelsons that first prompted me to parse out the information online about the Shubuta lynchings. Laura and L.D. Nelson are hung from a truss bridge with Camelback chords, whereas Shubuta’s Hanging Bridge, as I’d come to understand, was in fact a structure with flat chords. 

Does it matter which bridge is identified online? Well, yes. It does matter.  Remember there is no public memorial to the Shubuta lynchings. And until Ward’s Hanging Bridge was published in May 2016, those lynchings seemed destined to become mere footnotes in the narrative of American racial injustice. Now consider the foremost research methods in today’s digital age: Google and Wikipedia. Even today, there aren’t enough sources online about the Shubuta bridge to fill the first page of Google search results, and it wasn’t until March 2018, more than six years after it was first published, that the town’s Wikipedia page was finally edited to include mention of the lynchings.  I recognize the futility of criticizing the Oldcat1959 video and the OnlyInYourState article. Their authors had fewer resources and lesser ambition than Jason Morgan Ward, a professional historian. Yet with their vague citations and visual inaccuracies, the video and article are, in the parlance of our times, “fake news.” (It should go without saying that their comment sections are cesspools of inanity, misinformation, hate speech and semi-coherence.) And although their context on commercial websites should indicate a lack of documentary faithfulness, that alone doesn’t excuse their carelessness in confusing the historical record.  What, by definition, is a lynching? In the most general terms, a lynching is an execution without due process. Lynchings might be motivated by rage, retribution, or some skewed idea of social control, but they often serve more discreet purpose: to silence alleged perpetrators and usurp the narrative. The voiceless cannot tell their own stories. In their absence, history is written by those in power— elected officials, media outlets and those with outsized cultural capital. It’s a phenomenon at play in both the 1918 and 1942 Shubuta lynchings.  In the first case, the assassinated landowner, Dr. E. L. Johnston, had been holding the Clark brothers and Howze sisters in financial and psychological bondage. The Clarks were indebted to Johnston for a mule, while Maggie Howze owed him money for a sewing machine. Far worse, however, was that Johnston had impregnated both Maggie and Alma Howze, presumably by rape: at the time of their deaths, Maggie was eight months pregnant, and Alma, only sixteen years old, was four months pregnant. Johnston was known as both a heavy drinker and an infamous carouser. An alternate theory, purportedly offered by his own father, was that a local white man shot him in an argument over another woman.  Granted, Major Clark might have possessed motive for the shooting. He and Maggie Howze had made plans to marry, which incensed Johnston and initiated a quarrel. Major Clark made for a likely suspect, but his initial confession was made under extreme duress: at the city jail in Meridian, a sheriff ’s posse stripped him naked and literally placed his testicles in a vice, tightening the jaws until he admitted to the crime. Quite obviously, the Clarks and Howzes were denied fair representation. And once they were rendered silent in death, white Shubutans could bypass an inquiry into Johnston’s moral character, thus rehabilitating his image as the unwitting victim of a nefarious murder scheme.  The 1942 lynchings are confused by similar instances of accusation, coercion and conspiracy. What’s known is that Ernest Green and Charlie Lang, ages fourteen and fifteen, were scavenging near a highway bridge south of town when they encountered a fifteen-yearold white girl returning from school. Accounts of the attempted rape differ: one theory suggests Lang made an obscene comment toward the girl, while another holds that he playfully chased her across the bridge with a frog. (At the time of the incident, Ernest Green had been out of sight beneath the highway bridge.) Regardless, back at home the girl spoke with her mother, who consulted the owner of a nearby convenience store, and in short time hysteria had gripped a small mob. That same afternoon, no fewer than five men detained Charlie Lang and forced a confession. They believed him guilty, as Ward writes in Hanging Bridge, of “a premeditated plan to rape” the girl, although it was agreed that Lang had never physically touched her.  The details of Green and Lang’s abduction are even less convincing. The Quitman jailer, whose grandson spoke up in his defense so many years later, had failed in every regard to provide custody for the accused boys. And due to circumstances that could only be termed convenient, he was unable to offer any identifying details about the abductors. When he met with the town watchman and the Clarke County sheriff early the next morning, they decided against conducting an organized search. The likeliest mob participants—the girl’s father, his close relatives, the Shubuta marshal and his lackey driver—offered flimsy but corroborating alibis. And while it’s doubtful that town officials in 1942 would have conducted a forensic autopsy, the swift disposal of Green’s and Lang’s bodies marked the case as essentially closed.  The story of Green and Lang bears a striking resemblance to that of Emmett Till, who in August 1955 was abducted, mutilated, shot and disposed of in the Tallahatchie River of the Mississippi Delta. Like Green and Lang, Till was only a teenager at the time of his death. His offense—wolf-whistling, flirting, or making a suggestive comment to a white woman—might at worst be construed as mild sexual harassment, yet was impermissible given the racial codes of the Jim Crow-era South. Today a not-for-profit website and smartphone app called the Emmett Till Memory Project documents more than 15 sites relevant to Till’s life and death, some of which are marked by roadside plaques funded by the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.  In Shubuta, meanwhile, the unmarked graves of Ernest Green and Charlie Lang lie within collapsed iron fencing, while nearby, their exact location unknown, are the graves of Major and Andrew Clark, Maggie and Alma Howze. 

The 2017 Great Chickasawhay Race was postponed by Tropical Storm Cindy, which flooded parts of the Gulf Coast and made local waterways unsafe for recreation. By mid-July the creeks and rivers had receded, and on the afternoon before the race, my girlfriend Hannah and I paddled the upper stretch of the Chickasawhay that passes below the Hanging Bridge.  Ernest Herndon, in the guidebook Canoeing Mississippi, calls this stretch from De Soto to Shubuta “particularly scenic,” with a landscape of piney woods and lush vegetation that more resembles a jungle. Because of all the rain, everything glistened—the clay banks, the wild ferns, even the turbid water itself. And the current that day was swift: more than once Hannah and I startled ourselves when piles of foam drifted up beside our kayaks. We glided in and out of sunlight, beneath canopies of pine and beside the wide branching roots of cypress trees.  Hannah outpaced me by a good margin. Her boat was longer and leaner, whereas mine was a bulky fishing kayak which without a rudder tended to track like a flag in the wind. At one point I quit paddling to rummage for my lunch and drifted into a thicket of branches. Further down the river, Hannah had nudged herself against a sandbar to wait for me. “Did you hear thunder?” she asked. We looked up together but the sky just then was crystal blue, banks of white clouds in every direction. “It does smell like rain,” I said.  We continued paddling. We passed limestone bluffs brushed with moss, map turtles sunning themselves on fallen trees, a single beaver guarding its den by a shallow tributary. I remarked how easily one could hide a body out here in the woods—a morbid thing to say, but it got us talking about how lynch mobs often displayed their victims for all the community to see, an act so brazen the aggressors had to feel confident in their impunity. But that was about all we said about the Shubuta bridge. Hannah steered with the current and I stroked hard to keep the pace, and the afternoon was pleasant despite the thunder.  Soon enough we neared what Ernest Herndon refers to as the Old Shubuta Races, a 200-yard stretch of Class-II rapids fed by the discharge of Shubuta Creek from the west. She and I jostled across them like alpine skiers down a slalom course, and afterward I lay my paddle across the gunwales and sponged water from my cockpit. The rapids behind me now competed with the sound of thunder. Then within a few hundred yards, the river doglegged and the Shubuta bridge appeared like a shelf over the brown murky water.  I wasn’t prepared, and my boat drifted crookedly around the bend. To my right was a sandbar littered with driftwood, which I reached only to drape myself in a cloak of overhanging branches. I had no view, so I paddled upriver but my tail end spun and I drifted sideways again. The bridge ahead of me was most certainly the Hanging Bridge: flat chords, five truss panels, power lines overhead. Its rusted beams and diagonal braces stood in relief against a backing of clouds. Passing below, I could see the deck had been laid with wooden planks, and beyond the dark and mildewed piers, a live well gurgled water along the sandy bank. I caught up with Hannah, who again had stopped to wait for me.  “Did you get what you wanted?” she asked.  “I took a lot of photos,” I said.  “Is that what you wanted?”  I didn’t know. Not really. I wanted to understand the Shubuta bridge. But I’d made the all-too-common mistake of mediating my experience through the screen of my phone. When I turned in my seat, we’d passed another bend in the river, and already the bridge was out of view.  “The word that comes to mind is relic,” Hannah said, and I had to agree. It’s surprising that something so old and exposed should remain part of our built environment. Even more so considering the bridge’s lurid history. The violence that occurred there seems unreal, almost mythical. You hear about it and think, well, that was a different time, but in seeing the physical structure its history becomes something tangible. The Shubuta bridge, built of concrete and riveted steel, won’t be brought down by nature alone, not that I’d argue it should be. Currently the bridge has its own Facebook page on which someone asks whether it should be preserved or demolished, though since it’s now privately owned the question is purely hypothetical.  Hannah and I reached the Shubuta boat ramp just before the rain began. There we loaded our kayaks onto my pickup, and when we saw no use waiting out the storm we drove into Waynesboro for dinner. We didn’t stop to reflect, but even back on the river there’s hardly chance for reflection. When the Chickasawhay is low, muddy shoals appear on one bank, offering a place to maroon your boat and view the bridge unobstructed. But when the water is high, there’s no place to pull aside and rest, and your boat gets taken with the current. 

Not long ago, I came across a phrase in an unrelated book review that made me question my role in reassessing the Shubuta bridge. In one of his fiction roundups in the Wall Street Journal, the critic Sam Sacks praised a contemporary novelist for his awareness of “the habit white Americans have of making themselves the centerpieces of other people’s stories.” I’m aware that I committed this grievance, and I want to assert that the cultural pain embodied by the Shubuta bridge does not belong to me. In fact, I have benefitted in small ways—chief among them social esteem and opportunity—by the racial stratification still present in modern-day Mississippi.  We’ve now passed the centennial of the December 1918 deaths of Major Clark, Andrew Clark, Maggie and Alma Howze. A full century should be time enough for us to recognize the injustice of their executions. As lynching victims in Mississippi, the American South and the United States as a whole, they were each one among many. Same with Ernest Green and Charlie Lang. In my research, I found no evidence that their deaths prompted any semblance of social progress. It shouldn’t be that way. And as the first emphatic step toward atonement, we must now acknowledge the Shubuta bridge as a recurring site of violence and obfuscation.  I suggest a roadside historical marker that names the lynching victims and asserts that they were executed without lawful conviction. The logical placement for such a sign is at the turn from 2nd Street onto East Street in Shubuta, roughly one mile before the road is barricaded before the Hanging Bridge. There is danger in such a historical marker, however. Recall that the mob parties in Clarke County chose to display their victims’ bodies to further intimidate those who dare violate the racial, social and economic order. Done poorly, such a sign might serve only to reinforce attitudes of conflict and oppression.  If that’s the case, there’s another option, more modest. You go to the cemetery in Shubuta and locate where the victims are buried. You clean their gravesites. You give them headstones, and you mark them.


Joseph Holt graduated from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. His writing has appeared in The Sun, Gulf Coast and Colorado Review, and he has received scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Community of Writers Workshops at Squaw Valley. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.


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