Jenkins County, Georgia, riot of 1919

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Jenkins County riot of 1919
Part of the Red Summer
Census Enumeration District Map Of Jenkins County
DateApril 13, 1919
LocationCarswell Grove Baptist Church and Cemetery, Jenkins County, Georgia
ParticipantsWhite mobs attack the black community
DeathsOfficial death toll was 6:
  • W. Clifford Brown, a white sheriff's deputy
  • Thomas Stevens, a white police marshal
  • Edmund Scott
  • Henry Ruffin
  • John Ruffin
  • Willie Williams
The New York Tribune reported that a seventh man was pulled from the Millen prison.[1]

The Jenkins County riot of 1919 took place on Sunday, April 13, 1919, when a series of misunderstandings and out-of-control events spiralled into two white police officers being killed. In retaliation the local white community formed mobs and ravaged the black community, burning black community buildings and killing at least four people.


The event began at Carswell Grove Baptist Church, a black church, which was celebrating its anniversary. Preachers from several counties were coming, the Knights of Pythias were present in uniform,[2] the choir was giving a special performance, and a cookout would follow.[3]:1 More than 3,000 were expected; it was one of the largest gatherings in east Georgia.[3]:1–2

Joe Ruffin was a prosperous farmer and distinguished black Mason, "one of the wealthiest negros of Jenkins County."[2] He was to have been the marshal of the event.[2]

The riot[edit]

Ruffin was driving to the church celebration when he had to stop because of the congestion of people. A car pulled alongside Ruffin, containing W. Clifford Brown, a Jenkins County sheriff's deputy, Thomas Stevens, a Millen, Georgia police marshal, whose presence outside his jurisdiction is unexplained, and Joe's friend Edmund Scott, in handcuffs. They were there in search of alcohol; Georgia had been a dry state since 1907. Not having found any, they arrested Scott for having a pistol.[2]

Ruffin pulled out a checkbook to cover Scott's $400 bail, but Brown, "who the white papers said had a bad temper,"[2] said that cash was needed. That much cash was not available on a Sunday, and Brown said that he was taking Scott in. Ruffin reached into the car to pull Scott out, but Brown took out his gun. He struck Ruffin in the face with his pistol, and the gun went off and struck Ruffin on the head, knocking him unconscious but not seriously injuring him. Joe's son Louis, just discharged from the United States Army, thought that his father had been killed. Louis Ruffin consequently shot and killed Brown, in retaliation.[2] Further gunshots wounded Stevens, after which he was beaten to death. Scott, in the middle of the gunfire, was killed accidentally.

"Hundreds of white men" came to Carswell Grove as news of the killings spread.[2][4][5] "Many of these remained out all night."[4] [6] They burned the church and Ruffin's car and lynched two of Ruffin's sons,[7] either burning them to death or throwing their bodies into the fire after they had been killed. The three black Masonic lodges in Millen were burned. White mobs roamed the county for days. The New-York Tribune reported that seven black churches had been burnt down.[1] The Tribune also reported that a seventh man was pulled from the Millen prison and lynched.[1]

The six fatalities included two white lawmen and four black men: Scott, two sons of Ruffin, Henry and John, and Joe's friend Willie Williams, who had been at the scene and was also lynched.[8] Joe's son Louis fled and despite a reward was never apprehended.[7]

Joe Ruffin's fate[edit]

Ruffin was sure he would be lynched, and news accounts confirm that he would have been.[9][10] (Georgia led the nation in lynchings in 1918.) He hid, then surrendered to Sheriff M. G. Johnston, who had arrived. Johnston drove him to the nearest large city, Augusta, for safety; he was placed in the jail.

A mob headed to Augusta to lynch Ruffin. He was moved for safety to jail in Aiken, South Carolina, where he remained for two weeks,[7] registered under a false name. A mob of some 30 Georgians came to Aiken but accepted the jailer's statement that Ruffin was not there.[11] He was indicted for the murders of the two officers; charges were not filed against any whites.

Ruffin hired "the best white lawyer he could find."[3]:75 He was granted a change of venue to Savannah.[10][7] He was first tried for killing Stevens, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged. A motion for a new trial was successful,[12] and he was acquitted. He was then tried for the killing of Brown and was again acquitted. "So strong was the sentiment in Jenkins county that an indictment was found charging him with the murder of his friend Scott."[13] He was tried for the killing of Scott,[14] was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years prison. The Georgia Supreme Court set that aside and ordered a new trial, which was never held.[15] Because of public sentiment he could not be totally exonerated, so he was charged, convicted, and fined $500 for embezzlement, for although he never wrote a check, he had displayed the checkbook of a church of which he was treasurer.[3]:260–261 After friends paid the fine, by 1923 he was a free man.[15] Impoverished after his legal expenses, he lived out his days in South Carolina, since he would not have been safe in Georgia.[3]:266


  1. ^ a b c New-York Tribune 1919, p. 10.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Pickens, William (April 24, 1919). "Race riots at Millen, Ga". Buffalo Morning Express. p. 9.
  3. ^ a b c d e McWhirter, Cameron (2011). Red Summer. The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America. Henry Holt. ISBN 9780805089066.
  4. ^ a b "Six Persons Dead of Race Clash at Negro Church near Millen, Ga". Atlanta Constitution. April 14, 1919. p. 1.
  5. ^ "Six Persons Killed in a Pistol Fight". Wilmington Morning Star. April 14, 1919. p. 2.
  6. ^ Dillon Herald 1919, p. 1.
  7. ^ a b c d "Trial of Joe Ruffin Is Again Postponed". Atlanta Constitution. November 12, 1919. p. 6.
  8. ^ "Louis Ruffin Sought in Three Counties". Atlanta Constitution. April 15, 1919. p. 6.
  9. ^ Ellison, J. G. (April 17, 1919). "Gives Millen Account of Recent Disorders". Atlanta Constitution. p. 5.
  10. ^ a b "Trial of Joe Ruffin, Negro, Facing Murder Charge, for Savannah". Atlanta Constitution. September 28, 1919. p. 13.
  11. ^ "A Parallel Case". Aiken Standard. September 7, 1921. p. 4.
  12. ^ "Joe Ruffin Trial to be Heard Oct. 26". Atlanta Constitution. June 22, 1920. p. 13.
  13. ^ Sutlive, W. G. (June 19, 1923). "Color Line Is Not Drawn in Georgia Court". Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois). p. 2.
  14. ^ "Ruffin To Be Tried Again". Aiken Standard. January 4, 1922. p. 1.
  15. ^ a b "Joe Ruffin Is Freed". Atlanta Constitution. May 31, 1923. p. 2.