During this second installment in our month-long look at notable people and events with Pine Bluff connections during National Black History Month, the spotlight turns to a gruesome chapter in the city’s history: the lynching of two black men in front of the Jefferson County courthouse in 1892.
“Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” This quote from Spanish philosopher George Santayana is especially appropriate for this week’s topic.
Lynching was an insidious tool of intimidation used throughout the South to enforce white supremacy and intimidate blacks by racial terrorism. This article focuses on two lynchings that occurred on Sunday, February 15, 1892 when two black men were executed in broad daylight in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse while around 1,000 citizens watched.
It wasn’t the first time misguided whites had taken justice into their own hands—and it wouldn’t be the last. In 1866, 24 African Americans died in a mass lynching, and from 1889 to 1909, nine lynchings occurred. In fact, Pine Bluff has the dubious distinction of having the most lynchings of any major city in Arkansas.
On the night of February 9, 1892 John Kelley and several accomplices allegedly murdered W. T. McAdams, a highly respected Pine Bluff citizen. The authorities investigated, and, the following morning, the police arrested two black men—Gilbert Banks and a man named Smith—and two black women who had been seen in the neighborhood around the time of the murder. By the evening of February 10, officials were looking for John Kelley as the probable murderer. Deputies headed for Kelley’s home in Helena to arrest him. Gilbert Banks, who had been arrested as an accessory, denied any involvement in the crime.
On February 14, Kelley was captured in Rison, and officers brought him back to Pine Bluff by train. Despite pleas from the mayor, a mob of 200 armed men met the train and marched Kelley to the courthouse. By this time, the size of the mob had grown to around 1,000. A rope was put around Kelley’s neck, and he was taken to the courthouse steps and given a chance to speak. He denied his guilt. The crowd then hanged him from a telephone pole that stood directly across from the courthouse. After he was strung up, more than 100 bullets were fired at him.
Banks was next. Refused the keys to the jail, the mob found a telephone pole behind the courthouse and used it as a battering ram to break down the outer wall of the jail. A deputy told the members of the crowd that if they did not break into the cell, he would send for the keys. After the keys arrived, Banks was taken from the cell and given the opportunity to speak. He denied being with Kelley at the time of the murder. He was then hanged from the same telephone pole as Kelley, and even more shots were fired this time.
At least one African American newspaper was outraged at these events. Writing in the Kansas City American Citizen, Charles H. J. Taylor described those who participated in the lynching as cowards and brutes, declaring, “Why should there be the least excuse for mob-law against the poor Negro in this country? That a mob should be allowed in a country claiming to lead the world on religious lines to take unarmed men and hang them without any kind of trial. In the United States Senate these same whites of whom these ruffians come have been referred to as a ‘noble race,’ a ‘kingly race’; yes, indeed, such ‘nobleness’ and ‘kingly bearing’ would disgrace hell.”
Taylor’s words are just as appropriate today as they were in 1892. More than 100 years later, the ugly spirit that motivated that mob is still churning. That’s why we must remember our history. If we don’t, well, you know the rest.
Sources: African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County, Encyclopedia of Arkansas