Please welcome guest authors John Jeter and Lucy Beam Hoffman. The two have co-authored The Last Lynching, a new play about the largest lynching trial in U.S. history. Jeter and Hoffman recently opened The Write Place, a Greenville, SC, studio/salon. Jeter’s books include: The Plunder Room (St. Martin’s Press); Rockin’ a Hard Place (Hub City Press), a memoir about The Handlebar, concert venue; and The Lucifer Genome, (self-published thriller with Glen Craney). He has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Journalism School and worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, St. Petersburg Times and San Antonio Express-News. He also co-produced a Rockin’ a Hard Place television pilot, in development. Hoffman has a master’s degree in history, with a focus on the Holocaust, from Clemson. She wrote her dissertation about Irène Némirovsky, a Russian-born novelist who lived half her life in France, wrote in French and died in Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp. A history instructor at Greenville Tech, Hoffman is the author of Janie & Blanche: or How To Move Past Your Origins and Not Kill Your Mother in the Process (Smashwords), and three short stories.
In February 1947, Willie Earle hired a taxicab to take him home from Greenville, SC, to Liberty, about 20 minutes away. Early the next morning, the driver, Thomas Watson Brown, lay dying in a Greenville hospital. Soon, Earle was charged with stabbing Brown and was taken to the nearby Pickens jail. About the same time that Watson finally succumbed to his wounds, Earle’s body was found mutilated by the side of a lonely, frosty road.
Willie Earle was black. Only hours after he’d been arrested at his mother’s home and taken to jail, 31 white cab drivers snatched him from his cell, drove him to a vacant lot next to a slaughterhouse and blew his brains out. In subsequent statements to federal authorities, they all confessed.
Three months later, an all-white jury acquitted all 31 defendants.
The trial drew international and national attention. Then-Gov. Strom Thurmond jumped into the case, along with J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The media went nuts, with radio’s pre-Rush superstar Walter Winchell providing running commentary; the Negro press sent reporters, and Rebecca West, considered the No. 1 female journalist of her time, reported on the trial; the British phenom had most recently returned from Nuremburg’s Nazi tribunals.
Her June 1947 piece in The New Yorker, titled “Opera in Greenville,” inspired The Last Lynching, a new play still in development about the largest lynching trial in U.S. history.
John first read about Willie Earle and West’s article in The Beat, a long-gone alternative weekly in Greenville. On the 60th anniversary of Willie Earle’s murder, journalist James Shannon wrote:
“Most members of the lynch mob would later die in their beds, but the injustice they inflicted lives on in our collective memory. Though there is nothing in this story that will make white people feel good about themselves, it is a story that must be told.”
That’s how this play came to be.
While John was busy trying to run his concert venue, The Handlebar, he kept Willie Earle in the back of his mind … until he met a woman named Mary Miller, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who was living in Greenville at the time. She found the story as compelling as John did – as anyone would – and so they got to work. They contacted Will Gravely, a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Denver. Gravely was 7 years old and living in Pickens when he heard the caravan drive to the jail, an odd fortress-looking building that still stands and serves as the Pickens County Museum. Dr. Gravely has since become the leading scholar on the horrific event; he’s working on a book.
Mary soon moved away, returning with her husband to Raleigh, NC, where she had worked and thrived as a reporter-columnist for the paper there. This collaboration ended. John returned to other writing projects and to his concert business.
A couple of years later, through a networking quirk, John met a woman named Lucy Beam Hoffman, a historian and scholar who posted on her Facebook page that she was looking for an interesting subject to research.
John clicked Reply and wrote simply: “Willie Earle.”
She, too, found the story irresistible. Next thing you know, the two were in her car driving to the Strom Thurmond Institute in nearby Clemson, where she had earned her master’s in history. There, they combed through the papers of none other than Will Gravely, who, as good fate would have it, flew in from Denver a month or so later to appear at a master’s class there.
Not long after that, the play was born.
The story stars Rebecca West, whose own life is as fascinating as the story she covered. As a young suffragette/writer, West (nee Cicely Isabel Fairfield) had an affair with the great – and also married – British novelist H.G. Wells (he of “The War of the Worlds,” but no relation to the Orson Welles who ultimately made the radio show that scared the wits out of listeners). They bore a son, Anthony Panther West; Rebecca West nicknamed Wells Panther, he called her Cougar.
In their play, West comes to Greenville to cover the trial, and then finds herself confronting her abject failure as a mother. While she finds a struggling Southern city in upheaval, in a case rife with racial tensions, with elements of North-South hatred and with fury over “gub’ment interference,” she also learns that she can’t square her need to find justice for Willie Earle while selling her own son completely short. Maternal guilt springs eternal, as do the issues that continue to pique the nation’s consciousness.
As the real-life newspaperman George MacNabb, a reporter for the Greenville Piedmont, fictionally tells West in Scene One:
“… you think you’re gonna resurrect that poor boy just by writing about the men who supposedly lynched him? …I dunno, I don’t see how you can believe that you can salvage a relationship with your son by trying to write one with a dead Negro.”
Freshly written and completely rewritten several times over the course of a few months (thanks to the input of veteran dramatists), the play’s still “in development,” whatever that means in theater-speak. “I’m no thespian,” says John, “just a former newspaperman who opened his own nightclub 20 years ago.”
Next stop, the Warehouse Theatre, a theater company in town, says it’ll produce the play … because the story of Willie Earle needs to be told.
Willie Earle found Will Gravely to tell the historical truth, and then, 65 years later, he found Lucy Hoffman and John Jeter to bring his story to life in the pages of a script and soon, they hope, a theater’s stage.