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Athens News Matters: The 1921 Watkinsville Lynching - A Crime that has been Largely Forgotten

Watch part 1 of Kara Nelson's video report.
Watch part 2 of Kara Nelson's report.

On Saturday, activists in and around Athens will travel to the site of a Watkinsville lynching to memorialize the victims, and to raise awareness about a crime that has been largely forgotten.

100 years ago, December 4th, 1921, three black men - Aaron Birdsong, Wes Hale, and George Lowe - were murdered; lynched by a mob not far from downtown Watkinsville. It wasn't the first lynching in this area. There was a mass lynching with 9 victims in Watkinsville in 1905.

In February of 1921, just ten months before the murders of Birdsong, Hale and Lowe, a man was taken from the Clarke County Jail and horrifically murdered on the Clarke-Oconee line.

Modern day activists are working hard to keep the names of the victims in our collective memory, to honor their lives, and to make sure that the horrible events of the past are not covered up in the present. One of those activists is John Cole Vodicka, who is coordinating an event to mark the centennial of the murders of Aaron Birdsong, West Hale and George Lowe. John spoke with WUGA's Alexia Ridley about the event and why it’s important to remember past victims of racial violence, and how this history shapes our communities today.

This script has been edited for clarity

Alexia Ridley: 

Tell me about this lynching that you are remembering at the service. 

John Cole Vodicka: 

On December 4th, 1921, so 100 years ago this Saturday, Aaron Birdsong was an African American farmworker. He went to the farmer who he was working for and asked for either a loan [or] for a chance to buy a piece of the farmer's property so he could farm it on his own. The farmer refused him. 

Here's where the typical lynch narrative comes into play. According to press accounts and witnesses -  white witnesses - Birdsong at some point that afternoon went to the farmer's house for whatever reason. We don't know. My thinking would be to again ask for money or a chance to own a piece of property. 

The white wife of the white farmer and her daughter were in the house and they told the farmer when he returned home that Birdsong had been around the house. 

The farmer rounded up a posse of white folks who went to Birdsong’s home. Birdsong knew what was up and Birdsong allegedly fired shots from his home out into the gathering of white folks in his yard. 

The white folks retreated and gathered up yet more people, and then the chase began. They eventually captured him that afternoon on December 4th and shot him, and then I think set him on fire or at least prepared a bonfire to burn him, and then someone in the mob got the idea that these two other gentlemen, Wes Hale, and George Lowe, had assisted Birdsong along the way and providing him cover and maybe even ammunition. 

The mob went and rounded up these other two guys in their homes, brought them back to where Birdsong now lay dead, and set them on fire and then shot them at simultaneously or as they were burning to death. 

All three were shot and killed or burned and killed in the same location and all related to the Birdsong incident. 


Always so horrific. 


We've got a horrible legacy here called lynching and that morphed into convict leasing, which morphed into Jim Crow, which morphed into mass incarceration of poor African American people. Not to mention slavery. You know we've had this long legacy of violence toward people of color. 


We would say that's still shaping our communities today - that history of racial violence. 


It is, I think we're still living with the lingering legacies of lynching. 


What sort of impact do you hope ceremonies recognizing the victims of lynching will have on those attending, and the rest of the community? 


First and foremost, if we do nothing else for an hour, hour and a half on Saturday, we'll be educating folks. We'll be encouraging the wider community to acknowledge what happened. Even if you don't feel the outrage or the discomfort you know, just acknowledge the fact that this indeed happened. 

I think it's really important, and we've seen a lot of this over the last couple of years - just remembering the names, giving those folks who died unnecessarily, violently, without due process - to give those folks the dignity and the recognition. 

You know, we all bear some responsibility for remembering, and then hopefully acting on what's happened. 


Would you say people have lost a sense of just how horrific an actual lynching was when they compare current events to past lynchings? 


Yeah, I think so. 

I mean, you know, that “some so and so” was messing with my white woman, so let's go get him. So and so was walking through an abandoned house under construction, so let's go get him.” 

When you take the law into your own hands and become judge, jury and executioner, that fits the definition of a lynching, but when you equate something that's happening today to something that happened 100 years ago or 60 years ago, it may not be the best comparison. Still lives are lost and individuals or a group of individuals made the decision to take that person's life. 

Alexia Ridley joined WUGA as Television and Radio News Anchor and Reporter in 2013. When WUGA TV concluded operations, she became the primary Reporter for WUGA Radio. Alexia came to Athens from Macon where she served as the News Director and show host for WGXA TV. She's a career journalist and Savannah native hailing from the University of Michigan. However, Alexia considers herself an honorary UGA DAWG!
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