Tennessee dignitaries, overflow crowd attend Boxley soil dedication ceremony
Rose Champion Johnson, niece of Boxley, adds soil from the lynching site to the commemorative jars.
Anna Laura James, (below) longtime genealogist for Humboldt Library, (right) was a teen when the 1929 lynching occurred in the Coxville neighborhood. Marion Watkins (left) was a school friend of young Boxley before the lynching.
story by Jim Emison
photos by Jennifer McCall
(courtesy of the Crockett County Times)
A standing room only crowd, of over 160 overflowed the circuit courtroom and spilled onto the staircase in the Crockett County Courthouse recently.
Sprinkled with Crockett County and Tennessee dignitaries, the packed courtroom participated in the dedication of soil from the Joseph H. Boxley lynching site for inclusion in the Equal Justice Initiative’s Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
Teenager Joseph H. Boxley was lynched just west of the Coxville Community on the north side of Highway 152 just before dawn on May 29,1929. The lynchers attached a note to the hangman’s rope that warned all not to remove Boxley’s body until 4 p.m. Photographs made of the lynching were sold as postcards. Thankfully it was Crockett County’s last lynching (there were five earlier).
The hanging tree died and is long gone, but the lynching took place on a farm owned by the father of Crockett County’s historian and centenarian, Anna Laura James, who was a teenager when it occurred and remembers it well. James pointed out the location where the hanging tree had stood on a farm currently owned by John Worrell. The Worrell family gave permission to remove the soil that was used in the dedication ceremony.
James on Saturday told the assembled crowd.
Another amazing centenarian, Marion Watkins, also spoke Saturday. She had known the Boxely family well and had attended Porter’s Grove school with the lynch victim Joseph. H. Boxley. She shared her memories of the Boxley family and her schoolmate Joe. She concluded her comments on a poignant note when she said, “Joe was a good friend and I loved him.”
County Mayor Gary Reasons, Alamo Mayor John Emison, and Rev. Lenwood Reed welcomed the crowd of more than 150. Every seat in the courtroom including the jury box was filled, and people sat on the floor, stood in the aisles, and spilled out of the room and onto the staircase. Most county officials, and many staff members were present. In addition to County Mayor Reasons, Kim Kail Circuit Court Clerk, Clerk & Master James Edward Stephenson, County Clerk Ernie Bushart, and Trustee Gary Spraggins participated in the ceremony.
Among the attending dignitaries were Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Roger A. Page of Jackson, Crockett County’s own Judge Brandon O. Gibson representing the Tennessee Court of Appeals, State Senator Reginald Tate of Memphis, Lane College Vice President Richard Donnell, and Vanderbilt University Law School Associate Dean Spring Miller and Professor Sara Mayeux, and representatives Evan Milligan and Gabrielle Daniels of the Equal Justice Institute of Montgomery, Alabama.
Speakers included Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, and State Representative Johnnie Turner of Memphis, who spoke about the Tennessee Civil Rights Cold Case Act of 2017 of which they were the primary sponsors, and which Governor Haslam signed into law June 6. The new law creates a six member joint legislative committee to study unsolved civil rights crimes in Tennessee and report to the next Tennessee General Assembly in January 2018.
Both legislators representing Crockett County, State Senator Ed Jackson of Jackson, and Representative Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley addressed the crowd on the theme of racial justice and reconciliation.
Author, historian, and founder of Tennessee History for Kids, Bill Carey, of Nashville spoke about a failed attempted lynching in Bedford County, which resulted in the burning of the Bedford County Courthouse, and the County’s successful lawsuit to collect on the fire insurance.
Crockett County native, Joe McLean shared his father Woodfen McLean’s account of the lynching and seeing Boxley’s body hanging from the tree on May 29.
According to McLean, the lynch mob stood young Boxley in the back of a wagon and directed him to jump. When he refused, the mob threatened to emasculate him, and Boxley jumped to his grisly death.
A dance interpretation of the song, Strange Fruit, performed by the Sisters of Praise, Tykesia and Courtney Henderson of Wortham Chapel Church reminded the audience that the strange fruit of the song was actually human beings hanged by mobs without trial.
The keynote speech delivered by District Attorney Garry G. Brown of Alamo was a deeply moving account of the Biblical story of Joseph and his wish that the freed Israeli slaves would remove his bones from Egypt and carry them to the Promised Land, and how this story resonates in today’s America.
Prayer was offered by Rev. Lowell Garrett, Pastor of Bucks, Chapel Baptist, Elder William Dupree of New First Baptist, and Rev. Billy Johnson, Pastor of St. Paul’s Church in Bownsville, and Sadarius Johnson read Psalms 137: 1-4.
Over a dozen members of the Boxley family, including four who had travelled from Connecticut, participated in the ceremony, and Joseph H. Boxley’s niece and family representative, Rose Johnson, of Gibson County, recounted how the lynching had affected her family.
The ceremony concluded with a prayer by the Reverend Billy Johnson, after the audience, one by one, had taken portions of the soil removed from the lynching site, and transferred it to the urn labeled “Joseph H. Boxley, Crockett County, Tennessee, May 29, 1929.”
The exhibit that accompanied the ceremony, featuring photos and family information about the Boxleys, the lynching and collection of the soil, and examples of contemporary newspaper accounts of the lynching from publications as diverse as the Dyer Reporter to the New York Times, are now on display at Crockett Memorial Library, and publications from the Equal Justice Initiative are available to the public and are free.