Magazine Feature

Childhood memories trigger lifelong investigation for DU professor emeritus

In 1947, a gang of men from outside of Will Gravely’s hometown of Pickens, S.C., forced the local jailer to hand over Willie Earle, an African-American man who had been accused of stabbing and killing a white taxi driver.

According to an account of the incident in Time magazine, the men took Earle out on a country road and began beating him. Some of the men hit him with the butt-end of a shotgun. Then one of them shot Earle, leaving his brains hanging from the bushes nearby.

It was South Carolina’s last lynching.

Gravely, a retired DU religious studies professor, was just 7 years old when this ugly incident in the nation’s race relations enveloped his small community in northwestern South Carolina.

“It was an act of inhuman lawlessness,” Gravely recalls.

The incident caused an uproar around the state of South Carolina.  Strom Thurmond, who would run for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform, was then serving as the state’s governor and demanded that the mob of outlaws be brought to justice.

In Pickens, local pastor Hawley Lynn — a fixture in the Gravely household because the family’s devout Christianity — attempted to assemble a meeting of residents to condemn the act, but a group of men from another city quickly squashed their plans. Lynn would have to settle for delivering his message from the pulpit in an inspirational sermon denouncing Earle’s murder that Gravely attended and remembers to this day.

Outrage over the lynching eventually culminated in the local authorities charging 31 men in connection with the crime. Though 26 men pleaded guilty to taking part in the mob, the jury acquitted all of them. The trial made headlines in various national news outlets, including The New Yorker and Life, and gained the close attention of the Truman administration.

But that wasn’t the only act of racism Gravely witnessed that year. When he visited his family in Florida, he saw a fishing accident. An African-American man was fishing, stepped into deep water and began to drown. Several people tried to save his life, but the man died because Gravely believes the fire department was slow to respond. Even as a child, Gravely understood that the fire department didn’t respond quickly because the man was black.

Witnessing these events sparked a dedication to social justice later on in Gravely’s life, but they weren’t always there for him to recall. During his sabbatical as a DU professor in the winter of 1981, Gravely began recollecting glimpses of these childhood events.

Gravely realized that he had repressed many of memories from his early childhood and sought out a psychotherapist to help him remember. As the memories returned, Gravely began researching Earle’s lynching.

His exploration began by visiting his former pastor in South Carolina who had kept a transcript of the sermon addressing the lynching of Earle. Gravely then contacted Earle’s mother, Tessie Earle Robinson, and built a relationship with her.“I was influenced by a number of people dedicated to truth and reconciliation and came to believe that this project afforded me the opportunity to engage with my childhood memories,” Gravely says.

His research project, “History and Memory: Reconstructing the Lynching of Willie Earle (1947),” flourished with the support of the University of Denver Faculty Research Fund and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

Now 71, he has published four articles through his work, which have been published in journals including Methodist History, Journal of Religion & Society, and The South Carolina Review. He’s currently writing a book about the Earle lynching.

“I’ve always felt an enormous surge of energy from the time I began going into this story,” Gravely says.

Along the way, Gravely also aided Earle’s family in a variety of ways.

“In 1990, I promised Mrs. Robinson that I would work to lay a tombstone at the unmarked gravesite of her son in the cemetery of the Abel Baptist Church in Pickens County,” Gravely says. “We were able to do that in 1997.”

Gravely hopes to continue his research of racism, social justice and religion in the South.

“I had a former professor whom I worked with teach me a lot about myself and the structural nature of racism,” says Gravely. “I realized I had been socialized a certain way, and I want to help bring what I’ve learned through my research to a new readership.”

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