Magazine Feature / People

Retired professor devotes life to race relations

William Gravely, a retired professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, says he doesn’t remember when he first heard about what happened on Feb. 17, 1947. But the horrific event that occurred that day has stuck with him.

Early on that Monday, a mob of men snatched a black man, Willie Earle, from a Pickens County, S.C., jail cell where he was being held on suspicion of killing a white cab driver. They drove him to a neighboring county and then beat, shot and lynched him.

After a 10-day trial 31 men — 26 of them had confessed involvement — were acquitted of killing Earle.

The caravan of cars carrying Earle to his death drove within 50 yards of where Gravely, a 7 year-old second grader, lay sleeping that morning.

“When I remembered [the event] as an adult I consciously decided to explore whatever I could find about it,” Gravely says.

And for much of his life since, Gravely has explored and devoted his life to race relations. He researched Earle’s murder, talking with those who remembered that day, the ensuing trial and the lingering bitterness the event cast on the region.

He’s given numerous lectures at colleges around the country and is writing a book about the event,Violence Remembered, Violence Redeemed: The Lynching of Willie Earle.

Xanthene Norris, a retired teacher in South Carolina co-chairing a panel looking into ways of memorializing Earle, says Gravely has been helping the group.

“We couldn’t have done a lot of what we’ve done without his help,” Norris says.

Gravely says the lessons of that date remain.

“We have to keep remembering the past — the good and the bad — in order not to repeat the bad and to strengthen the good,” he says. “When we no longer have a census category called “white,” we will have grown up to be real Americans, and the deepest division of all will be healed.”

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