The past refuses to stay past: the lynching of John C. Jones
The summer of 1946 was filled with a heightened fear of violence and injustice for the Black residents of Minden, Webster Parish, Louisiana.
Black veterans returning home at the end of World War II presented a profound challenge to Jim Crow, a system that assured white men their power. Across the South, these Black veterans became targets for racist violence.
On July 30, Mrs. Sam Maddry Jr., alone at home that evening, was disturbed by what she thought was a prowler in her yard. Upon his return from work, her husband and father-in-law mounted a search for the man believed to have been peering into the Maddry home. They spotted 19-year-old Albert Harris Jr. who was close by and swiftly placed him in jail. The teenager was eventually released along Highway 90, chased into nearby woodland and beaten by a group of white men, including the Maddrys. During this beating, Harris “confessed” that his cousin, John C. Jones, had been the one prowling that night. The mob released Harris, only to recapture him and his cousin Jones a few days later.
No evidence was ever found that he was in Maddry’s neighborhood on the night he was suspected of prowling.
Once again in Webster Parish Jail, Harris, this time joined by Jones, was held and eventually, on August 8, released by the sheriff. Two carloads of men, waiting outside the jail, kidnapped Harris and Jones and took them to a nearby bayou. The cousins were beaten – separately in each car – and left for dead. Upon regaining consciousness, Harris scooped up his cousin’s body, limp but still breathing. He gave Jones a sip of water, but his injuries were too severe. Jones passed away fifteen minutes later in the arms of his teenage cousin.
Jones, an oil refinery worker and recently returned World War II veteran, had survived the Battle of the Bulge, only to be killed on home soil.
The Department of Justice pursued a criminal jury trial against the assailants of this brutal lynching, but the men accused were acquitted.
But Jones’ story does not end in 1946.
In the fall of 2011, Brett Watson (’12) was assigned the Jones case to investigate as part of his clinic work with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law.
Established in 2007, the clinic is run once a year and has been taught by numerous faculty and staff over the years. A group of students are presented with three cases, which they must investigate, find leads and catalogue evidence. At the end of the semester, they present their cases before a panel of academic experts and lawyers. They produce a portfolio of investigative work that will be added to the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive.
“The work that I did with Professor Burnham and CRRJ reinforced my dedication to racial justice, civil rights, and my fidelity to history,” said Watson, in a recent interview with CRRJ. “Working on Jones’ case was the highlight of my law school education. It will always be with me.”
Watson said, while some materials were online, largely because of the DOJ trial and media attention garnered by case, the real breakthrough came after identifying a local historian who helped them with their research. John Agan would prove to be their “gateway” to the Jones case, Watson said.
Read more about Jones’ death on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive
About the Archive
The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.
Agan was a lifelong resident of Minden, serving on local boards, working in the Webster Parish Library’s genealogy department, and a prolific writer on Minden local history. He wrote eight books about the city’s history and was made parish historian by the Webster Parish Police Jury.
It was Agan who first discovered the photograph of Jones’ bloated body floating in the Dorcheat Creek, where he was beaten and left for dead. This photograph later came to the attention of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Museum officials approached CRRJ Director, Professor Margaret Burnham in 2015, inquiring as to the origins of the image, which subsequently went on display at the Smithsonian and is now housed in their collection.
“You can’t help but think about all those lynchings in the 20th century and see that these things are still happening.”
“John Agan gave Brett and I a tour of Minden, and he also made available the photographs that were used in the federal trial,” said Burnham. “The federal investigators preserved the damning, and shocking photograph that ended up on display at the Smithsonian.”
Yet the Jones case had, until Watson’s investigation began, seen little-to-no exploration. “There was a culture in Minden of letting the past stay in the past,” Watson said. While Agan provided them with plenty of materials and discussed the case over the phone, Watson had limited contact with the historian, even when he and CRRJ director Margaret Burnham traveled to Louisiana to meet with Agan and search for further evidence.
“We found a lot of tightlipped reticence,” said Watson, who majored in African American studies in college, but had no experience investigating civil rights cases before joining CRRJ’s clinic.
Again passed away in 2020. He did not live to witness Jones’ stray grow, and the developments in this case that would bring the Jones family closer to justice.
In June 2013, with assistance from CRRJ, Webster Parish NAACP President Kenneth Wallace petitioned the Parish Police Jury to issue an apology for the 1946 lynching of John C. Jones. Wallace sought to have the parish acknowledge its role in Jones’ killing. “You have a Confederate Memorial right up in the square,” Wallace told parish officials, “And if we’re honest, Confederate ideology is what killed John C. Jones.”
Although residents fought to keep the past in the past, DOJ records would provide CRRJ lead historian, Jay Driskell, a window into Jones’ killing and events leading up to his death.
According to Driskell, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wanted to use the Jones case to encourage the federal government to intervene more forcefully in lynching cases. The trial testimony from Jones’ surviving cousin, Harris Jr. was the moving evidence that many cases pursued by the NAACP previously lacked.
Driskell said he combed through hundreds of pages of DOJ records related to Jones’ killing. Some materials were available, while others had to be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. These FOIA requests took, on average, 2 years to be returned when he started, Driskell said, but now, post-pandemic, can take 3 and a half years — or longer — to be processed.
Recently, documents in a number of FBI headquarters files have surfaced that Driskell is hopeful will fill the holes in the Jones story.
FBI headquarters files were usually maintained on cases of personal interest to J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or were requested by the attorney general because litigation was deemed possible. These records are now housed at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.
“We found the tail-end of two folders in the FBI HQ files, completely open for researchers, reviewed at one point and in an open box,” said Driskell. But earlier boxes remained closed to researchers.
Fortunately, a previous researcher had filed a FOIA request for these files, which expedited their release to CRRJ. These files contain a wealth of information, such as the coroner’s report, the records of a very detailed FBI investigation of the killing, and a chronicle of House Representative Overton Brooks’s (D-LA) efforts to undermine this investigation.
In total, these boxes contain 110 serials, Driskell explained, and CRRJ has recently gained access to serials 110 and 110a. Driskell is hopefully that CRRJ will receive the remaining 109 serials in the not-too-distant future.
In the two newly discovered files, one contains a note informing researchers that photographs of Jones’ body — like the one passed from Agan to CRRJ and eventually to the Smithsonian — have been removed from the file. Their current location is still unknown.
The other folder contains news-clippings from publications that have not yet been digitized or survived in print. These may provide a fruitful source of information for Driskell, he said.
“This is what the FBI thought was important to collect,” said Driskell, “So that can be useful in determining where they looked or where they failed to look for evidence.”
Driskell hopes that the remaining serials, once released, will help to fill what he sees as the “two missing chunks” in the case. Firstly, they may reveal the location of the photographs depicting Jones in his final resting place. He also hopes they will shed light on contemporary local press coverage of the case. “It would be good to have local Louisiana responses to the killing,” Driskell said. “Was it shocking to white people, did they condemn it? These are important facets, especially when dealing with issues of people acting with impunity and knowing they would never face prosecution.”
Racial violence is an act of terrorism, and these documents are the echo of that terror,” said Driskell.
An echo that, with the continuing discovery of case-materials, can be heard in the present by both Watson and Professor Burnham.
“When CRRJ investigates a cold civil rights case on the ground in a small community, as we did in the Jones matter, sometimes it helps local historians and activists appreciate that events in their communities are part of the stream of history,” said Burnham. “Brett’s work was key here in igniting remedial initiatives. The case, and that trip, has stuck with me as it apparently has for Brett.”
More than a decade after first opening Jones’ file, Watson said the case has greatly influenced his work as a lawyer. “It impacted my world view, the things I care about and keep track of as an intellectual, as a lawyer and as a citizen of the world,” he said.
After graduating Northeastern Law, Watson chose to focus his career on civil rights litigation, and the area of employment discrimination, both individual and class action. He spent nine years in private practice, before joining the State of California Civil Rights Department 18 months ago.
Watson is reminded of Jones each time another act of atrocious racial violence makes its way into the news cycle. “Over the last ten years, since graduating, you see the proliferation of police violence, especially against Black men and women,” said Watson.
“You can’t help but think about all those lynchings in the 20th century and see that these things are still happening,” he said. “Breanna Taylor, George Floyd — you can’t help but feel that there’s Jones in those cases.”
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