G. P. F. Lightfoot (Lynching of)
In December 1892, African-American Baptist minister G. P. F. Lightfoot, referred to in most accounts as “Preacher Lightfoot,” was murdered by a group of African Americans in Jackson County in retaliation for taking their money and promising them nonexistent passage to Liberia.
Interest in immigrating to Africa started early in the United States. The Back-to-Africa movement dates back to 1816, when the American Colonization Society (ACS) was established to help free blacks resettle in Africa. The Republic of Liberia was established in 1847 and was recognized by the U.S. government in 1864. Following the Civil War, many newly freed Arkansas slaves became interested in the movement, especially those in majority-black counties in the Arkansas Delta. The Liberian Exodus Arkansas Colony (LEAC) was established in 1877 in Helena (Phillips County), and the movement existed sporadically even into the twentieth century. According to James Logan Morgan, Lightfoot pretended to represent the Liberian Emigration Society, probably another name for the Liberian Emigration Company, which was established in 1891.
According to numerous reports in the Arkansas Gazette, Lightfoot began operating in Jackson and Woodruff counties in September 1892. He did not start out organizing local African Americans to emigrate but began instead to collect money to help poor African Americans pay for medical expenses and burials. He moved slowly from this activity to organizing groups to go to Africa. He reportedly told some people that he himself was from Africa, and he told others that he was commissioned by Queen Victoria.
He began by organizing the African Americans in the area into circles, each with its own officers and committees. He promised that there was a ship already docked in New York City to take them to Liberia. He initially collected $0.20, plus an additional $3 for each family’s passage. He swore the members to secrecy and urged them to sell all of their property immediately so they could travel to New York to board the ship. The proceeds from these sales were to be given to the treasurer of the circle.
Lightfoot gathered several thousand dollars from membership fees alone. He then disappeared, claiming variously that the death of Jay Gould required him to go to Washington DC to modify his plans, or that he was going to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to purchase their tickets. Before he left, he tried to get Abe Moore, the treasurer of the Weldon (Jackson County) circle, to give him $400 that he was holding, but Moore was suspicious and refused.
On Saturday, December 3, Lightfoot failed to appear for an appointment. He was still gone the next day. Many became suspicious. It turned out that he was in Little Rock, trying to get the various circle treasurers to come there and give him the money they had collected. An unidentified circle treasurer absconded with $1,800, and, on December 8, another treasurer named Jesse Wood exchanged a quantity of silver for paper money. He then purchased a ticket at Gray’s Station in Woodruff County and told people that “he had the money and was going away, and that the negroes could go to Africa or to h—l.” Members of his circle overheard him, seized him, and took the money. Reportedly, they would have hanged him if local whites had not stopped them. They returned to Jackson County and told the members of Wood’s circle that they had the members’ money, which they would return to them at noon on Friday at the Mount Zion Church in southern Jackson County.
In the midst of this meeting, Preacher Lightfoot appeared, firing a bullet through the sentinel’s hat and forcing his way into the church. According to the Gazette, “every negro inside rose up and demanded that he go out. His reply was to pull out two revolvers and begin shooting.” Those in the church pulled rifles, Lightfoot fled, and the mob followed, shooting. Lightfoot fell about 300 yards away. Members of the crowd continued firing: “Not satisfied, some jumped upon the prostrate and blood-smeared body, from which the vital sport had not yet departed, while others hacked his face, throat and hands with knives or razors.”
According to historian James Logan Morgan, coroner Thomas Nance held an inquest later that day. He noted that Lightfoot’s body was riddled with more than fifty bullets and that “his face, neck and hands [were] covered with knife and razor gashes.” According to “negro sources,” ninety-two black families in Jackson County and perhaps forty-six families in Woodruff County were left destitute. Lightfoot’s followers were divided following his death. Adherents in Woodruff County wanted to avenge the murder. A preacher and teacher named Professor Wilson from Augusta (Woodruff County) looked into Lightfoot’s background and discovered that he had previously been in jail and was an “all-round tough character.” Further research indicated that Lightfoot had tried the same scheme in Monroe County the previous winter. He had been discovered, and the money was recovered.
The uproar did not end with Lightfoot’s death. Some African Americans from Woodruff County apparently gathered at White Church near Snapp, intending to burn down the houses of white Jackson County planters. Learning about the gathering, Sheriff Marshall Patterson went to the scene and found them “armed, warlike, and breathing vengeance.” He convinced them that Lightfoot “was a scoundrel and a fraud” and that he had met a “just but horrible death.” They promised to return to their homes, and this was expected to be the last of the trouble.
According to Morgan, however, there were further repercussions. In January 1893, Claude Westmoreland and John Gill of Woodruff County signed affidavits accusing twelve African Americans from Jackson County of Lightfoot’s murder. Those named in the affidavits were Spott Couch, George Purcell, James Berry, Isaac “Ike” Slaughter, Thadd Mudd, James Harris, William Green, West Barker, Tom Billups, Jerry Green, Stant Hunley, and Thad Ezell. All were arrested and jailed in Newport (Jackson County). By the time the grand jury met in late January, John Gill had disappeared, and Claude Westmoreland had changed his testimony. The original indictments were dismissed, and John Gill was indicted for perjury. He was eventually captured by Sheriff James M. Hobgood and pled guilty. On February 1, 1893, he was sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary.
For additional information:
“At Fever Heat.” Arkansas Gazette, December 11, 1892, p. 1.
Barnes, Kenneth C. Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
“Lightfoot’s Death.” Arkansas Gazette, December 14, 1892, p. 4
Morgan, James Logan. “Dr. Lightfoot, 1892.” Stream of History 16 (April 1978): 3–13.
Patton, Adelle, Jr. “The ‘Back to Africa’ Movement in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 51 (Summer 1992): 164–177.
“Preacher Lightfoot.” Arkansas Gazette, December 13, 1892, p. 1.
“Throat Cut, and His Black Body Completely Perforated with Leaden Bullets.” Arkansas Gazette, December 10, 1892, p. 1.
Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina
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