Sam Cates (Lynching of)

On September 12, 1917, a twenty-five-year-old African-American man named Sam Cates was lynched near England (Lonoke County) for allegedly harassing white girls and young women, including allegedly sending an improper note to the sister of Claude Clay.

The exact identity of Sam Cates remains uncertain. According to marriage records, there were two men by the same or similar names living in Lonoke County around this time, although neither have ages exactly matching twenty-five in 1917. On July 3, 1910, twenty-one-year-old Sammie Kates married Mary Mathews (born around 1891) in England (which lies in the center of Lonoke County’s Gum Woods Township). According to 1910 census records, there was an African-American woman named Mary Matthews (born around 1893) living with her father Will Matthews in Gum Woods Township; she may have been the bride. In the second case, on October 8, 1913, Sam Cates, age twenty-four, married Annie Henderson (born around 1889) in Lonoke County. His bride may have been a “mulatto” woman named Annie Henderson (born around 1885) who, in 1910, was working as a servant in the household of E. Conway Haynes in Gum Woods Township. While it is a matter of speculation, either of these men may have been the victim of the 1917 lynching.

There is much more information on Claude Clay. His full name was John Claude Clay, and in 1910 he was eighteen and living with his brother Henry in Gum Woods Township, where he was clerking in a store. By 1920, he was living in England with his mother, Levia Clay, and an eighteen-year-old sister, Irene. By this time, he owned his own grocery store. He married Ruby Sloan on October 31, 1920, and remained in England until his death in February 1974.

Although Cates’s lynching was the subject of brief reports in newspapers across the nation, the Arkansas Gazette published the only detailed account. According to a report datelined September 12, over the previous several weeks Cates had lain in wait and made “improper proposals” to young white girls who approached him. He was so bold that few girls and women would go out without an escort. On September 11, a note containing “indecent proposals” was allegedly sent to Claude Clay’s sister. Clay immediately suspected Cates and set out to find him. He shot him, and although one bullet wounded Cates in the right eye, the other shots missed. On September 12, England constable Tom Tolson captured Cates, cuffed him to the seat of his car, and started to take him to jail in Lonoke (Lonoke County) at around 10:00 p.m. On his way, he was waylaid by several men who stopped the car. Tolson unhooked Cates, and after he climbed out of the car, the men re-cuffed him. They then took him into the woods, where they shot him.

His body was left in the woods overnight, but the following day the coroner recovered the remains pending an inquest. The Arkansas Democrat reported that Sheriff Pat Swaim had opened an investigation, but there are no reports of any subsequent arrests.

For additional information:
“Negro Taken from Constable, Killed.” Arkansas Gazette, September 13, 1917, p. 1.

“Seeking Six Men Who Slew Negro.” Arkansas Democrat, September 13, 1917, p. 1.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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