Walter Sullivan (Lynching of)

On October 1, 1902, a young African American named Walter Sullivan was murdered in Portland (Ashley County) for allegedly shooting a prominent merchant.

In the 1900 census, there was a fifteen-year-old youth named Walter Sullivan living in Bonita, Louisiana, on the Wilmot Highway just south of the Arkansas line. He was living with his parents, Daniel and Malindy Sullivan, and two brothers, Vigil (age eighteen) and Cud (eight). Although newspaper accounts refer to Mr. Roddy as either D. D. Roddy or D. J. Roddy, he was probably William D. Roddy, a fifty-three-year-old widower who was a merchant in Portland in 1900. Roddy may have formerly been a farmer in Drew County, as a farmer of the same name and age was living there in 1880 with his family.

According to the Arkansas Gazette, Roddy was standing in front of his store on the evening of Saturday, September 27, 1902, when he was shot from behind. Roddy had reportedly “thrashed” Walter Sullivan’s brother a few days earlier, and suspicion at first fell on Sullivan’s father. Walter, however, disappeared on the night of the shooting, and authorities pursued him with bloodhounds. He was captured by Deputy Sheriff Frank Barnes near Wilmot (Ashley County) and was brought back to the Portland city jail, which reportedly stood “alone and [was] never guarded at night.”

On the morning of October 1, the jail was found unlocked, and Sullivan’s body was found hanging from a tree, “mangled and streaming with blood.” Apparently, he had been taken from the jail around 3:00 that morning and was hanged from a small water oak tree; his body was then riddled with bullets. The tree stood in front of a saloon, just a short distance from Roddy’s store. At a subsequent inquest, the local coroner determined that Sullivan had “come to his death by violence, having been hanged and shot by unknown parties.” While there was considerable excitement in town, things gradually quieted down, “and from the general appearance of things no one would know that there had been a lynching.” No one claimed to know the details of the lynching, and “finally a gruesome joke began to pass from mouth to mouth, to the effect that the negro had broken jail and lynched himself.”

Roddy, meanwhile, had been taken to Little Rock (Pulaski County) to be treated at St. Vincent Hospital. By the evening of October 1, his condition “showed a very slight improvement,” but it was feared that he would not recover. He may, however, have survived the shooting, as a man of the same age named William D. Roddy died in Drew County in 1910.

For additional information:
“Negro Lynched in Public Square.” Arkansas Gazette, October 2, 1902, p. 1.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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