William Turner (Lynching of)

Nineteen-year-old William Turner was lynched in Helena (Phillips County) on November 18, 1921, for allegedly attacking a young white girl. According to newspaper accounts, it was the first lynching in Helena.

Early on the morning of November 18, Turner allegedly attacked a teenaged girl as she was walking to her job at the telephone exchange. He was arrested and placed in the jail, which adjoined the courthouse. According to the Arkansas Gazette, local citizens, in a state of “suppressed excitement,” began to gather near the courthouse during the afternoon. In an attempt to protect Turner from harm, two deputy sheriffs put him into a car shortly after dark to take him to jail in nearby Marianna (Lee County). They were only a short distance outside of Helena when they were stopped by a mob of twenty-five to thirty masked men who demanded the prisoner. The deputies, outnumbered, surrendered him, and he was shot by the roadside.

In the meantime, additional citizens of Helena, not knowing of the transfer, gathered around the courthouse and threatened to break down the doors to the jail. Sheriff J. D. Mays was talking to them when he received word of Turner’s death. The crowd, fearing that Mays was lying, demanded to enter the jail. Mays offered to let Turner’s brother enter the jail to see that Turner was no longer there, but before he could do so, an ambulance sped by in the direction of the lynching. Some members of the crowd sped after it, while a large number of others remained in the downtown area. According to the Gazette, when the ambulance returned thirty minutes later, onlookers began to shout, “Burn the body! Burn the body!” Turner’s body was then dragged from the ambulance, stripped, taken to a park near the courthouse, doused with gasoline, and burned.

As was often the case, an African-American weekly, the St. Louis Argus, had a more brutal tale to tell. According to an article published on November 25, 1921, and quoted in books by scholars Molefi Kete Asante and Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, after Turner’s body was removed from the ambulance and stripped, it was “tied by rope to the back of an automobile that drove through the streets…while citizens shot at the moving target from the sidewalk.” It was then burned, and “after the celebrants had had their fill,” the victim’s father, August Turner, was asked to come to the park to remove his son’s remains.

According to the Gazette, the anonymous victim of Turner’s alleged assault was “recovering from the shock of her experience” at the time of the reporting.

For additional information:
Asante, Molefi Kete. Erasing Racism: The Survival of the American Nation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2009.

“Helena Breaks Her Record for Law and Order.” Helena World, November 20, 1921, p. 1.

“Negro Is Shot to Death by a Mob at Helena.” Arkansas Gazette, November 19, 1921, p. 1.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. The End of American Lynching. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Clinton, South Carolina


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