Willis Robinson (Lynching of)

On December 18, 1918, an African-American man named Willis Robinson was hanged by a mob in Newport (Jackson County) for allegedly murdering police officer Charles Williams and wounding Chief of Police Gus C. Martin.

Reports indicate that Robinson was a resident of Little Rock (Pulaski County), and the 1910 census listed nineteen-year-old Willis W. Robinson as living in Owen Township with his parents, Charley and Martha Robinson. According to newspaper reports, by December 1918, Robinson, who was described by the Arkansas Democrat as “a very large black negro, weighing about 240 pounds,” was living with his wife at 1003 Jones Street in Little Rock.

Robinson was reportedly well known to local authorities. In defiance of a 1917 Arkansas statute forbidding “the shipment, transportation, or delivery of intoxicating liquors from any other state, territory or foreign country,” Robinson had reportedly been purchasing liquor in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and transporting it to Little Rock. According to the Democrat, “Robinson has been coming in to Little Rock every day or two with a grip or suitcase in each hand, which they suspicioned contained whiskey.” He had been arrested several months prior “on a whiskey and larceny charge,” but the witnesses disappeared, and the charges were dropped. In a December 20, 1918, report, the Arkansas Gazette noted that Robinson had also been causing trouble on the train, and that trainmen had said that he had a habit of “coming on to trains drunk and raising disturbances.” On the trip on December 18, he was drunk and reportedly fired his pistol out the window of the train as it left Poplar Bluff.

The train stopped in Newport on the way, and authorities there, knowing that Robinson would be aboard, decided to apprehend him. The train arrived at Newport at 8:00 p.m., and night policeman Charles Williams and police chief Gus Martin tried to arrest him. Robinson resisted, in the process wounding Williams and Martin. Williams managed to leave the train but fell down dead shortly afterward. Robinson then fled. According to the Arkansas Gazette, Sheriff J. M. “Jake” Ivy, who was also present, pursued Robinson. Robinson shot at Ivy as he ran, grazing him, and “when his revolver failed during an encounter with Switchman Charles Miller, he hit him over the head with it and knocked him down.” Ivy eventually arrested Robinson while he was still in the railroad yard.

Robinson was jailed, but around 10:00 p.m., a mob forced its way into the jail, sawed through the bars, removed Robinson, and hanged him near the railroad station. The Democrat reported that “at Newport there was no further trouble, the mob dispersing shortly after the hanging.”

For additional information:
“Desperate Fight Preceded Lynching.” Arkansas Gazette, December 20, 1918, p. 2.

“Newport Citizens Lynch Little Rock Negro Bootlegger.” Arkansas Democrat, December 19, 1918, p. 1.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina

Last Updated: 09/24/2019