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Lay This Body Down

Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves By Gregory A. Freeman

Lawrence Hill Books, 1999

Williams was not alone in using "peons," poor blacks bailed out of local jails, but his reaction to a federal investigation was almost unbelievable.

He decided to destroy the evidence, to kill 11 black men who could testify to the situation. Williams enlisted the aid of his farm boss, 27-year-old Clyde Manning, forcing him to methodically kill his friends. Men were chained together, two-by-two, weighted down with rocks, thrown over bridges, alive and terrified; others were bludgeoned with an axe, summarily shot, or ordered to dig their own graves.

The surprises continued in the aftermath, as even a bigoted rural community found that it could not overlook such a heinous crime. Two sensational trials ensued, gripping the state, galvanizing national attention, and marking a turning point in the treatment of black Americans.

Clyde Manning and his fellow peons can truly be said to be the last American slaves. This riveting book is based largely on the immensely detailed court testimony, the FBI investigations and other records.

A vivid, haunting story of a long forgotten incident, it helps to illuminate the long journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom.

From Chapter 1: Don't Throw Me Over

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Just as before, the car came to a halt in the middle of the bridge and Mr. Johnny stepped out. "All right, boys, get out," he said. "Hurry up and get it over with." Manning and Chisolm helped Price out of the back seat, with Manning lifting the heavy bag of rocks so that Price could walk. Mr. Johnny didn't say anything this time. Chisolm began to push Price toward the railing while Manning, with his eyes downcast and avoiding Price's face, supported the rocks.

Manning was surprised when Price shook himself free of Chisolm's grip and with a low, quavering voice, said "Don't throw me over. I'll get over." Apparently not knowing what else to do, Chisolm let Price shuffle slowly toward the railing on his own. Manning walked alongside, carrying the bag of rocks that Price could not support without his help. When he got to the railing, Price turned his back to the river and faced Mr. Johnny, standing near the car.

He pulled himself up on the railing and balanced himself there, with Manning still holding the bag of rocks for him. He sat there for a long moment, tears streaming down his dark cheeks and his whole body trembling. No one said anything. Manning stared downward, his gaze passing through the rusted metal bridge railing and into the deep blackness of the river. Price looked from Manning to Chisolm as if he were trying to think of something that would help him, but nothing came.

"Don't throw me over," he said once again, calmly. And, after another long pause, "Lord have mercy."

With those final words, Price leaned back and Manning let go of the rocks. Price disappeared into the darkness.

Horrific, shocking, painful, yet ultimately redemptive and even encouraging, Lay This Body Down is a vital addition to our knowledge of the American past.

Stanley Booth, author
The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones

I couldn't put down this magnificently well-written book. Greg Freeman has illuminated a little-known corner of the world in a forgotten period of history: the way the practices and assumptions of slavery lingered decades after Appomattox in a couple of rural Georgia counties. The author unflinchingly tells a brutal plantation story; in its wake, he discovers the stirrings of abhorrence and justice among the townsfolk; and he finds, between the act and the recoil, that the South moved forward a half-step toward decency and human acceptance.

Melissa Faye Greene, author
The Temple Bombing
Praying for Sheetrock

Lay This Body Down is a stunning retelling of one of the worst serial killings in Georgia history. It reveals the sordid story of slavery that existed far into the 20th Century in the South. Gregory A. Freeman's superb book is both poignant and disturbing because it points out the deep roots of racial hatred that have been a blight on the United States since its founding.

Phil Williams, author
Crossing Wildcat Ridge

Freeman's book has a subtitle calculated to bring readers up short. Plantation slaves in 1921?? Therein lies a horrifying tale of the Old South. A Georgia-based journalist, Freeman first came across this story when his hometown, Atlanta, was hosting the 1996 Olympics (although it was widely covered even in the northern press at the time of the events described in the book). Although slavery theoretically died with the Confederacy, in the Jim Crow South there were still forms of debt bondage, called peonage, that were little more than gussied-up versions of the "peculiar institution." A young black man would find himself arrested for some minor offense and issued a fine that he would be unable to pay; a local farmer would pay his fine and put him to work under slavery-like conditions, ostensibly to pay off this unasked-for loan. In the case of gentleman farmer John S. Williams, the result could be death by beating, bludgeoning, shooting, or drowning. Williams, unwillingly aided by his black overseer, Clyde Manning, murdered eleven of his plantation workers in 1921 when he thought the nascent Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) was considering charges against him for peonage. Eventually, the story came to the surface with a trio of the corpses he and Manning had tossed into a nearby river. Remarkably, Williams was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, primarily on Manning's testimony -- the first white southern male convicted of first degree murder of a black man or woman since 1877. (It would be 45 years before it would happen again.) Freeman walks the reader through the eleven murders and their aftermath with cool detachment. The book is scrupulously researched, with an eye for the telling detail. A good true-crime story, with far-reaching implications.

Kirkus Reviews

Newspaper Coverage of the Trials

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