Lynching in Columbus
"More than 4,400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950," reads the website of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. While immigrants from Europe were less likely to participate in lynchings, they quickly understood that violence against African Americans was an efficient way of "claiming whiteness" in Texas. In her book Lynching to Belong, Cynthia Skove Nevels finds instances of lynchings committed by Italians, Irish, and Czech Americans in Brazos County. She cannot verify German cases. But lynchings of black people by Germans occurred once relations changed.
The events in the Columbus case can be summarized as follows: Geraldine Henriette Kollmann, a high school graduate and valedictorian of her class in 1934, went missing on October 17th, 1935. Her body was found floating in Cummins Creek by her brother. Physicians concluded that a rape-murder had occurred. An investigation by Sherriff Frank Fred Hoegemeyer suspected Bennie Mitchell Jr. and Ernest Collins, two black boys barely sixteen years of age. According to the records, both admitted to the crime. Because of their age, any conviction would have fallen short of the death penalty. The two youth were transferred to Houston to evade the reaction of the inflamed white population. When they were eventually transferred back, a white mob abducted the teenagers from the hands of the Sheriff and hung them outside of Columbus. Because the mob was largely masked and most citizens were unwilling to cooperate in the aftermath, it is unknown to this day who the main instigators and perpetrators were. However, research by the late Bill Stein and an interview David conducted with Jim Kearney - a historian of the region - reveals that many if not most of the men involved in the lynching were of German extraction. You can hear parts of the interview which summarizes the sequence of events as reconstructed by the late Bill Stein.
Picture: Hoegemeyer and his deputy posing with the rope of the lynching in a press photo.
Audio: Summary of Bill Stein's account by Jim Kearney.
Photo: Image distributed by mob members, courtesy of Nesbitt Memorial Library
The picture of the lynching was taken by mob members during the night of the killing. Perversely, it was later distributed to the Columbus population in form of a postcard. At the bottom it reads Colorado County Protects "Womanhood" —clearly an act of intimidation aimed at the Black population.
It is not surprising that the event left deep marks on the Black community that are partially recorded in the late Patsy Cravens documentary "Coming Through Hard Times" (1995). The relevant sequence of the movie is posted below. Some of the recollections are based on oral traditions that were not corroborated by Stein's research. Yet, they deserve to be heard as accounts of the historic intimidation and arbitrary brutality that the Black community endured - also from their German American neighbors.