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‘These are people’s lives:’ Historians shine light on lives of two men lynched in Michigan

John Taylor was lynched in Holt, Michigan in 1886. Over 20 years later Albert Martin was lynched in Port Huron.
Posted at 8:04 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 20:29:10-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — ArtPrize was a success for the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives. Executive Director George Bayard said hundreds of people stopped in to view the 10-foot quilt called Strange Fruit: A century of Lynching and Murder, 1865-195.

Some even cried, he remembered.

“People were impressed with the workmanship,” Bayard said about the quilt that had sewn on it the 5,000 names of the men, women, and children lynched during that time. “They also loved the fact that it told about history. To see that many names in one place of people who were lynched, many unfairly, was surprising. It had people in tears. It had people looking for their relatives. So, it went over pretty well for us.”

The quilt, which was created by Detroit artist April Shipp, listed the names by the states in which they were lynched. Bayard said people walked in and immediately searched for Michigan.

Only two names were listed: Eddie Cook and Albert Martin.

“I immediately googled to see and John Taylor’s name came up and his name was not on her quilt,” Bayard recalled during an interview with Fox 17 in early February. “I was like I wonder what’s happening because it fits within the time frame. So anyway, I started doing a little research and it just surprised me, shocked me, that in Holt, Michigan, Ingham County, there was a man — John Taylor — who was lynched.”

He was a Black man born a slave in Kentucky, Bayard said. Taylor joined Michigan first Black infantry and fought in the Civil War. Afterwards, he found work as a farmhand in Ingham County.

“He was quite a good worker but Buck wasn’t paying him what he should get,” Bayard said. “So, he went down the road and another farmer said ‘I’ll pay you more’ and ‘just come with me.’ So, he started working for the other farmer. And Mr. Buck still owed him some money.”

Bayard said he learned in his research that Taylor was seeking $4 in back pay, which would be the equivalent to a few hundred dollars today.

So, Taylor knocked on Mr. Buck’s door.

“Mr. Bucks wife, daughter, and mother-in-law were there. And, he kind of startled them because he came in looking for Mr. Buck,” Bayard said. “Somehow an outburst or something happened and they ended up getting injured with an ax.”

Taylor fled, Bayard said. But was later picked up by local authorities and put in jail.

Bayard noted that immediately rumors and falsehoods began spreading around town about the incident. Several newspapers referred to the incident as a murder.

“What happened with the news media, like it is now sometimes, kind of exaggerated his story and said that they were murdered,” Bayard said. “So, the townspeople all thought they were murdered. So, it was vigilante style back in those days, like it is now sometimes. But, they went to look for him and they found him and captured him. But the police got him and put him in a jail cell to await trial.”

Then in late August 1866, after the Sheriff had gone home, the vigilante — with masks on and sledgehammers in hand — broke into Ingham County jail where he was lodged and dragged him out.

“[They] opened the cell door, yanked him out, put a rope around his neck, dragged him a couple of blocks and threw him over a train trestle and hung him,” Bayard said.

A newspaper reported that Taylor was either 18 years old or 19 years old at the time of his death.

The Holt-Delhi Historical Society wrote in an article that Buck's family died decades after the incident: his wife in 1884, daughter in 1897, and mother-in-law died in 1890.

After that, the next lynching didn’t happen for another 23 years. This time it was in 1889 in Port Huron.

“Albert Martin unfortunately was a victim of a lynching for the same reason that many many African American men had been lynched because he was accused of raping a White woman,” said Doug MrCray, an educator with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in  Detroit. “For that reason, he was attacked and he was also lynched.”

According to The Times newspaper, Martin was accused of assaulting a White woman. He was apprehended and put in jail. Sheriff Mann told the paper that his wife woke him up at 2 a.m. to tell him that a crowd formed outside the jail.

“My wife hung to my arm and begged me not to go. I went out to get assistance. I ran down as far as the Huron House. The night clerk advised me not to go back, but I did. I soon met Mr. Cox and Shorter. We ran to the jail. We rushed down to the Seventh Street bridge and found the negro hanging to the bridge. I cut him down but life was extinct," he said in the paper.

By 2:45 a.m. Martin was dead.

“It’s the same thing that happened to so many African American men because that was always considered to be a very very sound and reasonable excuse for attacking a person and killing them,” McCray said.

Both Bayard and McCray mentioned that another man had been lynched in Michigan: Till Warner, in 1883, for allegedly assaulting a White child.

“One of the things that I found out after doing a little bit more digging about the Cheboygan lynching was that this guy Till Warner was lynched, and for some reason in all the records, in his genealogy, in his census records, his marriage records, he passed as White. He was White,” Bayard said. “I mean nobody really knows for sure but in all the records he was White. The only reason why he was listed as Black was that the same day he was lynched another Black man in Alabama was lynched. Put the articles together and ran in the New York Times with the headline Brutal Negroes Lynched. And so if you look at the local papers they never say what race he is.”

In 2018, the town of Holt renamed Dead Man’s Hill to John Taylor Memorial Park. There was a ceremony and sign put up honoring his life and legacy.

Bayard believes more can be done, especially politically.

“You can certainly put pressure on Congress. Why would somebody not want to have an anti-lynching bill? If you don’t have an anti-lynching bill then you have a lynching bill,” Bayard said. “So, it doesn’t make any sense but I guess some people want to play politics with it. These are, these are peoples lives.”

That bill is called the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. It’s been introduced and currently stalled in Congress. Supporters of it are hoping that it's passed to hopefully bring justice to the thousands of victims of lynching, including the few here in Michigan.

“If we learn more about what lynching was all about and recognize the affect that it has had — the negative affect that it has had — from back then until now, we can improve that going forward,” McCray said.