Text by Corey Hutchins | Photos by Sean Rayford
This story was also published by the Center for Public Integrity.
ALCOLU, S.C.– A few miles off I-95, past acres of brown-and-white fields where blackbirds circle overhead, this small town in the heart of Deep South cotton country isn’t known for much. It has a post office and a few churches, some abandoned houses and some nicer ones, ramshackle trailers and cotton fields.
After church on a recent Sunday, George Frierson scuffed his shiny black dress shoe across some gravel at a railroad crossing. Back when he was a kid the rail line split this tiny, rural town along racial lines. But for blacks like him growing up in Alcolu, the train tracks signified something even more sinister than segregation.
“Where they actually found the girls’ bodies, they say it was just along the tracks,” he said.
Frierson is a local historian and community activist who works at the nearby Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church and serves on the county school board. The area he was marking with his shoe was the scene of a double murder in 1944. Two young white girls out picking flowers had their skulls bashed in and were found in a nearby water-filled ditch.
Police said their killer used a railroad spike, and for the culprit, they fingered a 14-year-old black boy named George Stinney Jr. A witness said had been seen talking to the girls earlier that day. The sheriff’s deputies who snatched Stinney up said he confessed to the crime when they took him in for questioning. The boy’s parents, who lived in a company house, were run out of town the day he was arrested and didn’t see their son until his trial.
An all-white jury sentenced the teenager to death after 10 minutes of deliberation. The trial lasted two and a half hours in the Clarendon County courthouse where a local tax commissioner preparing for a Statehouse run in an election year was appointed to represent him. No witnesses spoke in his defense.
That summer, fewer than 90 days after the girls were killed, the state of South Carolina shocked George Stinney Jr. to death in an electric chair that didn’t fit his small frame. At age 14, he was the youngest person executed in 20th-century America.
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