MY GEORGIA ROOTS: The Story of Rev. Benjamin Lundy of Mitchell and Dougherty Counties Georgia

Photograph of Rev. Ben Lundy

I was about 8 years old when I first heard about my 2 times great grandfather, the Rev. Benjamin Lundy. His name was written in the bible of my maternal grandmother, Roxie Griffin Hawkins’s, who married Lundy’s grandson Rufus C. Hawkins on Dec 7, 1957, in Newark. In 1957, Ben Lundy’s son, Uncle George Lundy moved to Newark, New Jersey where his apartment would be one of two on the 2nd floor in a small tenement building on Morton Street in the Central Ward of Newark. Across the hall from them, was my 19-year-old grandmother’s childhood home where she lived all her life with her parents, until her father passed away in July of 1955. When my 21-year-old grandfather who was born in Baconton, Mitchell County, Georgia arrived in Newark, Essex County, New Jersey in late summer 1957 from Perry, Taylor County, Florida to live there with his uncle, he met my grandmother.

From what I was told as a child by my grandmother, Ben Lundy was a minister and was sort of a civil rights activist. He led protest against the police who wrongly jailed black people. I did find in my research that he was a minister of a church in Albany, Georgia, but I wasn’t able to find any information printed about the protests they he led. However, in my research, I did find events in his life that may have been the sparks to his call of duty to work on behalf of those he felt couldn’t. This is a short summary of his story.

Partial County Map of Georgia showing locations where Ben Lundy and or his parents resided

Benjamin Lundy was born about 1849 and according to his death certificate he was born in Forsyth, Monroe County, Georgia. His parents, Washington and Matilda Jones were born in neighboring Bibb County, Georgia. According to oral family history, he was the son of an Indian, but he was likely one of the 40 slaves reported on the 1860 federal slave schedule of Robert Lundy in Dougherty County, Georgia. He spent the first 15/16 years of his life as someone else’s property. By 1865, he was one of the more than 460,000 enslaved people freed in Georgia during and after the Civil War.

He married Nancy Beal on 09 Dec 1867 in Dougherty County, Georgia and lived in nearby Lee County Georgia in his mulatto father’s Washington “Wash” Jones’s household in 1870 with his wife and child. Like most people of color during that time, recently freed or otherwise, this family more than likely saw political tensions in the new south and may have experience racial violence and or threats of it. Both the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Ku Klux Klan played as prominent a role in Georgia as in any former Confederate state.

Ku Klux Klan Cartoon, Harper’s Weekly

In 1866, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) began first in Tennessee and then in other states like Georgia, amidst the political, economic, and social upheaval that was the aftermath of the American Civil War. This movement targeted the most primal fears of Southern white populations, claiming to seek justice for crimes against whites, reiterating antiquated social status quos, and ensuring white supremacy were top priorities for the Klan. [Southern Poverty Law Center – Jordan Adams, “A History of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia from 1868-1944”] African Americans had been given the right to vote, and in the months that followed that decision, whites across the state used violence to combat Blacks new potential political strength, often through the newly founded Ku Klux Klan. Georgia agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau recorded 336 cases of murder or assault with intent to kill against freedmen from January 1 through November, 15 of 1868.

On September 19, 1868, between 150 and 300 blacks, as well as a few whites, marched from Albany, Mitchell County, Georgia, to Camilla, the Mitchell County seat, to attend a Republican political rally on the courthouse square. The local sheriff and “citizens committee” in the majority-white town warned the black and white activists that they would be met with violence, and demanded that they surrender their guns, even though carrying weapons was legal and customary at the time. The marchers refused to give up their guns and continued to the courthouse square, where a group of local whites, quickly deputized by the sheriff, fired upon them. This assault forced the Republicans and freedmen to retreat into the swamps as locals gave chase, killing an estimated nine to fifteen of the black rally participants while wounding forty others. “Whites proceeded through the countryside over the next two weeks, beating and warning Negroes that they would be killed if they tried to vote in the coming election.” [Johnson, Nicholas (2014). Negroes and The Gun: the black tradition of arms.] This horrible event was called the “Camilla Massacre” and Ben Lundy was a victim of it. As of now, I have no records indicating that Lundy was part of the march that prompted the attention of the white citizens of Camilla but he was injured from the massacre that followed it. On 19 September 1868, Benjamin Lundy was shot with a buckshot, causing wounds to his right shoulder and elbow and to his head. [ Evidence Before the Committee on Reconstruction Relative to the Condition of Affairs in Georgia By United States. Congress. House. Committee on Reconstruction · 1869] He survived the attack and after he recovered from it, he and his family may have felt the need to leave the area and move to nearby Lee County from Dougherty and Mitchell Counties perhaps thinking that it might be safer, but race relations there would not be any better.

Thomas Nast Cartoon, The Camilla Massacre, 1868
Illustration by Thomas Nast, Public domain

By 1871, the KKK had died down and Ben Lundy moved his growing family to Baconton, a town in neighboring Mitchell County, Georgia where he worked as a farmer for a white man named Robert James “RJ” Bacon while his father relocated back to Dougherty County and worked as an omnibus driver. RJ Bacon who was born around 1830 was reported on the 1870 census having personal assets valuing $5,000 and real estate valuing $20,000. Ten years prior in 1860, the GA agriculture digest in Mitchell reported 1000 acres of improved land and 1000 aces of unimproved land valued at $20,000 for Bacon. On the 1880 Census RJ Bacon was recorded in Dougherty County and his occupation was recorded as a “warehouseman”. Ben Lundy consistently worked for RJ Bacon, and he apparently developed a good reputation in the community but then one day things changed. During the holiday season in December 1882, he was accused a breaking into a store and robbing it and he would face years of hard labor in a segregation Georgia state prison if he were to be found guilty.

Bill of Indictment 12/30/1883

On the Friday before the Christmas of 1882, the small store front of a black or mulatto man, Squire Walton was burglarized. Walton’s business dealt in general merchandise and in liquor and 3 days after his store was burglarized, Ben Lundy was accused of robbing it. Having stolen property on his person that was identified by a clerk who worked for Squire Walton, made Ben Lundy the only suspect in the robbery as far as the local law was concern and on 30 Dec 1882, he was indicted for the burglary by a grand jury of 22 white men. On 22 March 1883 the courts began prosecution hearings for Lundy who had been in the Mitchell County jail since around Christmas of 1882. According to the court documents that I’ve read, Ben Lundy was accused of the crime he was indicted for because of a coin he had in his possession. The coin was a silver quarter which was only one of the “several” items Squire Walton claimed to have been missing. The coin had certain “notches” on it and the date of 1854 which Walton claimed to have recognized. When asked how he came into possession of the coin, Lundy apparently wasn’t consistence with his claim of who he received it from. He named both Bill and John Glozier who were father and son as the source of his receipt of the stolen coin. They were both white men who testified in court that Ben Lundy didn’t receive the coin from either one of them. The Gloziers, were also merchants themselves and Squire Walton’s business may have been in competition with theirs. The courts believed them and convicted Lundy on 29 Mar 1883 in Mitchell County. The courts sentenced him to 2 years hard labor in the Georgia State Penitentiary.

Ben Lundy apparently had a lot of support within the community. According to the Atlanta Constitution, which was a Georgia newspaper, Lundy’s major support was led by a black man named Ira Wright. Wright worked to have the court’s decision appealed and on 5 Apr 1883 the decision to rehear his case was granted. This victory must have sent hope not only to Lundy for his freedom but to blacks in and outside of Georgia who may have been following this case. After several months having gone by and after character testimony given by people in the community, the Georgia Court of Appeals made their decision. On 18 Sep 1883, the judge in the matter upheld the original decision even after hearing character testimony. The judge’s decision was based on the coin being in Lundy’s possession and stated that “the new evidence, [mostly character testimony], was immaterial”. On 1 Apr 1884, Lundy was placed into the custody of the Georgia State Penitentiary and sentenced to 2 years hard labor. He was described as 5’8″, age 39, black complexion with black hair and brown eyes.

The_Atlanta_Constitution_Tue__Apr_3__1883_ (Ben Lundy)

Ben Lundy may have been involved in a system called “Convict leasing” which was a system of forced penal labor historically practiced in the Southern United States and overwhelmingly involved African American men. In Georgia convict leasing began in April 1868, when newly appointed provisional governor Thomas H. Ruger issued a convict lease for prisoners to William Fort for work on the Georgia and Alabama Railroad and as their state prison in Milledgeville, Georgia became dilapidated after the Civil War, this system was a welcome substitute.

Convict Labor
Courtesy of Georgia Archives.

Within five years, convict leasing was a major source of revenue for the state. Over a span of eighteen months in 1872 and 1873, the hiring out of prison labor brought Georgia more than $35,000. With this success, the state legislature passed a law in 1876 that endorsed the leasing of the state’s prisoners to one or more companies for at least twenty years. Three companies took on these convicts at the price of $500,000 to be paid at intervals over the twenty-year span of the lease. During this period, there were attempts to reform the system of convict labor in Georgia, although such efforts were never successful, in part because of the sheer profitability of the convict lease system. In 1881, expressing intentions to improve the prisoners’ quality of life, the state legislature passed a law requiring that only one person in each work camp be authorized to administer punishment. Rather than ease the difficulties of leased convicts, however, this legislation enabled the harsh treatment of prisoners by men known as “whipping bosses.” [Todd, William. “Convict Lease System.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Jul 17, 2020. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/convict-lease-system/Convict Lease System”] Georgia ended the convict lease system in 1908.

By the spring of 1886, Lundy was released from the state prison. He found a job working for a white man whose last name was Montgomery. It may have been there where he met his future father-in-law and future grandfather in law, Stephen Downer and Anthony Downer, respectively. Both Stephen and Anthony worked as farmers for Montgomery as well. His first wife Nancy had apparently died or left him.

On Christmas day in 1890, Ben Lundy married a young Leah Williams, who was either divorced or widowed with a young daughter of her own. Leah who was born in 1863 was the daughter of Stephen Downer born 1836 and Mary “Polly” Flanagan Downer born 1841 and was the granddaughter of Anthony and Mimi Downer, my four times great grandparents who were born in 1815 and 1800, respectively. They had a family together of their own which was as large as his family with Nancy Beall. By 1891, Ben Lundy as well as his Downer in laws were living in Dougherty County and were probably there for a year or two. Lundy remained there until the late 1890s only to return to Mitchell County where he continued working as farmer.

Marriage Certificate of Ben Lundy and Leah [Downer] Williams

Beginning in the 1890s, Georgia and other southern states passed a wide variety of Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation or separation in public facilities and effectively codified the region’s tradition of white supremacy. Under Jim Crow, Black Georgians suffered from a system of discrimination that pervaded nearly every aspect of life; they were denied their constitutional right to vote, encountered discrimination in housing and employment, and were refused access to public spaces and facilities. [Hatfield, Edward. “Segregation.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Jul 20, 2020. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/segregation/%5D

Lynching Of A Black Man Accused Of Rape In Royston, Georgia Around 1935-1940

During the introduction of Jim Crow, suppression of Black citizens took a far more violent turn. More lynchings took place in Georgia between 1889 and 1918 than anywhere else in the United States. [Tolnay, Stewart and E. Beck. “Lynching.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Aug 12, 2020. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/lynching/%5D

During the late 1890s and early 1900s, there were hundreds penitentiary convictions of black men within the Mitchell/Dougherty area; one of them being, Israel Lundy, Ben Lundy’s son from his first marriage to Nancy Beale. Anyone of these men, especially his son may have been among the black people whose imprisonment Lundy protested. On 30 Apr 1895, 22-year-old Israel Lundy was sentenced in Dougherty County, Georgia to 5 ½ years prison for 3 counts of simple larceny. He served his 5 ½ year prison sentence in the state prison and was released from it on 30 Oct 1900.

By 1910, Lundy relocated his family back to Dougherty County, Georgia and resided in Militia District 1097. Lundy was a farmer in this area of Georgia and he was probably a member of different churches, likely a preacher during this time. In 1920, he was recorded on the census for the first time as a preacher while his wife and his children worked on a farm where he had his own account.

He relocated one last time back to Mitchell County sometime in the 1920s, maybe when he began serving at 1st Bethesda Baptist Church in Dougherty, County, becoming the church’s 3rd minister in 1926. The “Rev. Ben Lundy assumed his new role while at the same time running a farm in Baconton, Mitchell County. He may have attended that same church as early as 1865, when the church was donated to its newly freed black members, and when the first African-American deacons were ordained. He ministered at Bethesda for 6 years until on 30 Aug 1932, at 8pm, he passed away in Putney in Baconton, Mitchell County, Georgia from stomach cancer.

The Rev. Lundy and Nancy Beale were the parents of Martha Lundy born 1869, Sarah Steele, born 1871, Israel Lundy, 1873–1948, Benjimen J Lundy Jr born 1874, James Lundy, born 1876, and Washington”Wash” Lundy (1878–1879).

The Rev. Lundy and Leah Downer were the parents of Benzola Riley (1891–1958), George A. Lundy (1892–1970), Leonza Means (1896–1988), Arrilla “Mercy” Tensley (1898–1966), Ruth Lundy (1898–1992), Eugene James H Lundy (1902–1956), Mary Anne Hawkins (1903–1963) and Marie Lundy born 1906.

Leah Downer Williams was the mother of Kattie Laura Bell Williams born (1885) before she married Ben Lundy.