EDITOR’S NOTE: This article describes the graphic lynching of John Lee Eberhart in 1921. Please read with discretion.
About 50 people gathered at the Athens-Clarke County courthouse Tuesday for an hour-long remembrance vigil for the 100th anniversary of the lynching of John Lee Eberhart, a 25-year old Black man who was burnt to death at the hands of a local mob on Feb. 16, 1921.
John Cole Vodicka, the organizer of the event and a co-coordinator volunteer for the Athens Courtwatch Project, said that it is necessary to recognize this uncomfortable history and say Eberhart’s name just as loud as people did for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
During the vigil, the crowd read aloud “Invocation,” a poem by American poet and cultural advocate Elizabeth Alexander, that commemorates victims of racial terror and how they will not be forgotten, nor lost in the narration of American history.
Pastor Laura Patterson from United Methodist Church spoke about lent and the journey Christians make to Jesus’ own lynching site.
“As a white southern Christian, if I am following a crucified, lynched God, then I have to learn to love those who are being crucified in this world more than I love my perceived right to crucify them — we have to acknowledge what we have done wrong, confess, ask for forgiveness and work to repair the harm we have done,” Patterson said.
Vodicka also brought rocks and soil from the lynch site. Members in the crowd walked onto the court steps to collect stones.
Vodicka asked the crowd to place the stone in their left hand as he closed with a prayer. “This stone symbolizes the souls of our departed brothers John Lee Eberhart and Ahmaud Arbery. May their memories live on in and through us,” Vodicka said.
At the conclusion of the vigil the crowd said Eberhart and Arbery’s names in unison.
The murder of John Lee Eberhart
Eberhart was the main suspect in the murder of Ida D. Lee, a 25-year old white woman. He was arrested and taken to the top floor of the ACC courthouse, which was the Clarke County jail at the time.
By 8 p.m. the same evening, a mob of 3000 people gathered at the courthouse and began to attack the jail and eventually seized Eberhart, according to Flagpole Magazine. Eberhart was then taken to the wooded area across from Lee’s house on Macon Highway where the murder took place.
According to an eyewitness account by past UGA student and civil rights advocate Clark Foreman, Eberhart denied his guilt until his last breath. The mob chained Eberhart to a tree and lit the wood that was placed beneath him as they jeered and watched the flames engulf his body.
Afterward, the mob removed particular body parts from Eberhart and took branches from the tree as mementos.
There is no information on who was present in the mob. It is speculated that some of those in attendance were UGA students.
“A group and then a mob of people decided that this person was guilty and rather than let the system process it as it should have — they, you know, basically summarily executed him,” Vodicka said.
‘The same fate’: Ahmaud Arbery
Black Student Union chairman Joshua Patton referred to the lynching of Eberhart as both “barbaric” and “ruthless.” Although Patton was not surprised by the lynching, he said it was disheartening that he only learned about it recently.
Patton also tied the lynching to the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an innocent Black jogger, in Brunswick, Georgia.
On Feb. 23, 2020, Arbery was shot and killed at the hands of two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael. Both men were arrested on charges of murder and aggravated assualt.
“This lynching really put things into perspective for me — to just think about how far apart the two events were but how similar they actually are — even though it’s not the same scale,” Patton said.
Although the vigil was for Eberhart, Vodicka memorialized Arbery, as next week marks the one-year anniversary of his death.
“99 years and one week after John Lee Eberhart was lynched here, Ahmaud Arbery suffered the same fate in Glynn County,” Vodicka said.
Arbery became the fourth Black man to be lynched in Glynn County following the 1891 lynchings of Henry Jackson and Wesley Lewis and the 1894 lynching of Robert Evarts, according to The Lynching Project, an ongoing study done on lynchings in Georgia by UGA.
In an interview with CBS This Morning, Arbery’s father Marcus Arbery Sr. said his son’s death was an act of racism. “My son was lynched — lynched by a racist mob,” Arbery said.
Patton also emphasized the need to destroy the concept of group-think. “Regardless of whether or not Eberhart killed the woman — the fact that no one out of 3000 people felt differently or allowed it to legally play out is barbaric,” Patton said.
Confronting history: Georgia lynchings
Brittanica defines lynching as “a form of violence in which a mob, under the pretext of administering justice without trial, executes a presumed offender.”
According to lynching research from the Equal Justice Initiative, Georgia is the second-highest state in the number of lynchings committed. At least 589 Black people were lynched in Georgia between 1877 and 1950.
Oconee County has 11 recorded lynchings of African Americans, ranking it fourth in the state behind Fulton, Early and Brooks counties.
Walton County has nine; Madison County, five and Wilkes County, four. Elbert, Morgan, and Greene County each had two, and Jackson, Barrow and Clarke County had one each.
These are merely "recorded" lynchings. Vodicka, who has also done lynching research, said no one was ever tried for taking part in a lynching. In most cases, no one was even arrested.
Vodicka said the vast majority of lynch victims were secretly buried, either by the lynch mob or the victim's family members.
According to EJI, racial terror lynchings were used as a tool to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation. Essentially, this maintained racial control by victimizing the entirety of the Black community, especially in the South.
EJI research also shows that many victims of terror lynchings were murdered without being accused of any crime.
“There's still this white supremacy in our country that tells those of us who are white that we can do what we want to do, and we can more often than not get away with it,” Vodicka said.
To properly honor Eberhart, Vodicka said he hopes steps will be taken to place a marker at the lynch site or the courthouse to remember his name and story.