From the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of Chesapeake Requiem comes a gripping new work of narrative nonfiction telling the forgotten story of the mass killing of eleven Black farmhands on a Georgia plantation in the spring of 1921—a crime which exposed for the nation the existence of the “peonage system,” a form of legal enslavement established after the Civil War across the American South.
On a Sunday morning in the spring of 1921, a small boy made a grim discovery as he played on a riverbank in the cotton country of rural Georgia: the bodies of two drowned men, bound together with wire and chain and weighted with a hundred-pound sack of rocks. Within days a third body turned up in another, nearby river, and in the weeks that followed, eight others. And with them, a deeper horror: all eleven had been kept in virtual slavery before their deaths. In fact, as America was shocked to learn, the dead were among thousands of Black men enslaved throughout the South, in conditions nearly as dire as those before the Civil War.
Hell Put to Shame tells the forgotten story of that mass killing, and of the revelations about peonage, or debt slavery, that it placed before a public self-satisfied that involuntary servitude had ended at Appomattox more than fifty years before.
By turns police procedural, courtroom drama, and political expose, Hell Put to Shame also reintroduces readers to three Americans who spearheaded the prosecution of John S. Williams, the wealthy plantation owner behind the murders, at a time when White people rarely faced punishment for violence against their Black neighbors. Georgia Governor Hugh M. Dorsey had earned international infamy while prosecuting the 1913 Leo Frank murder case in Atlanta and consequently won the statehouse as a hero of white supremacists—then redeemed himself in spectacular fashion with the “Murder Farm” affair. The remarkable polymath James Weldon Johnson, newly appointed the first Black leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, marshaled the organization into a full-on war against peonage. And Johnson’s lieutenant, Walter F. White, a light-skinned, fair-haired, blue-eyed Black man, conducted undercover work at the scene of lynchings and other Jim Crow atrocities, helping to throw a light on such violence and to hasten its end.
The result is a story that remains fresh and relevant a century later, as the nation continues to wrestle with seemingly intractable challenges in matters of race and justice. And the 1921 case at its heart argues that the forces that so roil society today have been with us for generations.
Earl Swift is the author of the New York Times bestseller Chesapeake Requiem, which was named to ten best-of-the-year lists. His other books include Across the Airless Wilds, Auto Biography, The Big Roads, and Where They Lay. A former reporter for the Virginian-Pilot and a contributor to Outside and other publications, he is a fellow of Virginia Humanities at the University of Virginia. He lives in the Blue Ridge mountains west of Charlottesville.
“[A] sweeping historical narrative. … Intimate, meticulously reported and captivating. … Earl Swift masterfully reveals Tangier as it is. … The definitive account of what once was and of what will soon be no more.” — Washington Post on Chesapeake Requiem
“This is a powerful book. Fascinating people, clinging loyally to a fascinating and lovely place, even as the waters rise—Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem is a tale of our time, movingly told. Perhaps it will inspire some of us living safe on higher ground to more action on behalf of those at risk.” — Bill McKibben
“Chesapeake Requiem is a provocative and respectful study of a culture that may soon be lost.” — Esquire
“Swift relays the awe-inspiring story of Apollo 17 and the lunar vehicle in a way that makes it all feel brand new. From the sheer human ingenuity of the moon missions to the deeply human figures inside the space suits, this book is a brilliantly observed homage to the human spirit.” — Newsweek on Across the Airless Wilds
"In his compelling history of the rover’s place in the space program, Across the Airless Wilds, Earl Swift writes that, during Apollo 15, 16 and 17, astronauts drove it over 56 miles. … Such are Mr. Swift’s narrative talents and the bounties of the source material that the book is a joy to read from beginning to end. … Swift has reminded readers of an endlessly fascinating chapter in space exploration with widespread implications for the future." — Wall Street Journal