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I was in a canoe on the Edisto River in South Carolina with my dad when I stumbled onto a crime story that would, over the course of many years, shake me to my core. It was a reverse murder mystery. I was presented with the killer, but not a victim.

It was raining and we were sheltering beneath a bridge when I asked him why his father, who was white, had the name Hernando.

My dad told me that Hernando’s father, Dr. I.M. Woods had to hide out in Texas for a time after the Civil War and a Spanish speaking woman saved his life and he promised to name a child after her husband.

“Why did he have to hide out after the war?” I asked.

“He killed a man,” Dad said, looking away.

I knew my great grandfather had fought in the Civil War but this was the first time I’d heard this story.

“Who did he kill? And why?”

“Because the man was Black, I guess. There was a lot of that in those years, I think, when people returned from the Wo-ah,” Dad said, pronouncing the final word the way most white people did where I was from, giving it the weight of two syllables, so that there would be no doubt which war was being discussed.

“They couldn’t accept it was over. I don’t know if it was a lynching or a murder or…”

He trailed off.

The only other things I knew about this great-grandfather was that he had been a doctor and had served in the state legislature and this information—that he was a murderer and a fugitive—didn’t square with the overall picture.

“So he killed somebody and then came back and was elected to the legislature?” I asked.

“Once we regained control, Granddaddy was a hero,” Dad said. “He had redeemed the state.”

I realized that the we Dad used here meant white people. But I would not realize for another 25 years how the cover-up of that crime, which had obsessed me on and off for decades, would contribute to the whiteness I had inherited.

This was a case when my own skin was the scene of the crime.

The ancient Greeks had a concept of miasma, or an inherited curse that passed down from one generation to another, until it is expiated. The slavers in South Carolina used the same word to describe the air that rose up off the marshes and swamps of the lowcountry. I felt like there was something in this shared nomenclature, a hint of the curse I had inherited from the white plantation owners.

And in 2019, after working for years as a crime reporter, I decided I would try to discover the details about the victim of my great-grandfather’s crime.

I began to scour the horrible annals of lynching in my home state—and I realized that there was almost no time in the state’s history when a white man would have had to flee the state for killing a Black one. Until 1865, the state would have seen such a murder as a property issue and it would not have been investigated at all.

I came across one newspaper article from the 1850s that reported the death of a man enslaved by I.M.’s father—my great-great-grandfather W.H. Woods—in a horse-racing accident. There is no way to know if that is what really happened because it was not a matter for the state at all and there was no kind of investigation.

During the Jim Crow period of legal apartheid, which didn’t end until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law was set up in such a way that white people were protected by it and Black people were bound by it. A number of white men faced conspiracy charges in the state’s last recorded lynching, the murder of Black man named Willie Earle, in 1947, but all were acquitted by a white jury. The verdict was attended by a celebration among whites in the courtroom.

It was only in the brief period between the end of the slave system and the beginning of Jim Crow–the period of Reconstruction, or after the “Wo-ah” as my father had put it–that the law attempted to hold white people accountable for crimes against Black people.

That was when I came across the thirteen volume report of a congressional joint select committee “appointed to inquire into the condition of affairs in the late insurrectionary states.” Two of those volumes were dedicated to testimony about South Carolina, where the Ku Klux Klan conspiracy was rampant and deadly. There were 38 recorded Klan murders in the state between the 1870 election and the July 1871 congressional testimony and likely many more (former S.C. congressman Robert Smalls estimated in 1895 that “Since the reconstruction times, 53,000 negroes have been killed in the South.”)

The violence was centered in nine upstate counties, where U.S. Grant eventually declared martial law, but I did find testimony from Clarendon County, where my dad’s family had lived a little further south.

A white carpetbagger from Massachusetts named Leander Bigger testified extensively about the Ku Klux attacks on his store—where Republicans held meetings and where he leased land to Black farmers. He also told the story of the assassination of a Black county commissioner.

“The county commissioner had been assassinated,”  Bigger said.

“Who was that county commissioner?”

“His name was Lemon,” Bigger said.

“Was that done in Manning?”

“Two miles from Manning,” Bigger said. “This same man who I told you was taken out [by the ku klux] and would not tell what they had done to him. He went off and then came back again.”

Manning was my father’s hometown, the place where his father and grandfather had lived.

“He was a colored man,” Bigger continued. “He had been in the army; and there was a great deal of grudge against him on that account; they generally dislike especially a colored man who has been in the federal army.”

“Was the elected by the people?”

“Yessir,” Bigger said.

“What sort of man was he?”

“He was a very sensible kind of a colored man,” Bigger said. “A man of good character; he had never been known to do anything bad.”

“Who killed him?”

“That is a mystery, sir,” Bigger said. “Nobody knows.”

“Was it done by a band of disguised men?”

“He was assassinated; he was decoyed up to town by a letter which had been written to him; he came to town and showed the letter to some of his friends; it made an appointment with him to meet some man from another county; he came up to meet him and waited until about 5

o’clock in the evening when he started home; when he got about two miles out of town he was fired upon but six or eight men, as the evidence goes to show and was killed; his body was filled with buckshot.”

“How is it known that there were six or eight men?”

“By the number of shots that were in his body and in the buggy, and by the tracks,” Bigger said.

“Was there any charge that this man had misbehaved in office—had done anything wrong as commissioner?”

“I never heard any charge brought against him, only that he was a Black man and had no business in office—was not competent for it; that was the only complaint,” Bigger replied.

“The people generally do not like to have a colored man hold office?”

“No sir,” Bigger answered.

All of this fit the story that my dad had told me so many years ago. They killed him because he was Black. Though that was not the only reason. Bigger and other white Republicans were also attacked by the Ku Klux, which was trying to overthrow the Reconstruction government altogether.

The story got more complicated from there. Before assassinating Peter J. Lemon, the commissioner, the Ku Klux sent him a letter telling him to leave town or die. In a convoluted bit of testimony, Bigger tells how Lemon scratched out his own name on the threat and wrote the name of a white man, known as the Eccentric Druggist, who attacked Lemon, unsuccessfully with a pistol.

This also comported with what I knew of I.M. Woods. He had finished medical school in 1868 and later, as a legislator, his eccentricities were widely remarked upon, and mocked, in the press.

As it happened, the Klan assassinated Lemon on April 19, 1871, the same day that congress passed the Third Enforcement Act, otherwise known as the KKK Act. President U.S. Grant signed the order shortly after Lemon’s body was discovered in a bullet-ridden buggy left by the road.

The first official coroner’s report claimed to have discovered no evidence, but a mass protest, led by a Black militia, of which Lemon had been a commander, began at the funeral and hundreds of Black citizens marched toward the town of Manning, where they met a large group of armed white men.

Newspaper accounts of the protests laid the framework still used by the white press to justify the extrajudicial killing of a Black man by white authorities today. The headline of one story, syndicated widely through the region, proudly proclaimed “Lemon Not Killed by the Ku-Klux” and went on to describe him as “a turbulent and offensive negro”—notoriously so—and had been once or twice shot—once by a colored man, whose sister, it is alleged, he ravished.”

Not only, according to the white supremacist press, was Lemon generally bad, he was causing trouble that day. “Lemon was returning from Manning, where it is reported, he had made some disturbance and had some difficulty, on the day of his death. He is said to have been in a state of intoxication, and to have driven back into Manning once or twice before finally taking his leave.”

Reading these words, I saw reflections of stories about Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and George Floyd, all of whom were killed by police or Ahmaud Arbery, lynched in Georgia in 2020.

This crime and its cover-up were not just isolated incidents. They were attempts to create new language and legal structure around whiteness after slavery had been abolished. They were attempts to create the world I eventually inherited.

In order to end the ensuing standoff, the coroner promised to do another formal inquisition, which, with the help of an archivist friend, I was able to obtain, along with property records that showed Lemon had been leasing land from Bigger—as a way to avoid the brutal sharecropping system then being devised.

The governor offered a $500 reward but no charges were ever brought.

My dad’s cousin sent me some old papers and in them, I found land records showing that I.M. Woods sold a piece of land, with crops and cattle, to his sister Magdalene for $500 that September, as President Grant began making preparations to use the Third Enforcement Act to suspend Habeas Corpus, declare martial laws, and send troops into South Carolina. A major named Lewis Merrill already had about 90 soldiers—the K Troop—in York County, South Carolina, which had seen the most outrages, as Klan violence was commonly called.

On October 17, Grant suspended Habeas Corpus in much of the upper half of the state and declared martial law. Two days later, federal troops made more than 100 arrests. Another 500 followed and most anyone who could flee did. Clarendon was not one of the martial law counties, but it came up frequently enough in congressional testimony for Lemon’s assassins to flee.

That’s where it lines up again with my dad’s story of I.M. Woods’ flight to Texas after killing a Black man. And though there are no other records of his flight, co-conspirators from other klaverns left records. Joseph Banks Lyle, who was supposed to be the highest ranking Klansman in S.C., massacred a Black militia unit in the spring of 1871 and fled to Paris, Texas after martial law was declared. There, he spoke openly of his crime.

In April 1872, one year after Lemon’s death, Grant “proclaimed a general forgiveness for all the cuclux,” as a woman from York County put it in a letter. According to Dad’s 90-year-old cousin, I.M. came back to Clarendon around the time of this amnesty.

The Ku Klux Klan Act was successful in one sense. The Klan disappeared from South Carolina. But the same men who wore hoods and capes in ’71 donned red shirts in ’76 and murdered hundreds of Black men and women in the way they had murdered Lemon. This time they succeeded in overthrowing the Reconstruction regime.

No one had to hide their Red Shirt affiliation and annual reunions brought the old insurgents back together again each year until they died. The fact that I.M. Woods named a child after Martin Gary, the architect of the 1876 coup decades later, in 1892, makes me feel certain that he played a role in the so-called Redemption.

As I researched this ancient crime, it began to seem ever-more present as white terrorists like Dylann Roof assassinated Black state senator Clementa Picnkey along with eight of his congregants at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston. As racists rallied in Charlottesville. And as red hats, rather than Red Shirts, stormed the capitol in another attempt to overturn a multiracial democracy.

But I also began to see the ways that the cover-up of this crime had created the sense of whiteness I had inherited, forming the sense of privilege and entitlement that had guided me through much of my life and my career as a reporter.

I.M. Woods had likely not been elected to the legislature despite his crime, but because of it. And he was perhaps even more violent in his role in the legislature responsible for instituting some of the Jim Crow laws that created a brutal apartheid system that lasted nearly a century, an apartheid system that my parents were raised under.

I could never amass enough evidence against I.M. Woods to prove beyond a doubt that he murdered Peter J. Lemon. But the conspiracy of white supremacy, which involves both silence and violence, was most certainly responsible for the crime and its cover-up and by attempting to unravel that conspiracy, I was trying to extricate myself from it and dismantle it altogether. And so, what began as the investigation of a Reconstruction-era murder, became a chronicle of their effects on my own life, a recognition and a confession of my own complicity.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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