He was lynched in 1947.
And the Harris and Troup County communities honored him in 2018.
Mr. Henry (Peg) Gilbert – a very successful farmer and landowner in the Jones Crossroads community – was wrongfully accused of hiding an African-American fugitive who shot and killed a white man. Gilbert was arrested without cause by Troup County authorities, taken from his home, transported to the Harris County jail, beaten, and murdered.
The Harris County Chief of Police, William H. Buchanan, initially claimed it was self-defense. He later recanted that statement and said a group of white men took him from the jail and killed him.
We may never know the real truth — whether Buchanan did it, a jailer or a mob.
What’s important is that there was no conviction. There was no justice.
Those of us in ONE Harris County — a trust building and racial reconciliation initiative — knew we could not change these events. But we knew we had to recognize the crime and honor the victim and his family.
And that is exactly what happened Saturday. Hundreds gathered at Union Springs Methodist Church at Jones Crossroads to celebrate Mr. Gilbert’s life and that of his wife, Mrs. Mae Henry Davenport Gilbert.
The family was there — from all over the country. Dr. Margaret Burnham from the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern School of Law in Boston was there. She and her associates did the copious amounts of research that confirmed Mr. Gilbert’s lynching.
Law enforcement from both Troup and Harris Counties were there. Members of the judiciary were there.
In the words of Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley, who spoke to the overflowing congregation:
“I am honored to take part in this ceremony and acknowledgement…the acknowledgement that in 1947 the criminal justice system of our country, our state, our county and more specifically, a profession in which I represent, failed. We failed to serve and protect a citizen, Mr. Henry ‘Peg’ Gilbert’ during their most defenseless and exposed time…a time in which we as a profession should’ve been there to protect and support. No one in their right frame of mind and especially a law enforcement officer of today could believe that Mr. Gilbert received justice the last few weeks of 1947 because he did not.”
And Hon. Ron Mullins, Superior Court Judge for the Chattahoochee Circuit, spoke for the judiciary:
“Our system of law works well, some of the time and I say that because in Mr. Gilbert’s case, it didn’t work at all. By all reports, it was a total failure. The system cost Mr. Gilbert his life and did irreparable harm to his family and his community.”
We did not gather to cast blame.We did not gather to open wounds.
As Lynn Norris, coordinator of ONE Harris County said, “How could we open wounds that had never healed?”
We gatheredto have closure for a family who had kept this secret for decades. The Gilbert grandchildren found out two years ago. Their mothers (there were four Gilbert girls) had buried this secret deep in their souls — still fearful of telling the truth.
We gathered to honor the memory of a man whose life was stolen from his family — a man who did nothing wrong.
We gathered to pay homage to his wife, who was brave when many of us would not have been.
We gathered to dedicate the new gravestones for the Gilberts.
The music was pure and soulful, including the beautiful selections Darlene and Randy Dameron performed graveside.
And afterwards, in true Southern tradition, there was dinner on the ground. We sat outside and enjoyed the food prepared by Union Baptist Church, Union Springs Methodist and Baptist, St. Nicholas congregants and ONE Harris County members. People stayed for hours after the ceremony and fellowshipped — just like folks did in 1947.
The event was indeed memorable and noteworthy: A 1947 Southern lynching victim was honored — by his Southern community.
But the most memorable part of the day was the love — the incredible amount of love we all felt last Saturday.
That gives me hope.
And these days, we need all the hope we can get.