An elegy for Mary Turner aims to encourage dialogue about race and violence

Elegy for Mary Turner

Englert Theatre — Saturday, Aug. 26 at 6 p.m.

Mary Turner Historical Marker in Lowndes County, Georgia. — photo by Michael Rivera

An elegy through dance, art exhibition and spoken word will be held at the Englert Theatre this Saturday at 6 p.m. to remember Mary Turner, a black woman who was horrifically murdered almost a century ago, and encourage dialogue about the violence of white supremacy.

In 1918, Hampton Smith, a plantation owner in Brooks County, Georgia with a reputation for abusing black workers, was killed by Sidney Johnson, who worked for Smith and had been refused wages and beaten, according to a report by the Mary Turner Project. After Smith’s death, white mobs hunted down and lynched over a dozen innocent black men who were accused of being involved — including Hayes Turner, the husband of Mary Turner.

When Mary Turner learned of her husband’s murder, she publicly threatened to bring the men who had killed her husband to court. Soon after her protest, Turner, who was then eight months pregnant, was captured by a mob and brutally lynched, according to the investigations of Walter Francis White for the NAACP. She and her baby were buried together a few feet away from the tree where she was hanged, burned, mutilated and shot. A whiskey bottle marked the grave.

Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, one of the creators of this event, said she wants to inspire a community discussion through Mary Turner’s life and death. In light of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month, Williams hopes to open a dialogue on white supremacy, and the heavy presence it has today not just in society and politics, but in art.

The performance, which is aimed at mature audiences, will feature Williams along with sculptor Dawn Harbor and performance artist Christopher-Rasheem McMillan. Works by Harbor and prints by Williams will be on display. Admission is free.

The event is co-sponsored by the University of Iowa Department of Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies, the Englert and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.