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The History of the Lynching Site Where Jason Aldean Filmed ‘Try That in a Small Town’

Trucks and other cars parked outside a courthouse building.
Jason Aldean filmed a video for his song “Try That in a Small Town” at the Maury County Courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., where a Black man, Henry Choate, 18, was lynched by a white mob in 1927.Credit...John Loomis for The New York Times

The new video for the country singer Jason Aldean’s song “Try That in a Small Town” takes place outside a courthouse in Tennessee where, nearly a century ago, an 18-year-old Black man was attacked by a mob and lynched.

Mr. Aldean was criticized after releasing the video, which included violent news footage of looting and unrest during protests in American cities. Country Music Television pulled the video this week after accusations surfaced on social media that its lyrics and message were offensive.

“I think there is a lack of sensitivity using that courthouse as a prop,” said Cheryl L. Keyes, chair of the department of African American studies and a professor of ethnomusicology at U.C.L.A.

The teenager who was lynched, Henry Choate, had traveled from his home in Coffee County, Tenn., where he worked in road construction, to visit his grandfather in nearby Maury County on Nov. 11, 1927 — Armistice Day, as it was known at the time, or Veterans Day today.

While he was there, he was accused — falsely, historians now believe — of raping a 16-year-old white girl.

According to an account in “Lynching and Frame-Up in Tennessee,” a book by Robert Minor that was published in 1946, the girl’s family called the county sheriff, who responded by rounding up a pack of bloodhounds to track down the girl’s attacker.

Before the hounds arrived, however, a group of white people went to Mr. Choate’s grandfather’s house, “called out” Mr. Choate and took him to the girl, who did not identify him as her attacker, according to Mr. Minor’s book.

Once the hounds were brought in, they were “given the scent” on a street called Hicks Lane, where the attack was alleged to have taken place. But the scent did not lead the dogs to Mr. Choate’s grandfather’s house.

Instead, “the trail faded out in another direction,” Mr. Minor wrote, “and the girl again said she did not recognize Henry Choate as her assailant.”

One man, however, announced that he had seen Mr. Choate returning to his grandfather’s home from the direction of Hicks Lane. Mr. Choate’s arms were tied with ropes and he was led away. Eventually, he was turned over to the sheriff, who arrested him.

After Mr. Choate was brought to the jail, a cook there told him to pray because “the mob is coming to lynch you,” according to Mr. Minor’s book.

“I know they are,” Mr. Choate said.

According to Mr. Minor’s account, a mob of white men gathered outside the jail, demanding the keys. The sheriff’s wife, with whom the sheriff had left the keys, initially refused because she believed Mr. Choate was innocent, Mr. Minor wrote.

The mob attempted to enter the jail twice, and failed, according to a contemporaneous account of the episode in The Tennessean.

One member of the mob left and returned with a sledgehammer and began beating the jailhouse door with it, Mr. Minor wrote.

Terrified that the mob would dynamite the jailhouse, the sheriff’s wife relented, and the first deputy sheriff unlocked the door. Mr. Choate was beaten with a sledgehammer and dragged out of the jail.

The mob used a rope to tie him to the bumper of a car and dragged him to the Maury County courthouse in Columbia, Tenn., where they hanged him from a window, according to news reports.

There were about 250 men in the mob, according to research from the University of North Carolina.

Two pastors, two lawyers and James I. Finney, the editor of The Tennessean, had begged members of the mob to spare Mr. Choate’s life, but to no avail, the International News Service reported.

Others denounced the actions of the mob.

The executive committee of a body called the Tennessee Inter-Racial Commission later said in a statement that “all available information indicates that the sheriff of Maury County failed to meet his obligations as an officer,” The Tennessean reported a little over a week after the lynching.

The Maury County sheriff, who was identified in news accounts at the time as Luther Wiley, said in a statement in the days after the lynching that he was honoring a promise.

“I had an agreement with the mother, brothers and the little girl not to take the criminal away from our county, but to give him a speedy trial,” he said, according to a 1927 account in The Tennessean. “And I kept my promise steadfastly.”

He added that he was “overpowered by all classes of weapons,” referring to members of the mob who had armed themselves with crowbars, sledgehammers and dynamite.

Ultimately, a grand jury declined to indict anyone involved with the lynching, according to a wire article that was published in The Philadelphia Tribune in December 1927.

As the details of Mr. Choate’s death resurfaced this week, Mr. Aldean responded on Twitter to the criticism of his music video by denying that he had released “a pro-lynching song.”

“These references are not only meritless, but dangerous,” he wrote. “There is not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it — and there isn’t a single video clip that isn’t real news footage — and while I can try and respect others to have their own interpretation of a song with music — this one goes too far.”

TackleBox Films, the company that produced the video, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Alain Delaquérière contributed research.

Posted on 21 Jul 2023 22:54 link