Greenville County Courthouse and the Willie Earle Lynching Trial
The Greenville County Courthouse was built in a Beaux Arts Style and completed in 1918. The Courthouse served as the headquarters of county government until 1950. Three years prior to the transition, this historic courthouse hosted one of the most controversial trials of the era. The trial involved charges against white men who had murdered Willie Earle in public. Thirty-one white men were charged in the murder, but despite clear evidence of their participation in Earle's lynching, the all-white jury found each of the defendants not guilty on all counts. The trial led to increased awareness of the difficulty in securing justice for African American victims of lynching.
Backstory and Context
On February 17th, 1947, a mob kidnapped Willie Earle, a black man who was accused of assault against a white taxi driver. A number of white tax drivers formed a mob and took Earle from his cell preceded to take him to the Greenville County line. Once the mob and Mr. Earle reached their destination, members of the mob took turns beating Earle, stabbing him, and eventually shooting him twice with a shotgun. The mob then drove Bramlett Road in Greenville where they lynched Willie Earle's lifeless body and left the corpse in the tree. There was no secret that local taxi drivers were responsible for Willie’s heinous death, but it is not easy to convict a white man of killing a black man in the South.
Not long after the lynching the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Marshals were on the scene questioning suspects. Eventually thirty-one men were charged with the murder of young Willie Earle. Some of the men charged with the murder signed confessions admitting that they took part in the mob and implicated those who would not confess to taking part. While it seemed, from the outside, that the African American community would find justice for their fallen brother, something was working in favor of the accused.
After two weeks of trial the prosecution rested and the defense seemed like they had all but lost. However, after only five hours of deliberation and consideration the all white jury had reached their verdict. The jury had found that all thirty-one men, regardless of prior confessions, were not guilty on all counts.