Womens History Month – Lives Not to Be Forgetten – Laura Nelson
Laura Nelson’s Brutal Murder Recorded for a Postcard
By Lorraine Spencer
Laura Nelson and son Laurence hang from a bridge where they were just lynched. Laurence Nelson
The photographs sold as post card.
How Did The Lynching of Laura Nelson Influence A Genre of American Music?
Laura, her husband Austin, their teenage son L.D., and infant Carrie had been taken into custody after George Loney, Okemah’s deputy sheriff, and three others arrived at the Nelsons’ home on May 2, 1911, to investigate the theft of a cow. The son shot Loney, who was hit in the leg and bled to death; Laura was reportedly the first to grab the gun and was charged with murder, along with her son. Her husband pleaded guilty to larceny, and was sent to the relative safety of the state prison in McAlester, while their son was held in the county jail in Okemah and Laura in a cell in the nearby courthouse to await trial.
At around midnight on May 24, Laura and her son were kidnapped from their cells by a group of between a dozen and 40 men; the group included Charley Guthrie (1879–1956) according to a statement given in 1977 by the former’s brother. The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in July 1911 that Laura was raped, then she and L.D. were hanged from a bridge over the North Canadian River. According to some sources, Laura had a baby with her at the time, who one witness said survived the attack. There is no other news about the infant Carrie. Sightseers gathered on the bridge the following morning and photographs of the hanging bodies were sold as postcards; the one of Laura is the only known surviving photograph of a female lynching victim. No one was ever charged with the murders; the district judge convened a grand jury, but the killers were never identified. What a shameful period in our Nation’s history. Lynching was all too common an event in the southern United States.
Most people know of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie as a legend in peace and protest music. He wrote American favorite “This Land is Your Land”. Woody Guthrie was different from his racist father Charley Guthrie. As stated, Charley Guthrie was one of the men responsible for the torture and lynching murders of Laura Nelson and her son Laurence. Woody was born after the lynching, but the images on popular postcards of Laura and L.D. Nelson sickened him. His heart could not reason or justify such savagery and inhumane treatment of another human being. Woody could not understand such disdain for human beings who happened to be Negro. His music inspired a myriad of other like singers who include Bob Dylan, the late Pete Seeger, and Ramblin Jack Elliot and his own son Arlo to name just a few.
Woody Guthrie wrote a song in honor of Laura and Laurence called “Don’t Kill My Baby and My son“. Brooke Harvey sings the song in a video from Youtube below.
The Laura and Laurence Nelson murders were not the only cowardly and racist acts that influenced Woody Guthrie to protest in song. On February 12, 1946, Isaac Woodard fresh out of the army was on his way home via Greyhound Bus. He wanted to use the restroom at a stop and after an altercation that ended with the driver conceding, they rode to the next stop. There was waiting the police who forcibly removed Woodard from the bus and ended up beating him so badly that his eyes were gouged out, blinding him for life. When Woody Guthrie heard about this barbaric episode, he wrote “The Blinding of Isaac Woodard“.
Raymond Crooke singing the tune on You Tube.
I often wonder if lynch mob participants ever took responsibility for their part in the murders of many innocent people. Did they ever ask for forgiveness? Did they change as they aged or on their deathbeds? Did they die as cold and racist as ever? What about their grandchildren? Did they denounce the acts of their grandfathers? I am convinced the people of the South always thought that blacks would be a permanent underclass. No way could they conceive that a black (biracial) man would rise to be president. But still I am comforted that there have always been white people who spoke out against and rejected mistreatment of blacks and other races. Woody Guthrie chose a greater path and protested the inhumane treatment of blacks in the south. He is actually a legendary hero to many. I hope he garners a few more fans after this revelation to many more. Woody Guthrie was determined to fight with a new weapon – song.
Lorraine Spencer is a resourceful, inspiring and motivating relationship coach who helps those in various stages of their life journey. A Christian wife and mother, Lorraine is also an accomplished mentor, life coach strategist, songwriter/lyricist, and author. She is also known as “Swirl Queen” and “Forensicmommy”. Lorraine is a Hoosier by birth. She has lived in many states lending her experience to meet many people from different regions of the country and world. Lorraine has made a home with her family in Los Angeles, California. When not coaching, writing, in conferences or out on long walks, Lorraine enjoys spending time with her family and watching movies.