Black Power & White Violence in Lowndes County
By Shannon Evans
As part of a grant from the American Historical Association, Mt. Zion Memorial Fund Vice President Shannon Evans conducted a resource survey of African American cemeteries in Lowndes County, Mississippi. The county seat of Columbus contains a large cemetery called Sandfield Cemetery, which the city has owned since 1854, and it contains the graves of prominent African American citizens, including a host of Reconstruction Era politicians.
( To read her original blog post about Sandfield, please click HERE )
This blog post centers on an unfortunately obscure internment at Sandfield Cemetery, and it tells the story of a formerly enslaved Mississippian who rose to prominent status in both politics and business after the Civil War, yet had the American Dream violently stolen from him along with the hope of expanding American democratic ideals.
Robert Gleed, one of the first three black Mississippi legislators from Lowndes County, was born a slave in 1835 near Richmond, Virginia. According to a letter to Cornelius Lincoln from Gleed’s daughter, Anna, his father was a white man named Nelson Gleed. The exact location of his birth is unknown, and we do not know how or when he came to Mississippi. We do know, however, that he escaped from his master at the age of seventeen, and patrollers captured him in Lowndes County in 1855. According to one source, Gleed escaped to follow his sweetheart, who had been sold to slaveowners in Lowndes County. Upon capture, he refused to reveal the name of his master. Thus, Gleed was auctioned off at the Columbus Court House to a Colonel Long.
Black Political and Business Leader
During the Reconstruction Era, Robert Gleed became a successful merchant who owned the buildings on Gleed’s Corner as well as several other properties and homes in Columbus. According to the city alderman books, he served as a member of their board in May 1869. He was also the President of the Mercantile Land and Banking Company, and he served as the President of the Chamber of Commerce. In 1869, Gleed joined the Republican Party and received their nomination for state senator, going on to defeat Charles Sullivan, the white candidate for the Democratic Party, by 40 votes. He served in the state legislature from 1870-1873.
“Social Equality Advocate”
Gleed’s service in the state legislature was merely one aspect of his campaign against white supremacy. He also attempted to push back against the culture of racial segregation on trains. One inflammatory Clarion Ledger editorial during his first months as senator villainized Gleed for refusing to leave a whites-only train car. The editorial also accused him of being an advocate of social equality and stirring up hatred against whites.
Fighting White Supremacy
In November 1871, Klan intimidation had reached a boiling point in the South, and congressional investigators came to Columbus led by General Blair to examine the “condition of affairs in Southern states.” The Ku Klux Klan Act (H. R. 320) had been enacted in April 1871 outlawing intimidation and giving President Grant the ability to declare martial law.
Gleed’s testimony before investigators included a lengthy discussion on whippings for voting Republican. He also discussed the whippings of Black teachers and the murder of Black men on both the Halbert and Durden Plantations. According to Gleed, the Klan sought to disenfranchise Black Republicans, which outnumbered white voters in Lowndes County.
From State to the Local Level
Two years following his testimony, Gleed became completely disillusioned with his ability to affect change at the legislative level. On November 6, 1873, the Jackson Clarion Ledger reported that he gave up his seat in the Senate. He went on to accept an appointment as Lieutenant Colonel of the Lowndes County Militia, and he decided to run for sheriff against fellow Republican H. W. Lewis, who the Clarion Ledger referred to as “a mean white carpetbagger” on October 2, 1873. The radical press preferred Gleed to Lewis. One September 17 editorial in the Vicksburg Herald lauded Gleed’s intellect and refers to him as a “harmonious radical.”
White Supremacist Violence
In December 1874, Lowndes County Democrats were concerned about the upcoming election and formed The White Liners to intimidate Black voters. The Weekly Mississippi Pilot reported on June 26, 1875 the circulation of handbills, which threatened the jobs and access to medical treatment of anyone who voted Republican. The White Liners did not limit their activities to Lowndes County, and the Mississippi Plan of Democratic Redemption was in full swing across the state. In Vicksburg, Democrats demanded the resignation of the town’s Black sheriff, Peter Crosby, and went on to kill him and over 300 Blacks in the surrounding county. In September 1875, the White Liners killed at least 50 Blacks in Hinds County and murdered a white teacher who taught in Black schools. In late October 1875, the Klan descended on the Dover community in Yazoo County, and two white teachers were killed because they dared to vote Republican.
It was in this environment of fear and intimidation that the perfect storm was brewing for the Lowndes County sheriff’s election of 1875. Local Democrats held meetings all over the county daily for two weeks prior to election day. Each meeting was attended by 25-50 young men from Columbus who would drag along a 24lb cannon they would fire. The Columbus Brass Band would be in attendance. Speeches were held most nights on the Court House steps, inciting voters to “take action” and “protect their interests.”
Violence on Parade
The night before the election, the Republicans planned to hold a torchlight parade, and Gleed knew that such a political spectacle might attract violence. One columnist in the November 13, 1875 issue of the Weekly Mississippi Pilot reported that Gleed advised his supporters to arm themselves “only for the purpose of defense in case of attack.”
By 8 PM, as Gleed’s supporters gather at Union Academy on the south side, a large group of whites gathered at Hatch’s Drug Store, which sat along the parade route. When a band of drummers and paraders marched past, whites rushed Gleed’s supporters and smashed the heads of their drums. All was reportedly quiet for the next hour. Then a fire was reported on the southeast side of the depot. The fire department hitched up the steam engine and raced toward the fire. Five minutes later another fire was seen. It was George Curtis’ old shed on 4th Avenue South. A third fire was reported at the old Taylor stable west of the Court House (behind current Zachary’s Restaurant). A call went out that the Blacks were torching the city. The white crowd raced home for their weapons and the Columbus Riflemen set up pickets at each corner.
Squads of armed white men moved down the streets. Mounted men scoured white neighborhoods for Black men. The Alabamians mysteriously arrived to “help”. Blacks fled town and hid. Any African American found on the street was ordered to halt. If they did not, they were either wounded or killed. Squads were then sent to the homes of leading members of the GOP and told if there were any more fires, they and their families would be held responsible.
Scores of white men and boys followed the squads as they descended on Robert Gleed’s home. He and his wife were not there. The mob broke into his house and destroyed his furniture and belongings; they slashed the breast of all his wife’s clothing. Some in the crowd prepared to light fire to his house but were stopped by the squad leaders.
A Thwarted Assassination
Gleed was nowhere to be found. His friend, the white attorney Cornelius Lincoln, hid him in his well behind his home on 3rd Ave South just blocks away from the chaos and mayhem. His wife and children had already been hidden out of town. That night, four men were killed. John Gordon was killed in front of Gleed’s store on Market Street. Teen George Marshall was killed in front of Mrs. Benoit’s house on Main and 6th. Alex Latham, a disabled shoemaker was dragged from his house at 4 am and shot in the street. Essex Green and his wife headed into their cottonfield at daybreak and were allegedly ordered to halt but ran. He was shot in the head, and she was wounded.
Election day was quiet in town. There was understandably a low Black voter turnout. Those who did venture to the polls were warned by White Liners to vote a straight Democratic ticket. The final vote was tallied, and Democratic candidate Hargrove won by a landslide. Robert Gleed is on his way to Paris, Texas with his wife and children, running to escape probable lynching in his adopted hometown of Columbus. Abandoning his properties and businesses, he flees with the clothes on his back to start over. He left behind his general store, 295 acres of farm land, three city lots, and his home.
A Radical Resurfaces
By March of 1879, Gleed reappeared in Columbus. He was appointed Deputy Internal Revenue Collector by the Hayes administration. The Clarion Ledger printed a scathing article describing him as a “fugitive” who has dared to “creep back home”. The editor states the idea of Gleed “entering a gentleman’s business and charging him for defrauding the government” is abhorrent (Clarion Ledger, March 19, 1879).
In April 1883, The State Ledger reported that Gleed wanted to establish a lecture system to benefit “colored people”. Governor Lowry donated $5 to show his support. He spoke before the state legislature later in August promoting the idea of teaching African Americans in Mississippi how to be industrious and again was supported by Lowry. He lectured on the topic at King Solomon Baptist Church later same week in Vicksburg (Vicksburg Evening Post, August 16, 1883). Days later, he presented lectures in Columbus to the Black community at Union Academy teaching “economic methods”. Two days later he repeated his lecture at the Lowndes County Court House by invitation (Natchez Democrat, August 29, 1883).
Pushing Back Against Racial Stereotypes
In April 1885, the Earnest Workers Association appointed Gleed to lecture on improving the industrial habits of African Americans in Mississippi. The Vicksburg Herald reported that he was well respected for his lectures across the state.
“We, as the board of immigration and agriculture of the State, take pleasure in recommending him to the citizens, both white and colored, believing from information before us that he is doing valuable work in impressing upon his people the necessity of a more moral and industrious life.”
(from a letter signed by Governor Robert Lowry, E. G. Wall, Commissioner of Agriculture)
To Texas and Back Home
Gleed disappears from local history after 1885. He returned to Texas where he was known on the state’s African American lecture circuit. Robert died July 24, 1916, in Paris, Texas. He is buried in Sandfield in a fenced off family plot with his wife, schoolteacher daughter Annie, and his son Robert Jr.