About the Case
Date: March 1, 1907
Victim(s): Cleveland Hardin
Case Status: attempted
Cleveland Hardin was born in May of 1885 to Eliza and Peter Hardin. The Hardin family lived in Oakland, an unincorporated community located in Lauderdale County, the northwesternmost county in Alabama. Peter was a farmer who owned the land the Hardin family lived on. Cleveland was the eldest of the living Hardin children. His mother had given birth to 9 other children, but in 1900 he was the only living biological child she had. However, he did have an adopted sister named Ada who was ten years his junior.
At the time of his lynching in March of 1907, Cleveland was an employee at the farm of the Benjamin F. Rice family. The Rices were a family in high standing in Lauderdale County. Mr. Rice was the brother of the county commissioner and served as a bailiff in the local courts and Mrs. Rice was the sister-in-law to the Sheriff. Both of the Rices were described as being held “deservingly high” in the esteem of their peers. Cleveland became employed by Mr. Rice in October of 1906 when he paid a fine in the amount of $20 dollars to bail Cleveland out of jail after he was arrested for fighting at a Black picnic in Oakland. After this, Cleveland went to work for the Rice family, and according to local newspapers, he was a good farm hand and “no exceptions had been made against his conduct”.
That opinion would change in March of 1907 when, according to newspaper reports, Cleveland came into the Rice house at dinner time, where he asked Mrs. Rice what time it was. Cleveland is said to have jumped her and thrown her to the ground. As they struggled, Mrs. Rice managed to get up a few times, only to be thrown back on the ground. Cleveland is recorded as having threatened her life multiple times in an attempt to quiet her screams during their struggle that, according to Mrs. Rice, lasted an interminably long time. After a heavy fall, Mrs. Rice is said to have been dazed, which allowed her to be dragged from the hallway to one of the rooms in her house. In this adjoining room the struggle between Mrs. Rice and Cleveland resumed, and most of her clothing was ripped from her body as a result. At this point in their supposed struggle, Mrs. Rice had a moment of clarity and called for her shepherd dog to come to her aid. When her dog came into the room, it distracted her supposed attacker long enough that she could escape the house and flee.
Mrs. Rice fled towards the house of her closest neighbor, Mr. R. T. Kimbrough. Once she arrived at their home, Mr. Kimbrough’s two sons listened to her accusation and immediately set out to sound the alarm. One son chased after her alleged attacker while the other began rounding up the neighbors and then set out to inform Mr. Rice of what had happened as he had been serving as one of the bailiffs for the local court in Florence. With the help of the Kimbrough boys, Mr. Rice and the local men began forming a nice sized search party to look for Cleveland. He had reportedly taken off in the opposite direction of Mrs. Rice when she fled for the Kimbrough house. Locals sent for bloodhounds to aid in their search from Lawrenceburg, Tennessee.. They found out that Cleveland had hidden about two and a half miles away at his uncle Phil Kirkman’s house Friday night, but no one had seen him all day Saturday.
Cleveland was recognized early on Sunday morning by Mr. Tom Mitcham who had seen Cleveland at the wharf near Florence bridge where he helped tie up the arriving steam boat, The American. When Cleveland found out that the boat was remaining in port and that he had been spotted, he proceeded to flee from the waterfront and head out across McFarland Bottoms towards the hills. When the officers in town were notified of Cleveland’s whereabouts, a heated chase began through the hilly land and banks around Cypress Creek. The local officials turned the borrowed hound dogs onto his track and followed the trail across Gunwale Road, around the edge of the local fairgrounds, under the bridge, and down the creek as he attempted to evade his pursuers. The dogs’ trail showed that he eventually headed back towards Florence. Around two o’clock that Sunday afternoon, Cleveland was finally spotted by a few of the members of the search party at the top of a hill where he was said to be hiding in a bush. The armed men immediately ordered Cleveland to put his hands up and surrender, which he did with no resistance.
Upon Cleveland’s surrender, his clothes were in terrible shape from days of being on the run. They proceeded to take Cleveland back to the scene of his alleged crime at the Rice house. As they marched, the crowd grew in size so that by the time they ended their march at the Rice house, the crowd that was accompanying them was comprised of between 600 and 1,000 local men, many of them prominent figures in the community. When they reached the house, the crowd began to decide just what should be done with Cleveland. Mrs. Rice fainted when she first saw him, but once she had recovered, she identified Cleveland as her attacker. When Mrs. Rice was asked what to do with Cleveland, she told the mob to do what they thought best. There was a discussion as to what to do with him, and being burned alive was mentioned as a potential punishment. However, it was eventually decided that Cleveland should be shot to death. There was said to be an agreement that no further mutilation should come to Cleveland’s body aside from the bullets and that his body should be returned to his family upon his death.
Cleveland was taken just south of the Rice house. At the edge of a wooded area, with his feet on the ground, he had his hands bound by handcuffs as he was secured tightly to a pine tree with a length of rope. It was reported that the Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff arrived before Cleveland was lynched and tried to reason with the mob to no avail. They were then seized and disarmed by the mob who were intent on exacting punishment on Cleveland. Before he was lynched, Cleveland was asked if he had anything to say, and he requested that his body be given to his family after his death. Cleveland spent several of his last minutes on his knees praying before he met his untimely end. While being strung from that pine tree, Cleveland confessed his guilt.
The crowd then stepped back around 40 yards and two shots, reportedly fired by Mr. Rice himself, rang out. Those two shots were followed by a dozen or so more, before it became too difficult to distinguish the number of shots being fired from the crowd of pistols, shotguns, and rifles. When all of the guns were empty, upwards of 1,000 bullets had riddled the body of Cleveland Hardin. When the smoke finally cleared, Deputy Sheriff Dowdy cut his body down from the pine tree. No harm came to Cleveland from his capture until his death, and the mob had agreed that his body should be returned to his family, whole. However, upon his death, his body was mutilated by the mob when they amputated certain parts of his now lifeless body.
Most reporting on Cleveland’s lynching was found in white newspapers. This is significant because most white newspapers tended to have similar undercurrents of assumed guilt and the inclination to place blame on everyone but the mob who did the lynching. This meant that as the information spread, it was tainted with an inherent and obvious bias in its reporting. Though lynching cases often made their way into newspapers states away, the news of the lynching of Cleveland Hardin covered a lot of ground in North America. It was a seemingly local issue that spread all across North America. This spread of information serves as an example of the type of lynching culture that existed all over North America, not just the Deep South. While almost all the lynchings in the United States in 1907 occurred in the South, there were still more northern areas that were hungry for reports on them.
Local newspapers that were written in the town the lynching occurred tended to provide a grotesque amount of detail and inherent bias in their reporting. Local newspapers would provide very specific details such as road names, names of mob participants, and they would often discuss how the lynching was not the first one of its kind in the county. Local newspapers would also try to build up the white victim to seem perfect so the punishment of the black person being lynched made moral sense. They also protected local law enforcement by portraying their involvement in the best possible light in order to allow them to deny fault. Many of the newspaper reports on Cleveland’s lynching seemed to focus on reenforcing the idea of white heroism. Out of the over one hundred articles on Cleveland Hardin’s lynching, not one of them seemed to show the least bit of contrition for what had happened to him. No matter the amount of print a newspaper afforded the lynching, the message was basically the same: justice was rightfully served. All of the newspaper articles on the lynching were from white newspapers. It stands to reason that there is a grand potential for racial bias rooted in the idea of black guilt and criminality. As there was no legal trial and only Cleveland’s confession while he was held at gunpoint, there is no way to determine the real extent of his guilt in the matter. There were no articles that questioned the innocence of Cleveland nor any that questioned the reliability of Mrs. Rice to tell the truth. From the beginning Cleveland was treated like a guilty man, one who would be afforded no trial.
One of the most important things to examine when looking at a lynching case is the legacy it leaves behind. What does it mean for the community it happened in, and how should that community reference it? The name Cleveland Hardin is not one that is often or ever mentioned when discussing the history of Lauderdale County or Florence, Alabama. However, Cleveland Hardin’s life tells a story that is very much a part of the county’s history. His death represents the struggle of the black community in the South to not just be respected but to survive. It shows that every town, no matter how idyllic it tries to present itself, has a history that needs to be told. Failing to include Cleveland’s story, and others like it, from local histories is a great disservice is done. Pretending an atrocity was not committed does not mean it did not happen, it only furthers the damage done by the act in the first place.
It is important to tell the detailed stories of specific lynchings like Cleveland’s because it can allow for a greater understanding of both the victims and the perpetrators and helps people relate to the topic on a deeper, more personal level. Making things personal is how a significant change can begin, especially in American society. Acknowledging just how painful it must have been for Black men and women in the South to see thousands of their brothers and sisters lynched can create a domino effect. Realizing that so much of lynching culture revolved around the issue of race and white supremacy allows one to truly begin looking at modern racial issues through a new, more informed light. No, Black men and women are no longer being literally hung from trees and riddled with bullets, but they are still being targeted in other ways, such as drug policy, mass incarceration, and poverty laws. By acknowledging that lynching was a true racial issue that was never completely solved, it allows a larger national conversation to begin based around the idea of race and white culpability.