About the Case
Date: August 21, 1933
Victim(s): James Royal
Case Status: attempted
The latest recorded racial terror lynching in Morgan County took place around 11:30 p.m. on the night of August 21, 1933. James Royal, a sixteen year old Decatur, Alabama child, was shot to death on Vine Street, between McCarthy Street and Madison Street. The shot came from a passing Chevrolet, as Royal and his friends Frank Brawley, James Eddie, and Otis Webb (Webb would later be tried for the murder of Royal) stood in a crowd in the immediate wake of the arrest of Thomas Brown, a twenty three year old black man who had been accused of raping Ms. George Duggar, a Decatur native who was a mother of seven, at knife point. In the immediate court hearing to investigate the Royal lynching, presided over by Judge James Horton, it was determined that the shooting had come at the hands of “person or persons unknown to this jury.”
According to the 1930 census, James Royal was born about 1916 to Margaret Royal (believed to later be Mary L. Matthews), who was forty five at the time of James’s death. It is believed that his father’s name was Charlie. Royal was survived by four siblings. His brother, Thomas, was twenty one. Royal had three sisters in 1933, Nettie, was nineteen, Mabel, fourteen, and Pheobe, ten. After the death of James, it is believed that the family relocated to Tennessee. It is believed that his mother passed away in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1965. There is evidence that several of James Royal’s family members still reside in Nashville, Tennessee.
In many of the credible lynching databases across the country, such as CSDE and Tuskegee University’s Monroe Today Dataset Compilation, James Royal is left off the list of victims in Morgan County, Alabama. I believe there are two reasons for this, both of which are deeply problematic and show, at their roots, the systemic way that lynching narratives still effect how we discuss acts of racial terror.
First, I believe the Royal lynching is typically left off databases because, in the end, the justice system largely focused on black men as suspects when prosecuting the crime. Although Morgan County Solicitor Wade Wright ominously stated that the “slayers of James Royal” were “known to officials,” the Decatur courts concentrated on Ned Johnson, a local, young black man, as the killer. After a white witness named Mary Fryzer stated that a black man on the street, rather than from a moving car, slayed Royal, attorney J.N. Powell got Johnson’s case thrown out because of mistrial. In the same trial, Dr. Sherrod, a “negro physician,” bravely gave a testimony that Royal was killed by a passing car, just as he had seen and heard from his home near Vine Street.
After Ned Johnson’s acquittal and release in October 1934, the courts turned their attention, again, to another black man on the streets with Royal. This time, it was Otis Webb, one of James Royal’s friends that had been with him the night of the lynching. Even though Johnson had been cleared by the clearly false information that had been given by witnesses of a black gunman on the street, Webb found himself in court for the murder of James Royal in late November, 1934. Otis Webb denied having any connection with the killing of his friend, James Royal. I was unable to find any further information on the trial of Otis Webb in local or national newspapers. I have submitted a request with the Morgan County Archives and the Morgan County Courthouse to view copies of the court files from the Ned Johnson and Otis Webb trials.
The second reason it is problematic to not consider the slaying of James Royal a racial terror lynching is because it completely ignores all context surrounding the slaying of Royal on Vine Street. At the time of the lynching of James Royal, the racial tensions in Morgan County were at a fever pitch. Not only had anger over the alleged Thomas Brown assaults caused heightened racial tensions, but the retrial of “Scottsboro Boy” Haywood Patterson at the Morgan County Courthouse in Decatur, Alabama also had the town ready to explode. Author Peggy Towns captures the uneasy air around the town in her book Scottsboro Unmasked:
On a warm summer morning in August 1933, a violent cyclone of fear dangerously whirled throughout Decatur… After a failed lynching attempt, later that night James Royal, a sixteen year old medicine delivery boy, was killed… afterwards a group of about forty men went to the Madison county jail and made a second unsuccessful attempt to lynch Tom Brown. Heightened anxieties generated fear.
Towns would go on to say that “the Black community was engulfed in a raging inferno of uneasiness, fear and pain.” Reverend Eugene Mixon, pastor of nearby King’s Memorial Methodist Church was telling reporters that he greatly feared mob violence. This threat of violence is at the heart of every lynching case, as lynchings served no other service than to remind Black citizens of the south that they were “less than” their white counterparts in every segment of society.