If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday - Pearl S. Buck


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Woody Guthrie's Birthday - His Song For Laura - The Story of Laura Nelson - Part 1

It happened here.

This is a follow-up to my post from July 8, 2011.  It is a difficult subject and I have had a hard time getting my words together and so the story of Laura Nelson and her family will be told in more than one post.
First of all today is Woody Guthrie's 99th birthday which means WoodyFest is happening in Okemah, Oklahoma.
One year before Woody was born in Okemah, Okfuskee County and 12 years before Clara Mae Luper was born in the same county, Laura Nelson and her son Lawrence were lynched by an angry mob.
My sister first told me about it a few years ago and my brother emailed this article from the Oklahoma Gazette a few weeks ago.  Warning: The article in the OK Gazette has a photo of the actual lynching.
There are several different accounts of the story. I'm sure that was the same case one hundred years ago. I will provide a few links of the story at the end.
Anyway, in May of 1911, Laura, her husband, Austin and children, Lawrence and Carrie were living in the Creek Township of Okfuskee County.  This is near the town of Boley, OK.
This rural area hasn't changed much in one hundred years only a few new tombstones have been added to the old cemetery hidden in the woods.
Austin Nelson had stolen some livestock.  When the deputy went to the Nelson home to investigate he was shot.  It is reported that Lawrence shot him.  Lawrence or L.D. was only 13 years old and reported to be mentally challenged.  The deputy died and the Nelson family was arrested.  In order to save her son Laura claimed she shot the deputy.  Her husband was tried and found guilty of stealing then taken to McAlester where he served a 2 to 3 year prison term.
A few weeks later Laura and her son were taken from the jail by a group of vigilantes and lynched.  Their bodies hung over the old Hwy 56 bridge overlooking the North Canadian River when the famous photo of them was taken.
It is unclear what happened to baby Carrie.  Some say she died along with her mother and brother, but others say a woman grabbed her and took her home.
I'll write more about this event later, but for now Laura's song.  The song, Don't Kill My Baby and My Son was written by Guthrie about the lynching.   The song was only recently discovered and brought out of hiding by Joel Rafael at a Woody Guthrie Festival and on his CD, The Songs of Woody Guthrie, Vol 1 and 2.  Many were not familiar with the song not even Arlo.
The lyrics of the song are haunting, much like other Guthrie songs.  In one verse, Guthrie writes:

Now, I've heard the cries of a panther,
Now, I've heard the coyotes yell,
But that long, lonesome cry shook the whole wide world
And it come from the cell of the jail.

I hear the coyotes yell and just last year a panther was spotted in the area of North Canadian River bridge.
You can go here for the complete lyrics.
This story is never discussed.  I asked my husband about it one time and he just said he knew about it.  One day we were driving over the bridge and he just said, "it happened here" and immediately the image of Laura popped in my head.
I'll leave this for now.  Here are some other articles:

To be continued.
Territory Mom


Yogi♪♪♪ said...

That's a powerful and disturbing story even, or especially 100 years later. It's important to remember stuff like this.

It may have been a 100 years ago but it wasn't the end of it. There are still people living who went through the Tulsa Race Riot.

Mrs. Sprague said...

Wow, this is an incredible story. Thank you for sharing.

Territory Mom said...

Thanks for you comments. Yogi, many believe this event is just one of the things that triggered the Tulsa Race Riot. Amazing what people have gone through.