Maceo Snipes

Age 37

A World War II vet, the county's only Black voter in a primary

Butler, Georgia

July 20, 1946

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“They took everything from my family. And I guess we're supposed to just sweep all that up under the rug and act like it never happened. I can't do that.”

Raynita Snipes-Johnson & Eugene Robinson

Great-grandniece of Snipes and Friend

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RJ: Uncle Maceo was lynched in 1946 in Taylor County, Georgia, the day after he voted in the primary. Four men drove up on their farm while they were eating supper, and they shot him.

My grandmother and Uncle Maceo walked almost three miles while he was wounded to get help. And once they reached Montgomery Hospital, the doctor told the family and Uncle Maceo, “Oh you’re going to need a transfusion, but there’s no black blood in this hospital.”

My grandmother went down and reported this lynching, but nobody was charged. And there was a note right after he passed away, “The first N to vote, won’t vote again. And anyone who preaches about Maceo Snipes better dig a grave for themselves.”

Our family actually owned about 202 acres of land at the time, and they had to rush off the land because of the threats. They took everything away from my family. And I guess we’re supposed to just sweep all that up under the rug and act like it never happened. I can’t do that.

GR: So how do you keep the memory and legacy of your Uncle Maceo Snipes alive today.

RJ: See, votes are powerful, and that’s what we’re learning now. That is our legacy. And everything that we need to do is to continue the fight of registering and voting, and get his soul at rest.

Photo by J. Flakes Productions

Georgia had long forbidden nonwhites from voting in primary elections, but in 1946 the practice was thrown out by a federal court. On July 17, Maceo Snipes — a World War II veteran recently returned home — became the first and only Black person in Taylor County to vote in that year’s primary election. 

The next day, an acquaintance of Snipes’, Edward Williamson, and at least one other white man drove to Snipes’ home and called for him to come out, according to a Department of Justice memo. A family member inside the house said she heard Snipes talk to the white men and then heard two shots, a pause, and then a third shot. A friend of the family took Snipes to Montgomery Hospital in Butler, where, according to family members, doctors refused him a necessary blood transfusion because they said there was no “Black blood” available in the hospital. Snipes died two days later. A family member later told authorities that when they tried to bury Snipes at a local cemetery, several white men shot at them, forcing them to bury him in secret. 

Initial Investigation

Williamson admitted to shooting Snipes, but claimed he did so in self-defense. He told authorities he had confronted Snipes over a $10 debt and suggested Snipes pay it off by working in the sawmill owned by another man in the car, Lynwood Harvey. Snipes had refused, and, by Williamson’s telling, approached the car with a knife drawn. A local coroner’s jury acquitted Williamson days after Snipes’ death.

After the acquittal, the Department of Justice requested the FBI investigate whether Snipes was murdered for exercising his right to vote. Harvey and two of Snipes’ family members partially corroborated Williamson’s story to the FBI — that the dispute involved working at the sawmill — but not that Snipes had approached the car with a knife. The FBI ruled the murder was unrelated to voting and closed the case a month after opening it.

Till Act Status

In 2008, the FBI began a review of the case. This review followed requests from the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and Lula Montfort, Snipes’ niece. 

For the new investigation, the FBI obtained its 1946 file, interviewed one of Snipes’ relatives and contacted the Taylor County Sheriff’s Department and Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Agents learned Williamson had died in 1985 and Harvey had died in 2003. The DOJ further found that “all the available testimonial evidence indicated that ‘the shooting arose from a personal difference unrelated to the act of voting.’” 

The case was closed on April 12, 2010.

About the Project

This multiplatform investigation draws upon more than two years of reporting, thousands of documents and dozens of first-hand interviews. FRONTLINE spoke to family and friends of the victims, and witnesses, some of whom had never been interviewed; current and former Justice Department officials and FBI agents, state and local law enforcement; lawmakers, civil-rights leaders and investigative journalists, to explore the Department of Justice’s reopening of civil rights-era cold cases under the 2008 Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

In addition to an examination of the federal effort, the project features the first comprehensive, interactive list of all those whose cases were reopened by the Department of Justice. Today, the list stands at 151 names. Among the victims: voting rights advocates, veterans, Louisville’s first female prosecutor, business owners, mothers, fathers, and children.

The project consists of a web-based interactive experience, serialized podcast, a touring augmented-reality exhibit, documentary and companion education curriculum for high schools and universities.

A project like Un(re)solved would not be possible without the historic and contemporary contributions of universities, civil rights groups, and the press, particularly the Black press, who have ensured the ongoing public record of racist violence in the United States. To pay homage to these groups, the web interactive begins with a quote from journalist, activist and researcher Ida B. Wells, one of the first to document with precision the horrors of racial terror in America. “The way to right wrongs,” she wrote, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

At the outset of the project, FRONTLINE forged a relationship with Northeastern University’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), bringing them on as an academic partner. Launched in 2007 by Distinguished Law Professor Margaret Burnham, CRRJ is a mission-driven program of interdisciplinary teaching, research and policy analysis on race, history, and criminal justice. Their work has expanded beyond the names on the Justice Department’s list, archiving documents in over 1,000 cases of racially motivated homicides.

With support from the CRRJ, FRONTLINE reporters gathered what could be known about the individuals on the list, conducting interviews with family, friends and witnesses, delving into newspaper archives and gathering documentation including headstone applications, draft cards and archival photographs.

At the heart of the project has been a drive to center the voices of the families of those on the list. FRONTLINE partnered with StoryCorps to record nearly two dozen oral histories with victims’ next of kin, which are featured both in the web-based interactive and traveling AR exhibit. These oral histories will also be archived in the National Library of Congress.

To lead the creative vision for the web experience and installation, FRONTLINE partnered with Ado Ato Pictures, a premier mixed reality studio founded by artist, filmmaker, and technologist Tamara Shogaolu.

Shogaolu rooted the visuals in the powerful symbolism of trees. In the United States, trees evoke the ideal of liberty, but also speak to an oppressive history of racially motivated violence. In Persian myth, trees are humanity’s ancestors, while in Toraja, Indonesia, they serve as sacred burial sites.

“I was really inspired by looking at the role of the tree as a symbol in American history” Shogaolu said. “It’s been looked at as a symbol of freedom, we look at it as a connector between generations, and also there’s the association of trees with racial terror.” When designing the creative vision for Un(re)solved Shogaolu wondered whether she might be able to reclaim the symbol of the tree. “As a person of color, we’re often terrified of being in isolated places in the woods. And I thought it was kind of crazy that there are natural environments that instinctually give great fear because of this connection with racial terror and I wanted to reclaim that — to turn these into beautiful spaces.”

Un(re)solved weaves imagery of trees, which also recall family ties, into patterns and textures from the American tradition of quilting. Among enslaved African Americans forbidden to read or write, quilts provided an important space to document family stories. Today, quilting remains a creative outlet rich with story and tradition for many American communities.

We invite you to enter this forest of quilted memories — a testimony to the lives of these individuals, and the multi-generational impact of their untimely, unjust loss.

(Credits to come)