Story of Indiana church that stood against KKK after lynching that inspired "Strange Fruit"


James Cameron : Being Saved From Lynching

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8-25-2013   by Russ McQuaid
One night when the worst of Hoosier humanity was on murderous display, a little church in Muncie brought out the best in its congregation, supporters and townspeople.
83 years after Shaffer Chapel stood up the Ku Klux Klan, the church at the corner of Highland Avenue and Wolff Street on Muncie’s northeast side needs help to keep standing.
The church and its members are leading a drive to raise $60,000 by the end of September to make the 120-year-old chapel handicapped accessible, to improve restrooms and windows and to landscape the grounds.
The drive is lead by Cornelius Dollison, who married his wife Mary in that church 51 years ago.
“We have to know and understand our history before we can move forward, and realize that all those things that happened 83 years ago, that’s part of our history,” said Dollison as he stood in the sun before Sunday morning services. “We have to look forward but we have to know and understand what happened back in that time to realize how important our freedoms are that we enjoy.”
Those freedoms were enforced with guns and prayers one night in the summer of 1930.
In nearby Marion, a white woman was raped and her husband was killed.
Three black teens, Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith and James Cameron, were locked up in Marion’s downtown jail.
Outside crowds formed and townspeople howled.
After dark, on August 7th, the mob broke into the jail, bound the teens and took them to a tree on the grounds of the Grant County courthouse.
Cameron was spared.
Shipp and Smith were hung in what is the last recorded lynching in a northern state.
An iconic photograph was snapped of the murdered youths and the crowd.
Jazz singer Billie Holiday’s lament, “Strange Fruit,” was based on a poem about the lynching.

The KKK intimidated the sheriff of Grant County and would not permit him to take the bodies down as a warning to other blacks about the fate that would befall them if they should be arrested in Marion.
Local churches and funeral homes were refused to retrieve the corpses.
The photograph that was cited by the songwriter as the inspiration for the song: Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930
One Muncie minister/mortician would not be terrorized.
“They came together because it took that for that pastor at the time, whose name was J.E. Johnson, to go all the way to Marion and actually get the officials from Muncie to go along with him so that they could get the two young men that were lynched, to bring the bodies back to give them a proper christian burial,” said Rev. Christopher G. Randolph, the current pastor of Shaffer American Methodist Episcopal Church.
The bodies were transported to Highland Avenue and Wolff Street on Muncie’s northeast side where Rev. Johnson prepared them at his mortuary three doors down from the church.
“The Klan were rallying to take the dead bodies and drag them through the streets,” said Rev. Randolph.
Former State Representative Hurley Goodall was born three years before the lynching.
He’s lived down the street and attended Shaffer Chapel all his life.
“The Klan was a strong organization back then when I was a child.
“There were a lot of rumors that would fly around that the Klan was coming and all of this and people would get apprehensive,” said Goodall, adding that the KKK tried to, “intimidate people connected with this church and this neighborhood.”
The people of Shaffer Chapel would not be intimidated.
“The African-Americans had armed themselves on houses and behind corners and armed themselves to be able to tackle anything that come their way,” said City Councilman Julius J. Anderson. “They were reinforcing themselves, I would say, to say, ‘Hey, look, this is not going to happen in Muncie.’”
The nightmare that was visited on their neighbors in Marion did not spill over into Muncie.
Rev. Johnson finished his work, the bodies were embalmed and prepared for funeral and returned to their families in Marion.
A green historical marker on the church grounds commemorates the courage of the pastor and his congregation and the white political leadership of Muncie that night.
Now the church is in dire need of renovation and rejuvenation.
About two dozen congregants arrive for weekly services.
Most are elderly and black, but sprinkled in the pews are the faces of white students from Ball State University who have volunteered along with a local architect to help in the renovation.
“Our goal is to raise $60,000,” said Cornelius Dollison who married his wife Mary in Shaffer Chapel 51 years ago. “That is what we figure on being enough money to do the landscaping, repair those entry way steps and make a handicapped ramp along the side.”
Renovations will be made to windows and rest rooms, too.
“We see God’s hand in a lot things that we do and He’s still in charge and we realize that,” said Dollison.
“It took a community coming together on one accord to take a particular stand on that one evening,” recalled Councilman Anderson. “Yes, it was a dark day on one side. But it was a bright day when the Klan didn’t show.”
The not-for-profit Whitely Community Council is leading the fundraising drive with an account established at Old National Bank to accept tax-deductible donations for the Shaffer Chapel renovations.
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