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It’s a Wagner Week and I found an old copy of the Commercial Appeal one of the Wagners had saved from Thursday, July 25, 1935. At the top-center is a very large portrait of Grace Barrett. The caption says “Miss Water Valley: Grace Barrett was chosen Sunday Night to be ‘Miss Water Valley’ at the annual melon carnival. She was May Queen at the Holmes Junior College last spring.”
I love finding an old newspaper clipping, not just because it’s a clue as what was important to the person who thought to keep it but for the other extraneous articles found on the pages; some stories famous, some forgotten but no less intriguing.
Just to the left of the picture of Grace Barrett is an article about a four-year medical school being proposed by the dean at Ole Miss. To the right is a large article about a 4-H conference down at State. There’s an article about a boat which capsized, killing two young brothers gigging fish in Kentucky and another article about a bank robbery in Arkansas which netted $13,186. That’s a serious haul, even by today’s standards! And below that, an article about the discovery of a skeleton leading to the possibility of an “Indian Burial Site” plowed up by a man at Horseshoe Lake, Louisiana.
But what caught my attention was a small paragraph way at the bottom of the page; near the edge of the newspaper so most of it had disintegrated and was gone. There was just enough there to spiral me down into a rabbit hole: Negro Declines to Leave Home To Accept Gift of Artifici…” The rest of the headline had fallen off. Artificial what?! Underneath, all that was left were fragments of the content of the article.
“Raleigh,N.C., July 24 — Woodrow Wilson Shropshire, 20-year-old negro, the loss of whose feet after confinement in a Mecklenburg County chain gang punishment last winter brought on a legislative investigation…” And here the paper had broken off again. The only other remaining bit of text said “…trial of five prison officials….”
So, with that lead, to Google I went. There were several mentions of the crime, some of which were condescending to the victims (although generally sympathetic, I guess) so I won’t bother with those here. Instead, I’ll use information from an article from the Indianapolis Recorder titled “LEGLESS VICTIM TESTIFIES IN N. C. PRISON PROBE, NORTH CAROLINA PRISON OFFICIALS FACE PROBE.”
In short, Woodrow Shropshire and Robbert Barnes, both 19, had their lower legs amputated by five prison officials after their lower limbs became gangrenous from being forced to stand, chained for nine days to a concrete floor during winter in a dark, unheated room. One of them also suffered a near-death beating witnessed by the other.
Shropshire appeared in court in a wheelchair. Barnes was still in the hospital and couldn’t testify. Follow up articles recite the unsurprising but horrific fact that the prison officials were acquitted of their charges of neglect of duty, mistreatment of convicts and assault with intent to kill. Both young men were forced to finish their prison terms despite the amputations and were offered artificial legs as well as jobs as compensation for their ordeals (none of which they were physically able to perform.)
Shropshire was on the chain gang for charges of drunken driving; Barnes for receiving stolen property. Shropshire refused his artificial legs.