Mar 8, 2023 - News

Spotlight on "Terrible Terrell" in latest WABE podcast

Photo: Courtesy of WABE News

By the mid-20th century, southwest Georgia's Terrell County, three hours from Atlanta, gained a reputation among Black residents and civil rights workers as "Terrible Terrell" — one of the most dangerous and violent settings for people of color in the South.

Driving the news: The fourth season of the WABE podcast "Buried Truths" examines Terrell's white power structure and the horrors that befell Black residents at its hands.

  • It focuses on the brutal 1958 police beating of James Brazier, who died of brain damage days later, and the police shooting of Willie Countryman in his own backyard one month later. Both involved the same police officer Weyman B. Cherry.
  • Nearly 90 students in the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory contributed to the research — a project run by Buried Truths creator and host Hank Klibanoff.

Why it matters: Revisiting cases like these is important, because while the victims never saw justice in a court, "an entirely new kind of justice can still be achieved: the judgment of history," Klibanoff, Pulitzer-prize winning author and former managing editor of the AJC, told Axios.

The big picture: Brazier's death "will never officially be called a murder, just a killing," he said. In fact, Officer Cherry was soon given a raise and eventually promoted to police chief, Klibanoff's students found.

  • "The retelling of it and re-investigation of it with new facts and new findings make it possible to have a clear consensus on the same issues that would have come before a jury," Klibanoff said.

Of note: The Brazier family reported the murder to the FBI at the time. Remarkably, Hattie Bell Brazier filed federal lawsuits against the officers and the case went to trial in 1963.

  • But after apparent witness intimidation highlighted by Klibanoff's students, she lost and no one was convicted.
James and Hattie Bell Brazier. James was beaten by police in Terrell County in 1958 and died of brain damage days later. Photo: Courtesy of WABE News

What they're saying: Terrell County "earned its reputation," Klibanoff told Axios.

  • "They put no limitations or controls on their law enforcement officers who brought great brutality to their relationships with the Black community," he said. "And quite the contrary, they rewarded brutality."
  • In 1960, Black people made up more than half of Terrell's 13,000-person population, but just 51 were registered to vote, according to SNCC records.

State of play: Today, Terrell has a Black sheriff and one Black county commissioner for its 60% Black population. That commissioner, Ernest Johnson, told Axios in an interview he heard countless stories like "Bubba" Brazier's growing up.

  • "We got the brand because we deserved it….We had some horrific things happen in Terrell County."

Yes, but: "We're a great community now," he said. "Are we perfect? No. But it's a whole long ways from where it used to be. And I personally feel comfortable living here, because times have changed."

  • Yet Terrell's reputation, he said, "will be there forever."

Threat level: Today, while racism does exist in Terrell like "everywhere all over the world," Johnson said the biggest problem for the rural county with just under 9,000 residents is survival.

  • "We're losing industry," he told Axios. "Like most small communities, we're dying out."

What's next: A fifth episode of Buried Truths' Season 4 drops Wednesday.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Officer Weyman B. Cherry was promoted to police chief, not sheriff.


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