On the morning of September 6, 1934, in the tiny town of Honea Path, South Carolina, friends and neighbors came to blows in a labor dispute. When it was over, seven people were dead and 30 others wounded.
The bloody riot at the town’s cotton mill on that warm Thursday morning shaped the lives of two generations to follow — not because of the shock of what was known, but by what was unknown. Fear, threats and intimidation were used to silence the story of the greatest tragedy in the town’s history.
For 60 years, the story of a mass killing in a small town was successfully erased, not only from the history books, but from the public consciousness of those people most affected by it. An instrument of fear — so powerful that parents were afraid to tell the story to their own children — formed a lifelong social contract for entire community’s survival.
Ironically, Honea Path’s secret was finally revealed in a way the architects of its original cover-up could have never imagined: a video documentary titled The Uprising of ‘34 made by three socially-conscious New York City filmmakers who unraveled the secret after rummaging through old letters from townspeople to President Franklin Roosevelt.
Yet, even after the truth was exposed in 1995, the story took another strange twist. South Carolina’s intensely pro-business establishment, still heavily influenced by the region’s textile industry, tried to suppress the documentary, first by banning it from broadcast and then by making it difficult for people to see in public places.
Frank Beacham grew up in Honea Path. His mother was the town’s history teacher. His grandfather, he was to learn from the documentary, organized the posse of gunmen who fired on their fellow workers in 1934. Only as an adult did he finally learn the deeper secrets that haunted Honea Path and the painful truth about his own family and the destructive series of events that distorted the perceptions he held of his childhood home.
As a professional writer and journalist, Beacham investigated his home town and the family he never knew. He spoke with the last living shooting victim, Williams Andrew Smith, who told him that his grandfather lied about being at the mill when the violence occurred. In fact, Smith said, his grandfather, Dan Beacham, was standing over him as he lay bleeding on the ground.
An aunt, Hazel Beacham, confronted the writer about supporting the men his grandfather fought against. Beacham went on local radio in a compelling appearance that turned many in the town around to support a memorial for the workers in 1995.
To commemorate the shooting 80 years ago, Beacham has produced a 48-minute audio documentary that chronicles the shooting and features many of his interviews. He talks with a historian as to why Honea Path is not commemorating the anniversary. The program runs for the entire month of September and is free to listen to or download at: http://www.beachamjournal.com/.
Beacham has also written an extensive multimedia e-book, titled Mill Town Murder which features text, photos, audio and video about the Honea Path shooting and its historical context.
Mill Town Murder ($9.99) (ISBN-9781629218465) is available at Apple’s iTunes, Amazon’s Kindle book store and Barnes & Noble’s Nook store. It can also be bought directly from the store at Vook at http://store.vook.com/ and read online there on Macintosh and PC platforms.
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