Say her name: The lynching of Marie Thompson in Kentucky

Marie Thompson, a young black woman who was murdered in Kentucky, keeps me awake at night with fierce whispering from her grave. She insists I pay attention to the story of her lynching that took place over 100 years ago where I am visiting in Shepherdsville, KY. Every place we stand has a history to tell; often it is a hidden history unless you look for it. I looked for an African American or Civil Rights museum here near Louisville. Many of the places we have visited in the South have them. Not here. Yet I knew there were stories here that needed to be told. This one is about Marie Thompson in 1904. It is one among many of the lynchings that happened in Kentucky.

Marie Thompson was a black sharecropper working in the vegetable garden with her son in June, 1904, when John Irvin, the white farmer who owned the land, accused her son of stealing pliers that he had been lent earlier. The boy stated he had returned them. Irvin berated him for lying and kicked him several times in the back.

Thompson confronted Irvin, protesting his treatment of her son. He told her to get off of his place. Thompson, even knowing she was losing her home and livelihood, turned and intentionally walked away slowly as an act of resistance. This angered Irvin and caused him to attack her from behind with a knife. They struggled. Thompson cut his throat and Irvin died.

Recognizing the danger she was in, Thompson gathered her things and tried to leave town but was arrested before she could flee. When the story of Irvin’s death was reported, a group of about a dozen armed white men came to the jail with the intent to lynch Thompson. A group of African American men arrived and the shoot-out between them caused the white men to leave. The deputies promised the African American group that Thompson would be protected and they went away.

Two hours later a group of 50 white men returned to the jail, put a rope around Thompson, dragged her out and put the rope around a tree. Thompson fought them all along the way. While she was swinging from the tree, she grabbed the collar of a man next to her and then his knife which she used to cut the rope around her neck. She fell to the ground and started to run. The mob fired over 100 bullets at her. She fell to the ground and was left for the dead. She was found alive by the sheriff and taken to the jail where she died the next evening.

Before she died, Thompson confided in her doctor, “I didn’t want him (Irvin) to die but I wanted to pay him back for what he had done to me and my boy.”

Thompson was a fighter and a defender. She was a mom protecting her son. She challenged injustice with fierce resistance. She was murdered for it.

I think of black mothers who have given their all to keeping their sons safe. I think of the disastrous consequences when any black person is perceived as challenging authority. Or how death comes with everyday actions like when a black person drives a car, walks home with a friend, wears a hoodie, holds their wallet, attends a birthday party, holds a fake gun, rides a commuter train, or attends a Bible study.

And I weep. One hundred and twelve years after Marie’s death, it is still not safe to be a black person in this country.


Post by Diane

For more information about Marie Thompson, see the following:

From Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching By Crystal Nicole Feimster

University of Kentucky Libraries

Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule, and “Legal Lynchings” by George C. Wright.






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