Aug. 27, 1866, was to be John Taylor’s 18th birthday. On the cusp of that day, he’d already lived a life of the times: a slave, a freedman who joined the Union Army in the Civil War hired farm hand in Ingham County. But Taylor was not meant to see the sun rise on that birthday.
He was lynched by a mob estimated to be a 100 strong on Aug. 23, 1866. He was hung and shot three times, his corpse brought down and dismembered and ultimately buried first in a shallow grave on a farm in Delhi Township, then later in a hill now known as Deadman’s Hill.
Where his mortal remains rest today is unknown, but that is not stopping township residents and officials from taking action to honor the victim of Ingham County’s only known lynching.
“I think that in terms of a moral conscious, we wanted to bring this up at a time when everybody in the community is maybe ready to deal with this on a more humane level,” said Mark Brown, a Lansing resident who works with both the Lansing ACLU and the Lansing branch of the NAACP. He’s also been involved in meetings with Ingham county residents and Delhi leaders on finding a way to honor Taylor.
Park, on Cedar Street south of Holt Road, has been owned by Delhi Township since it was donated in 1972. It’s been a popular sledding hill since before it was even named a park. Minutes from the Park Commission at the time indicate there was an attempt to rename the park but it was ultimately tabled. Brown said Delhi Parks and Recreation Director Mark Jenks is “incredibly supportive” of doing something to honor Taylor.
“He has the power, with the Parks Commission, to just rename it,” Brown said. “But he wants the community involved in this. He knows that is important.”
Brown said the time is right for such an effort in light of a national movement to honor those murdered in lynchings in the post Reconstruction Era. In April, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in birmingham, Alabama, was unveiled by the Equal Justice Initiative. It was designed to address thousands of racially motivated lynchings between 1877 and 1950, according to the group’s website.
But Taylor’s murder is not among those memorialized because it happened only a year after the end of the Civil War.
“It’s important to know this history,” said Brown.
And he’s not alone in that belief. Bill Castanier, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, said acknowledging history is important.
“It behooves us to remember this, to honor this man,” he said.
State Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr. a Democrat who represents the vast majority of Ingham County, agreed.
“Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” he said. “I definitely stand with people wanting to remember this incident. You can’t just sweep this under the rug.”
But it has been lurking under the rug for over a century. Taylor was a freed slave from Kentucky who joined Michigan’s Company G of the First Colored Infantry, according to research done by Jacob McCormack, founder of the Holt-Delhi Historical Society. Mustered to South Carolina, he returned to Michigan when the war ended. He was unemployed but found day labor on the farm of John Buck. Buck, according to contemporary news reports, refused to pay Taylor his earned wages of $2.50, so Taylor went to the farm in the evening in an attempt to collect. There are varying versions of what happened when Taylor was at the farm. In some he killed the whole family with an ax. In another, from the editor of the Ingham County News at the time, “not one drop of blood was shed.”
But it was the first that shot through Ingham County. A black man had murdered four white people, three of them women. He was tracked down and arrested in Bath Township and jailed in Mason. A mob of 100 showed up demanding he be handed over. Again, stories differ on how then Ingham County Sheriff Fredrick Moody responded. In one telling, he denied Taylor was lodged in the jail, In another, he told the crowd what cell he was in and where his keys were in what Castanier called a “wink wink” move. In both instances, the crowd rushed the jail, broke down the doors and dragged the teen from the jail at gunpoint. He was ordered to pray, then murdered.
A grand jury was brought together at the time, and charges against three men were lodged. But only one man, William Cook, ever faced trial. In his first trial, the jury deadlocked. In the second, Cook was found not guilty. Cook was defended by former Gov. Austin Blair.
“This is part of the way we address our history,” said Castanier. “But first we have to know about it. We definitely need to know about this.”
Jenks, the Delhi Township parks and recreation director, said he became aware of the hill’s notorious history in the 1980s. But the mismatched stories were more lore than fact then and township officials gave up on honoring Taylor. And while nothing has been finalized in how Taylor will be honored, Jenks said, “It’s time to do the education. It’s time to honor this man. He served in the Civil War, and his death should not be forgotten.”