Cracking a Cold Case

Surveying Moore's Ford Bridge area for new evidence
KSU archaeology students conduct metal survey to help solve 1946 Walton County lynching
 
What happened to two African-American couples on July 25, 1946, near Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County is not a mystery. In what has been labeled “America’s last mass lynching,” a group of 20-25 Ku Klux Klansmen pulled the two men and their wives from a car, brutally beat them and shot them multiple times with rifles, pistols and a machine gun.
            What remains a mystery is why no one was indicted or convicted for the crime, despite an FBI investigation ordered by President Harry Truman following the incident and several attempts by federal and state authorities since then to reexamine the evidence in the case, one as recent as 2008. 
            A group of anthropology students concentrating in archaeology at Kennesaw State, led by Terry Powis, associate professor of anthropology, have joined forces with students from the Cold Case Research Institute at Bauder College in Atlanta to try once again to find new evidence and revive interest in the cold case. 
            Powis, along with seven current and two former KSU students, conducted the first metal survey of the crime site, using the latest technology — remote sensing devices and ground-penetrating radar — that allowed them to view on a computer screen what is below the ground. They hope to uncover new ballistic evidence that will lead to identification of the weapons actually used during the killings and ultimately to identification of the killers. 
            The surveys by Powis and his team support the work of Bauder’s students, who have been delving into the cold case for two years, guided by CCRI director Sheryl McCollom. They have been studying historical research related to the lynching and analyzing public records and media accounts of the incident.
            The Kennesaw team’s first foray into the investigation on Oct. 9 uncovered more than two dozen bullets from 20- and 30-gauge shotguns and .22-caliber handguns, all of which ballistics consultant Chris Robinson confirmed could have been fired by guns commonly in use at that time.
            Over the next several weeks, they will return to the area surrounding the former Moore’s Ford Bridge, which was replaced by a stretch of road in the 1970s, to map out a grid and conduct a more systematic survey of the 100-square-foot area. The goal is to pinpoint the actual site of the tree where the victims were shot by identifying where a concentration of bullets is.
            “It’s very worthwhile to cover the entire area,” Powers said. “The remote sensing techniques we’re using can pick up whatever is in the ground down to one foot and differentiate among metals. We hope to recover 100 percent of the bullets used. The archaeologist’s job is to search for clues as methodically as possible.”
            For students working with Powis at the crime site, the project provided a chance to work with the latest equipment and opened up new understandings of archaeology’s potential in real-life criminal investigations. Of equal importance to some of them is the prospect that it also might lead to justice for the victims murdered at Moore’s Ford Bridge 64 years ago.
            “I’d never heard about the case until Dr. Powis presented us with the opportunity,” said senior Amanda Disharoon, who spent a month doing archaeological fieldwork at a Mayan site in Belize with the professor. “I spent hours researching [the case], and every bit of information I read made my heart hurt. I couldn’t believe something so horrific took place without any repercussions to those involved.”
            Hope Morris, also a senior, agrees that trying to bring justice and closure for the victims and their families is a compelling motivation to work on the project. “The Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching was such a racist episode and such a crime of hate that it compels one to want to be involved,” she said. “The people who did this heinous crime are still alive and should go to trial for murder.” 
            Despite the passion for justice the case inspires among students, conducting a metal survey of the site can be tedious and difficult research.
            “I won’t say that it was frustrating, but you definitely face more let downs, especially on a site that is littered with aluminum cans and various other pieces of metal that have been dumped there through the years,” said Megan Parker, who had her first experience doing metal detector archaeology. “You can’t scan a square foot of dirt without the metal detector going off. You just have to learn not to get excited until you’re holding something good in your hands, otherwise you get discouraged.”
            The metal sensing equipment the students are using at the site can differentiate metals, but first, Morris says, it’s necessary to remove all of the metal from the site — cans, bed springs and even basketball goals — before searching for lead [bullets]. “Most of the time we don’t encounter this type of environmental problem because we’re searching for Paleo-Indian artifacts.”
            Powis said all anthropology students are required to do fieldwork, and all the students working at the Moore’s Ford Bridge site have had experiences at archaeological sites, including the work in Belize, Paleo-Indian sites in Northwest Georgia and a 19th century shipwreck near Key Largo, Fla. The current project is unique, however, because it gave students their first chance to be involved in a public archaeology project. 
            “It feels wonderful to be doing applied archaeology in this context,” said senior William Wilson. “There are many talented people involved, which makes it a great learning opportunity as well.”
            Added Parker, “It’s not very often that people get to see how archaeology can directly affect society.”
            For all the students, the best possible outcome of their work is to find evidence that will lead to identification and conviction of those who committed crimes at Moore’s Ford Bridge. Failing that, said senior Drew Ward, “it will hopefully help create a framework for future investigations.”
 
-- Sabbaye McGriff