“We want your son Tom,” an officer said.
Finch got dressed and went with the officers. An hour later, he was dumped outside Grady Hospital, where he worked as an orderly. His face was pummeled. He was shot multiple times.
“Oh Lord,” he said, as nurses placed him on an operating table. “Oh Lord.”
Those were his last words. He was 28.
Authorities never investigated Finch’s death or charged anyone for it, and it was clear why. The horrific killing was orchestrated by one of the men on Finch’s doorstep — Samuel Roper, a police officer who went on to lead the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and then, upon retirement, Georgia’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
The circumstances of Finch’s lynching — one of more than 6,500 between 1865 and 1950 — were brought to light in 2017 by Carissa Aranda, a civil rights attorney in western Massachusetts who at the time was a Northeastern University law school student investigating cold cases for the school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.
As part of her investigation, Aranda examined an unpublished investigation into Finch’s death conducted by the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, a race reform organization founded in segregated Atlanta in 1919. She also tracked down Finch’s last known surviving relative: his niece, Joyce Finch-Morris. Now 71, she still lives in Atlanta, which became an epicenter of Black Lives Matter protests following the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in June. The white officer who shot and killed Brooks has been fired and charged with felony murder.
Finch also died in police custody. His niece knew little about his death until Aranda shared her findings. Now Finch-Morris finds herself wishing her parents and other relatives were around not just to learn what really happened that night in 1936, but to see the police brutality protests sweeping the country.
“As painful as his death was, they died knowing that their son, their brother, their uncle died with no recourse, with no justice whatsoever,” she said. “The difference now is that society is outraged. People are just tired of it. These things won’t just be swept under the rug like what happened to my uncle. We need justice.”
One of seven children, Finch was a descendant of sharecroppers. In his early 20s, while his father supported the family as a haberdasher, Finch got a job as an orderly at Grady Hospital, which had two buildings — one for black patients, the other for whites. Finch worked in the white building.
In early September 1936, a white woman named Ozella Smith arrived at the hospital with a fracture. Finch placed her on a gurney and transported her to the emergency room, where doctors treated and released her.
Thirty-six hours later, Smith went to the Atlanta police headquarters to file a rape complaint. She had been assaulted, she said, in a tiny office near where she was treated. Smith identified the rapist as Thomas Finch. According to Finch-Morris, Smith may have been secretly dating her uncle — a verboten relationship that could have led to the rape allegation.
Back in the 1930s, police officers in Atlanta openly lived double lives. When they weren’t in uniform, many wore the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. The police department’s own history acknowledges that the “Klan-dominated police union” wasn’t officially abolished until 1947, though historians and criminologists say connections with white supremacy lasted even longer.
“This was not unusual and limited to Georgia,” said Taimi Castle, a professor of justice studies at James Madison University and the author of an academic paper titled “Cops and the Klan.” “During the same period of time, in some jurisdictions all local officials were members, including the sheriff.”
When Finch was accused of rape, Roper caught the case.
Roper joined the Klan in the early 1920s, according to “A Measure of Freedom,” a 1950 Anti-Defamation League investigation of KKK involvement in anti-Semitism and white supremacy in America. While Roper served as a police officer and later the head of Georgia’s prestigious Bureau of Investigation, his local Klan titles included Exalted Cyclops and Imperial Nighthawk.
In 1949, 13 years after Finch’s lynching, Roper became Imperial Wizard of Georgia’s Klan organizations. The appointment was widely covered in Atlanta’s newspapers, which referred to him as Wizard Roper. “Roper has a reputation,” the Anti-Defamation League investigation said, “for planning his moves with calculated force.”
When Roper came to the Finch family’s home that September night, Finch asked why he was being arrested. All the officers would say was that there was an investigation underway. Finch was placed in a car and driven away. His wife, nervous about the strange 3 a.m. arrival of officers and several other unidentified men, called police headquarters and the county jail trying to find him.
Nobody knew where he had been taken.
‘It was very painful’
When Finch-Morris was growing up, her mother had told her that her uncle had been accused of raping a white woman and that he was lynched. But Finch-Morris’s father, even if he knew the whole story, didn’t talk much about his brother’s death.
“My father was a forthright person, but when I asked about this it was very painful for him, and he didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I knew he was going out with a white woman, and he was lynched. That’s it.”
Then a few years ago, Finch-Morris received a phone call from Aranda, the Northeastern University law school student.
Aranda had grown up in the South with dreams of becoming a civil rights attorney. Northeastern, with its renowned Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, was an ideal place. The clinic has investigated hundreds of lynchings, bringing closure to scores of families whose loved ones were killed without any justice at all.
Finch’s case was assigned to Aranda in 2017. Scraping through archives and news clippings, she was led to an unpublished and undated investigation into his death held in the archives of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Special Collections Library.
In the papers, Aranda found a document titled, in part, “Concerning the Death of Tom Finch.” The author was Arthur F. Raper, a white sociologist who studied lynching and investigated them for the commission. (There are other investigative reports in the commission files, though it is not clear whether Raper is also the author.)
One of the reports begins with an account of Finch being awakened by Roper and another officer.
“Where they had taken him,” the report says, “for what purpose, and by what authority, and why had they had found it necessary to beat him and shoot him to death are questions that invite investigation.”
Raper and the commission’s investigation was a thorough inquiry, the sort of investigation Atlanta police would have conducted had the murder victim been white. The idea that Finch raped Smith was dismissed by his supervisors, including white nurses and doctors who comforted the family and a sent floral wreath to his funeral.
The office where the alleged attack occurred was near a busy reception area.
“Everybody interviewed at the hospital,” one of the commission reports said, “were unanimous in their conviction that the alleged was not and could not have been committed. It is unbelievable that the woman would have submitted silently to such an attack when the slightest outcry would have brought a dozen people to her rescue.”
If Smith made up the attack, why did she do it? Raper’s report doesn’t pinpoint an exact motive, but Aranda, in her own report, wrote that Smith “and the Atlanta police detectives insisted on painting Finch as the stereotypical black rapist, a false image used by the press and law enforcement authorities to excuse of justify ‘vigilante’ lynchings.”
In the commission report, Raper noted that Smith “tends to desire publicity” and, on other visits to the hospital, was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as being “mentally subnormal and irresponsible” and unable to adequately state her name and address.
The day Smith alleged the attack to police, cars began to circle Finch’s home, honking their horns. Somewhere between his house and his arrival at Grady Hospital on the verge of death, Finch was beaten and shot.
In a newspaper article later that week, police told reporters that Finch attacked Roper and attempted to escape, prompting police to defend themselves and kill him.
Raper found that story nearly impossible to believe, because Roper had brought civilians to the house and especially because Finch was never taken to the police station, which was only a few blocks from Finch’s home. All of that, plus the allegation of rape by a white woman, suggested the “probability” that police and friends of the girl murdered Finch.
“It seems obvious,” Raper concluded, “that Finch was lynched.”
‘Everyone is speaking out’
“It was all very, very shocking,” she said.
The lynching, of course. But also the role of the police.
“As far as I could tell, the KKK and the police were one and the same,” Finch-Morris said. “That’s just the way it was. There was no way for anybody to get any recourse.”
Nowadays, there is at least some chance. Officers are wearing body cameras. And citizens are wielding an important technological weapon against police brutality — cellphones that have recorded black Americans being beaten and killed by police, from George Floyd in Minneapolis to Brooks in Atlanta.
But something else important has changed, Finch-Morris added.
“It’s not just black people who are making their voices heard,” she said. “Now everyone is speaking out. That definitely didn’t happen back in 1936. That is progress.”
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