Up Beat Down South: “The Death of Emma Hartsell”

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Up Beat Down South: “The Death of Emma Hartsell”

by Bruce E. Baker
Southern Cultures, Vol. 9, No. 1: Spring 2003

"One December afternoon, he finished off a running argument with his younger brother-in-law with both barrels of a shotgun."

“In eighteen-hundred and ninety-eight,” as the song tells us, “Sweet Emma met with an awful fate.” Sweet Emma was Emma Hartsell, the twelve-year-old daughter of a farmer in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, and the awful fate she met was murder. Just as awful, though, was the fate met by Tom Johnson and Joe Kizer a few hours later, hanged from a dogwood tree by a mob just outside of the town of Concord. Johnson and Kizer were black, Hartsell was white, and “The Death of Emma Hartsell” is a ballad that reminded everyone who heard it, mostly white folks, of just what that meant in 1898 in North Carolina.