Historic marker will be dedicated a century later while lynching marker sits in storage
By Joe Sterling
Georgia Gov. John Slaton sacrificed his political career when he commuted Leo Frank’s murder sentence from death to life in prison in 1915, only for Frank to be abducted from prison and lynched two months later.
A century later, Slaton finally will be honored.
The Atlanta History Center, Georgia Historical Society and Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation will dedicate a historic marker for Slaton at the center in Buckhead on June 17, four days before the centennial of the day Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence.
“It was a matter of personal courage and conviction to do what he did,” said Michael Rose, the center’s executive vice president. “It was a volatile situation. He followed his conscience to do what was the right thing to do. He received death threats. He was in an amount of personal danger.”
Jerry Klinger, the Jewish historic preservation organization’s president, said Slaton’s courage has never been honored. “He made a decision he thought was right.”
Frank, a Jewish native of Texas who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and married into the Selig family, was the superintendent of Atlanta’s National Pencil Co. factory, where 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan was killed April 26, 1913. Frank was convicted of murder that summer in a trial under a cloud of mob intimidation and anti-Semitism.
Elyse Butler, the Georgia Historical Society’s membership and outreach associate, said the Frank commutation occurred at the end of Slaton’s second term and was “arguably Slaton’s most memorable act as governor.”
That act did not save Frank’s life for long. He was still recovering from a nearly fatal stabbing in prison in Milledgeville when he was abducted Aug. 16, 1915, and driven overnight to Marietta to be hanged from a tree the next day. It’s the only known lynching of a Jew in American history.
A historical marker was erected in 2008 near the site of the lynching at Roswell and Frey’s Gin roads, just west of Interstate 75 and a quarter-mile east of the Big Chicken.
But the Georgia Department of Transportation removed the marker last fall to make way for the Northwest Corridor Project. The marker is in storage at a GDOT office in Marietta.
GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said there’s no specific time when the marker will be reinstalled, but it will take place long after the centennial of the lynching.
The construction in the area won’t start until next spring and could last a couple of years.
“We want the construction in the area to be completed so the marker will not be damaged,” Dale said. When the marker returns, it will be across Roswell Road from the original location in a site with a sidewalk and landscaping, Dale said. The marker was difficult to see from the road in its old spot.
John Hancock, a GDOT engineer, said the new location is off Chert Road, just off Roswell Road. When everything is done, he said, motorists on the nearby lanes will surely see it.
The access will be better, and the location will be safe for visitors to park and look at marker, Hancock said. “Win-win for everybody.”
Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth in East Cobb was responsible for the only previous lynching markers: yahrzeit plaques placed on the outside of a nearby building on the 80th and 90th anniversaries of Frank’s death. The two plaques were returned to Kol Emeth when the building was demolished, and the rabbi said he might find a place for them at the synagogue if he can’t find a spot near the lynching.
Having worked to get the historical marker erected in 2008, Rabbi Lebow is working on plans for an August centennial event and said he’ll try to get the marker out of storage for the memorial.
Butler said plans are tentative, but the Georgia Historical Society hopes to rededicate the marker for the lynching centennial.
Frank was pardoned posthumously in 1986 because of the state’s failure to protect him or bring his killers to justice, but the pardon did not address his guilt or innocence.
That’s not enough, Rabbi Lebow said. Frank needs to be declared innocent. Rabbi Lebow said he plans to ask the Georgia General Assembly, Cobb County and the city of Marietta to exonerate Frank.
Alonzo Mann, 83, gave a sworn statement in 1982 about what he saw when he was a 14-year-old office boy for Frank. He said a janitor, Jim Conley, the key witness against Frank, actually was the killer.
Rabbi Lebow also wants the centennial to celebrate societal changes. “Georgia of 2015 is different,” he said. “Cobb is better and greater and more open than it had been.”
The following is the text of the historic marker for John Slaton:
Gov. John M. Slaton
John Marshall Slaton was born in Meriwether County and graduated from the University of Georgia before practicing law in Atlanta. Slaton served in both houses of the Georgia legislature and two terms as governor (1911-12 and 1913-15). While in office, he modernized Georgia’s tax system and roads. Concerned by the sensationalized atmosphere and circumstantial evidence that led to the notorious 1913 conviction of Jewish businessman Leo Frank in the murder of teenager Mary Phagan, Slaton granted Frank clemency in June 1915. Slaton’s commutation of Frank’s death sentence drew national attention but hostile local backlash resulted in Frank’s lynching in August 1915, and the end of Slaton’s political career. Forced to flee Georgia, Slaton later returned to live on property adjacent to today’s Atlanta History Center and Slaton Drive (named in his honor). He is buried in Oakland Cemetery.