One hundred years after his body was discovered hanging from a tree, a Black man’s death certificate has been changed to show he died by homicide instead of suicide.
George Tompkins, 19, was found tied to a tree in Riverside Park in Indianapolis, Indiana, on March 16, 1922. Tompkins reportedly had left for work in the morning and did not return home.
The coroner at the time said Tompkins could not have killed himself given the restraints on his arms, but his death still had been ruled a suicide.
“Whites in Indianapolis committed two violent atrocities against Tompkins,” Rebecca Shrum, an Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis historian, said. “They took his life, and then they erased the memory of the event and replaced it with a lie.”
County coroner officials made the change on March 13. The Indiana Remembrance Coalition, which lobbied for the correction, held a memorial service in Tompkins’ honor. The organization was formed one year ago to “acknowledge and address the difficult heritage of lynching here in Indianapolis,” according to its website.
Nearly 4,400 people were lynched in the U.S. between 1882 to 1968, according to the NAACP. While lynchings were a common occurrence in the South, 18 lynchings were documented in Indiana. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented 6,500 “racial terror lynchings” from 1865 to 1950.
In another incident, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, both 19 years old, were beaten and lynched in 1930, after they were accused of killing a white man and attacking a white woman. Another teenager, 16-year-old James Cameron, also accused, was badly beaten but survived.
According to reports, Tompkins had recently moved from Kentucky to Indiana to start a new life after living with his aunt and uncle. He has no known relatives. No leads or suspects have been identified in his murder. In addition to having his death record changed, the Indiana Remembrance Coalition unveiled a headstone in Tompkins’ honor.
In December, a local NAACP chapter and the Equal Justice Initiative partnered to erect a historical marker in honor of Georgia Ward, a Black man, who was lynched. His body was then also burned in front of more than 1,000 people in Terre Haute, Indiana. Ward was accused of stabbing and shooting a white woman in 1901.
Ward’s great-grandson, Terry Ward, attended Tompkins’s March 12 memorial service.
“It was heartbreaking because I had wondered as a young man why all the men with the last name Ward left Terre Haute,” Terry Ward told reporters.
Congress passed a bill on March 7, to make lynching a federal crime and make it punishable by up to 30 years in prison.