The Story of Thomas Mattox

On February 10, 2018, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project of Northeastern University School of Law hosted “The Story of Thomas Mattox” at Philadelphia History Museum

Organized by CRRJ Project Director for Restorative Justice, Kaylie Simon, the event commemorated Thomas Mattox, a 16 year old who in July 1942 fled to Philadelphia from Elbert County, Georgia in order to escape a lynch mob, as well as his counsel, Raymond Pace Alexander, and Philadelphia Judge Clare Gerald Fenerty, who both strived to deny his extradition. It aimed to bring together members of the Mattox and Fenerty families and honor the courage of their relatives. Speaking at the event was CRRJ Director Margaret Burnham, Sara Kominers (NUSL’ 15) who uncovered the case as a CRRJ student, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald B. Sullivan, grandson of Judge Fenerty.

In the below show-reel, visitors will find photographs from the day. At the bottom of the page is footage of the event's speakers.

The Mattox Case

Mattox’s alleged crime entailed defending himself and his young sisters from a severe beating by a white motorist, resulting in his attacker suffering a minor laceration. Knowing he had a few hours at best, Mattox boarded a train and made north to the refuge of a relative in Philadelphia. After Mattox’s flight, Elbert County law enforcement arrested and detained his two sisters for three months, and the children’s mother was severely beaten in order to extract information as to Mattox’s whereabouts. No steps were ever taken to arrest or criminally sanction her attackers.

Within months, Thomas Mattox was arrested and faced with an extradition warrant signed by the governor of Georgia. Despite legal protests to extradition having very rare success, his case was taken on by legendary attorney Raymond Pace Alexander, who brought habeas corpus proceedings before the Philadelphia Common Pleas court. Alexander was tasked with arguing that the near iron-clad presumption that fugitives would be afforded due process in a requesting state could not apply in Mattox’s case. Fate would have it that the case would be heard by Judge Clare G. Fenerty, who took full account of Alexander’s evidence that Mattox would not receive a fair trial, including records of pervasive lynching occurrences in Georgia.

The Solicitor General representing Elbert County attempted to have Fenerty recused from hearing the case on the basis he had sponsored anti-lynching legislation in his prior tenure as a member of Congress.

In response, Judge Fenerty issued a stinging rebuke in his judgment, holding that:

“There can be no presumption of protection for the accused from murderous violence when the prosecuting attorney – charged with the duty of insuring this protection – expresses such bias and prejudice.”

He then proceeded to find that Mattox was in danger of mob violence if returned, and denied extradition. The strength of Fenerty’s reasoning would see his decision upheld by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which also found that Mattox was “in grave danger of being lynched or abused by mob action.” Upon being freed, Mattox settled in Philadelphia and was joined by family members. He passed away in 2008, aged 84.

 

Raymond Pace Alexander
Judge Clare Gerald Fenerty

Speaker Profiles

Margaret Burnham

CRRJ, Founder and Director

Margaret Burnham is pioneering research into what she coins "the second underground railroad", referring to the flight of Black fugitives, under threat of lynching, from the states of the former Confederacy between Emancipation and 1950. Parallels can be drawn between the Antebellum period, where slave-owners would seek the return of escaped slaves from abolitionist Northern states, and the Postbellum period, where Southern states would seek the extradition of fugitives. In Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and New York, small groups of emerging Black civil rights attorneys, backed by their communities and workers’ unions, would seek to prevent extradition of these individuals back to their state of origin through bringing to light the true face of Southern justice to Northern governors and judges. In turn, these cases would attract nationwide attention, and help pave the way to the civil rights era of the 1960s.

Sara Kominers

Attorney and Former CRRJ Clinic Student 

As a CRRJ clinic student in 2014, Sarah Kominers uncovered the Thomas Mattox story which laid the foundation for CRRJ's current research into the extradition of Black fugitives between Emancipation and 1950. At the event she laid out for attendees the meticulous process of gathering documentary evidence. She is currently a Human Tracking Policy Attorney with the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Gerald B. Sullivan

Assistant U.S. Attorney and Grandson of Judge Clare G. Fenerty

CRRJ were honored to have Gerald B. Sullivan as a guest speaker. His family's donation of materials on the Mattox case formed the centerpiece of the Philadelphia History Museum's display. At the event he recounted the life of Judge Clare G. Fenerty, including Fenerty's early life as part of an Irish immigrant family that suffered discrimination, which formed the basis of Fenerty's unwavering fight for racial equality throughout the course of his career.