Theft of Historical Marker Recognizing Lynching of 15-Year-Old Samuel Smith Reopens Old Wounds in Nashville

Joy Styles

Joy Styles, a Nashville city councilwoman in the Cane Ridge section of the city, tells Inside Edition Digital that with the marker being cut down “demonstrates that there is still work to do.”

The recent theft of a newly installed historical marker which recognized the 1924 lynching of 15-year-old Samuel Smith in Nashville, Tennessee, has reopened old wounds of a dark side of American history and one city councilwoman is not going to be intimidated by what has happened.

Joy Styles, a Nashville city councilwoman in the Cane Ridge section of the city, tells Inside Edition Digital that with marker being cut down “demonstrates that there is still work to do.”

Styles began working in 2019 to get Samuel Smith’s marker placed in the city. It was quietly installed this past April to recognize the death of the Black teen who was killed by a lynch mob in the Cane Ridge section of Nashville.

Styles, who says that Cane Ridge is the “most diverse” part of Nashville, got into politics in 2018 to help others in her community and raise awareness. She considers herself to be an “anti-politician.”

“What is broken? Let’s fix it,” is how she describes to Inside Edition Digital why she dove into politics.

During a community meeting in 2019, she learned of Smith and how he was kidnapped from a hospital, shot, and lynched by a mob of men who disguised themselves as police officers. It was then she put it into action to get a marker to “acknowledge the lives that had been lost,” specifically one for Smith.

Samuel Smith was 15 when in December 1924, he was kidnapped from a hospital in retribution for an alleged robbery and shooting. Smith had apparently shot the homeowner when he was fired upon as well. The homeowner passed away and Smith was taken to a hospital. Smith was stripped naked, hanged from a tree and shot multiple times by a lynch mob of six men, according to the Historical Marker Database.

The tree which Smith was hanged and shot at still stands and is on grounds that was purchased by a church. Thanks to Styles and other local community organizers, the tree is marked as a historical site. Styles says that the tree still has the bullet holes in it nearly 100 years later from the night that Smith was killed.

In the summer of 2020, Styles says that some community members pushed back after a relative of the man who Smith allegedly robbed protested the marker. Others in the area also said that honoring Smith’s life should not happen.

For Styles and other local activists, the marker was a way to “tell the truth” about their city, or as she says, “so for me, there is no option where we don’t talk about history – good, bad or ugly.”

“It is critical that we learn from history, and that is all of our history. We cannot pick and choose which parts we like and want to honor, and then attempt to hide or deny the parts we don't like. Denying the truth does not change it. We must fight to honor the past, learn and forward,” she adds.

A small gathering of Styles and her constituents as well as activists who helped get the marker up quietly celebrated the marker when it went up near where Smith was lynched.

Styles with consitutents at the unveiling of Smith's marker. - Joy Styles

“If we celebrated it too much it would have brought negative attention on to it,” she says, because of the outcry from some in the community who felt the marker should not have not gone up.  

“I didn’t publicize it because I was concerned what is happening now was going to happen,” she adds.

The marker is off a main road that is only accessible by backstreets. Styles says that anyone who wants to see it really needs to look for it.

Upon learning that marker had been cut down sometime between the night of Friday, June 16 and Monday, June 19, she went to its site and said “it has been cut down with such precision.”

“This is a thick steel pole, no point could it lean off and tip the side,” she said. Styles says the pole had to have been cut down with tools and removed by a group of at least two to four people, she believes men, in a vehicle because “it would be too heavy to carry.”

Despite finding the marker missing around Juneteenth, Styles doesn’t believe it was retaliation for the holiday.

Styles says all that is left of the marker is the stump and it will be replaced, but will take a few months because a new one needs to be ordered.

Styles says she was emotional when she first learned of the marker being cut down.

The remains of the pole after the marker was cut down. - Jessica Reeves

“I felt angry and incredulous,” she says. “Though we were concerned that there were those individuals that were not happy about the marker, I certainly hoped that no one would be that small-minded as to destroy public property on a secluded side street. This sign was only up for almost two months. Such a disappointment.”

She says the act of cutting down the marker “in the cloak of night” is “cowardly.”

Jessica Reeves, historic preservationist with Nashville’s Metropolitan Historical Commission, told Inside Edition Digital in an email it isn’t new for markers to go missing but this one in particular is sad.

“We were saddened to hear that this marker had gone missing so soon after its installation. We don’t know why the marker was taken; it could’ve been a deliberate retaliation against telling this history in this area but it could’ve also been completely unrelated, a prank or accident, like many of our missing markers are,” she says. “We have markers get damaged or go missing every year, so we are treating this like any other marker and going through the steps to re-order and replace the marker as soon as possible.”

Reeves tells Inside Edition Digital via email, she does "not believe the marker was cut off the post. It was more likely that the screws along the marker cap were taken out and the marker was lifted off the post. The scuff marks on the top of the post are from the metal screws and marker cap, and I didn’t see any evidence of saw marks."

Styles hopes to have surveillance cameras up at the site to deter folks from doing it again.

While no person or persons of interest has been named and an investigation continues, Styles says she is hellbent on finding out who did this and will not be intimidated.

“I am a fighter and this is a fight that they do not want,” Styles declares. “We cannot ignore this group [of people who were lynched]. You cannot take the pieces of what you like and celebrate those moments in attempt to bully everything else.”

Styles says that “it is my full intention to go after anyone we catch” who cut the marker down.

In recent years, locals have honored the victims of lynchings in the city as well as the state with markers telling their story.

It is unknown if Smith has any living relatives. Reeves says “we have tried to do genealogical research to find Smith’s relatives but have so far been unsuccessful.”

More than 200 historical markers have been installed in recent years in Nashville. The marker dedicated to the killing of Smith was recently erected, News Channel 5 reported.

Marker signifying lynchings in American history. - Jessica Reeves

Similar markers telling the stories of other lynchings can be found in other states, including South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland and New York.

“It is important to know what took place,” Styles says. “It guides you so you can help make better decisions for the future.”

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