Rosa Lee Ingram was an African American woman whose 1948 murder conviction, along with the conviction of two of her adolescent sons, raised considerable doubt about the integrity of Georgia’s judicial system. Civil rights organizations launched an ambitious campaign to free the Ingrams in the years that followed. As a result of these efforts, Ingram and her sons were paroled in 1959.

Death of John Stratford

Rosa Lee Ingram was a widowed sharecropper and mother of twelve who lived near Ellaville, Georgia. On November 4, 1947, a confrontation broke out between Ingram and her neighbor, John Ethron Stratford, after he discovered some of her livestock in his field. According to Ingram’s initial account of the incident, Stratford threatened her with a rifle. Several of her sons intervened, a fight ensued, and when the dust settled, Stratford was dead.

Ingram was arrested along with three of her teenage sons: seventeen-year-old Charles, sixteen-year-old Wallace, and fourteen-year-old Sammie Lee. The four were placed in separate jails and were not provided legal counsel. Local authorities would later claim that Rosa Lee, Wallace, and Sammie Lee revised their initial account of the altercation while in custody. According to these new statements, two struggles occurred, and Stratford was killed during the second one, when the Ingrams seized his rifle and pursued him as he ran to his house. Charles, however, refused to change his statement, insisting that only one confrontation had occurred.

Rosa Lee Ingram and Sons
Rosa Lee Ingram and Sons

Photograph from BlackPast.org

The Trial

Rosa Lee, Wallace, and Sammie Lee were tried on January 26, 1948, in Ellaville by Judge W. M. Harper. Charles was tried the following afternoon. Both trials lasted only a single day. Not until the day before the first of the two trials, when S. Hawkins Dykes was appointed as the Ingrams’ attorney, would any of the four defendants have access to legal counsel. Based on his account of their later statements, Sherriff J. E. De Vane informed the jury that the Ingrams followed the fleeing Stratford and beat him to death with several farming tools.

When she took the stand, Mrs. Ingram denied making any such statement. She said that Stratford threatened her with a knife and struck her with a rifle. She then managed to take possession of the gun and struck Stratford about the head in self-defense. She testified that Wallace also struck Stratford once with the rifle, but that none of her other sons had done the same. Wallace and Sammie Lee gave similar accounts on the stand. There were no other eyewitnesses.

Judge Harper told the all-white, all-male jury that the defendants could be found guilty or innocent of either manslaughter or murder. The jury found all three guilty of murder, and Harper sentenced them to death. The next day Charles was acquitted due to insufficient evidence.

Protest of Death Sentence

The conviction was immediately protested by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), and Georgia-based groups such as the Georgia Defense Committee. The Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper, brought national attention to the case by running several front-page pieces about the Ingrams. The case also received significant attention from communist publications such as the Daily Worker. A majority of these stories portrayed Mrs. Ingram as a mother protecting her family from a white attacker, making her the face of the family’s campaign for exoneration. The case marked the first occasion that the CRC, a relatively new organization, launched a national campaign to free a Black defendant. The group never represented the Ingrams in court and at times disagreed with the NAACP’s strategy, but it played a significant role in bringing public opinion to the Ingram family’s side.

Rosa Lee Ingram Postcard
Rosa Lee Ingram Postcard

Image by the National Committee to Free the Ingram Family, Wikimedia

The NAACP joined with Dykes, the Ingrams’ defense attorney, to appeal the conviction. A hearing to decide if they should receive a new trial was held on March 25, 1948. Dykes emphasized the fact that the Ingrams had not received legal counsel until the day before their trial, had been jailed separately, and had possibly been coerced into giving statements to the police. He argued that the most they should have been convicted of was manslaughter. Judge Harper commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment but denied the Ingrams a new trial.

The NAACP and the CRC continued their efforts to free Mrs. Ingram and her sons and sponsored a fund-raising campaign and clothing collection for the rest of the Ingram family. Enough money was eventually raised to build the family a new house. Charles Ingram toured several cities to raise money for the defense of his mother and brothers. The NAACP brought the case before the Georgia Supreme Court, but the court upheld the convictions in July 1948. In March 1949 the all-woman National Committee to Free the Ingram Family (later the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice) was founded by CRC members to promote public interest in the case. Efforts included presenting petitions to President Harry Truman, organizing Mother’s Day rallies, and circulating postcards, clearly putting Rosa Lee front and center in their appeals.

Rosa Lee Ingram parole
Rosa lee Ingram Parole

Photograph by Norma Holt, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, New York Public Library

At the same time, the NAACP had been working behind the scenes in Atlanta to increase the chances of the Ingrams gaining early parole. Several parole requests during the 1950s were denied. In 1957 Georgia officials expressed their willingness to parole the Ingrams, but it took another two years for the board to vote in favor of release. Rosa Lee, Wallace, and Sammie Lee Ingram were released from prison on August 26, 1959. Mrs. Ingram lived in Atlanta until her death in 1980.

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Rosa Lee Ingram Postcard

Rosa Lee Ingram Postcard

The National Committee to Free the Ingram Family worked to promote public interest in Rosa Lee Ingram's case. Their efforts included this Mother's Day postcard campaign addressed to President Truman.

Image by the National Committee to Free the Ingram Family, Wikimedia

Rosa Lee Ingram and Sons

Rosa Lee Ingram and Sons

Rosa Lee Ingram and two of her adolescent sons were sentenced to death for their role in the death of a white landowner in 1948. Their conviction raised considerable doubt about the integrity of Georgia's judicial system and prompted a nationwide campaign to secure their release from prison.

Photograph from BlackPast.org

Rosa Lee Ingram parole

Rosa lee Ingram Parole

Supporters of Rosa Lee Ingram wait outside the offices of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles during her 1953 parole hearing. The Ingrams were denied parole several times before their release from prison in 1959.

Photograph by Norma Holt, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, New York Public Library