Alabamiana: The House of Judah, 1991
William Lewis and his House of Judah caught my attention twenty eight years ago, when the article above ran in the Montgomery Advertiser on New Years Day 1991. I had a habit through the late 1980s and 1990s of cutting out newspaper and magazines articles that told unusual stories— and this one certainly was unusual: a black minister in Wetumpka, Alabama who wanted to join a Ku Klux Klan march. “To me, they’re about the truest organization in the country,” Lewis was quoted as saying. However, the Klan leader who was organizing the march didn’t have the same affinity for Lewis and was not inclined to have the House of Judah to join them.
Founded in the 1970s by a small group of people who were mainly from Chicago, the House of Judah was led by William A. Lewis, a “prophet” who believed that “so-called Negroes” [his words] are the actual Judaic people described in the Old Testament. Lewis spread the word in Chicago via classes and a radio program, but he envisioned organizing his followers into their own community. That goal was later achieved on a piece of land outside the small town of Lacota, in Alleghan County, Michigan, west of Kalamazoo.
The House of Judah first came to national attention in 1983, when the group was located in Alleghan County. That summer, a twelve-year-old boy named John Yarborough was beaten to death in the group’s “settlement” or “camp,” which prompted an investigation. At the camp, where almost everything was painted blue and white, officials found about sixty children living there. Some who had bruises and other “external physical conditions” were taken away by the child-welfare workers. Of the boy’s death, William Lewis, who was then 61 years old, was quoted as saying:
“The kid just got a beating and he died, so to me it’s an act of God. [ . . . ] The mother of this kid was one of the most strict women there is in this camp. She had permission to give them whupping if they needed it.”
The next year, 1984, Lewis moved his House of Judah community to Wetumpka, after three members were convicted in the boy’s death. Lewis cited religious persecution as his reason for moving, saying,
“One thing about the South is people are not as spiritually dead. [ . . . ] We are going to be persecuted no matter where we are but I don’t think we’ll be persecuted as much.
News reports from the time stated that Lewis was originally from Wetumpka and had moved to Chicago at age 14. Those reports also explain that Lewis himself had been charged with child cruelty in the boy’s death, but that he was among three who were acquitted. However, the matter was not over and done with.
In November 1985, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that federal officials brought charges against William Lewis and other adults in the House of Judah group:
The indictments charge that Lewis and his followers held children in slavery and conducted public beatings of adults and children – including one beating that led to the death of John Yarborough.
The coverage continued, sharing that the charges stemmed from accusations that children endured forced labor and that they were sometimes locked in stocks and beaten publicly with an axe handle that members called “Big Mac.” Lewis denied the accusations, stating that “the agents were committing an ‘injustice against God’ and ‘God would punish them.'” He also apprised the courts that, no matter how it was set, he would not try to make bail: “I will stay in jail like Jesus did when he was falsely imprisoned,” Lewis said.
The smaller page-two section of the article went on to explain that, in March 1982, members had been “compelled” to sign a document agreeing to severe punishments for committing “sins against God.” Yarborough had been given the beating that killed him for missing a work detail.
As the trial moved forward, in the summer of 1986, the group’s lawyer Michael Quinn claimed that anti-slavery laws were being wrongfully applied in the case, since the law was meant to protect minority groups, i.e. African Americans. Furthermore, the defense lawyer also contended that the initial prosecutions over John Yarborough’s death had resolved the issue, while acknowledging that the public beatings “may have been carried to the extreme in isolated instances.” The charges against the members were based on a differing view: “Children, because they have no means of escaping their forced labor, were the victims of a conspiracy of slavery.”
The following month, federal judge Douglas Hillman sided with the latter view, finding William Lewis and six other members of the House of Judah guilty on enslavement charges after “reciting a litany of brutality” that occurred against children. It couldn’t have helped that one witness at the trial described how Lewis would point a gun at choir members when they didn’t sing well enough: “You all are not singing like you’re supposed to sing, you’re trying to mess around,” Lewis was purported to have said.
In the opinion/verdict document for United States v. Lewis, the group’s leader is named as the first defendant and beside his name is “a/k/a My Lord Prophet.” Right off the bat, the judge wrote:
First of all, this unusual case involves, to some extent at least, the religious beliefs and practices of a small, black religious sect whose beliefs are highly unorthodox and far from the mainstream of traditional, religious concepts in this country. It should be obvious to all that those facts alone have no bearing on the guilt or innocence of the accused. This country thrives on diversity. First Amendment rights are sacred. The fact that middle class American public opinion, white and black, may hate and despise the religious teachings of the House of Judah, has had no effect in my efforts to analyze the charges, the evidence, and the law in this case.
He followed by noting that the state charges were related to the beating death of Yarborough, while the federal charges were about a violation of the Thirteenth Amendment, which forbids slavery. About the trial, it “consumed a total of 20 trial days. The court heard 25 witnesses and received and reviewed 71 exhibits.” After describing the testimony and evidence in detail, the final verdict was:
I find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that it was the intent of the defendants to completely subjugate the will of the named boys in order to ensure that they did the work requested of them.
Shortly thereafter, while awaiting sentencing, William Lewis proclaimed from Wetumpka that the “doors of the House of Judah are closed. We are in the end days.” He was doing this “to shut off the truth,” because God had told him to. Throughout the coverage on that New Years Eve 1986, Lewis attributed his defeat in court to the testimony of “children, drunkards, and liars,” and also told the reporters at the press conference:
They’ve tried to make me close my doors three times before, but I would not. I would not be doing it now if it was not what God was tellin’ me to do.”
Lewis also declared that the US had become like Sodom and Gomorrah, quoting Jeremiah and citing homosexuality and AIDS, nuclear threats, New York City, and failed US-Russian relations as evidence.
In early 1991, William Lewis and the House of Judah re-emerged in news coverage. He and other members of the group had served their time in prison. Lewis had served his three-year sentence in Texas, beginning in 1988, and likened it to Daniel being in the lion’s den. Now, to the list of grievances above, Lewis added another: race-mixing. Lewis claimed that “God destroyed the world with the Great Flood because of race-mixing,” and moreover that “God also limited the human life span because of race-mixing.” He believed that humans “would live 600 years or more if race-mixing had never occurred.” Despite the segregationist tenor of the assertions, in the page-two portion of the article, the Elmore County sheriff remarked that the House of Judah had re-opened and that he had had no problems from them.
Yet, problems were coming. In 1993 and 1994, Lewis’ teenage son and his friends were charged with several robberies in Autauga and Chilton counties, during which guns were taken. The guns were found by law enforcement officers on House of Judah property and at the home of a teenager who lived nearby. Federal ATF agents were also called since “the stocks and barrels of about half the weapons had been sawed down and serial numbers on all the weapons had been filed off.” Reportage on the arrests explained that members put up no resistance to the search of their property and that the children living at the camp were attending public schools. (One of the federal judge’s points of support for the guilty verdict was the group’s refusal to allow the children to attend public school.) The teenage suspects were charged as adults, and Lewis, now 74, was described as being in “ill health.”
“Prophet” William Lewis died in August 2004 in Wetumpka. His obituary in the Montgomery Advertiser was brief and remarkably inauspicious, considering the outspoken and radical way that he lived his life.
In 2013, a series of news reports from Grand Rapids, Michigan looked back Lewis and the House of Judah, thirty years later. The article’s subtitle read: “Prophet’s son denied he led a cult or enslaved children.” (The article contains images from the mid-1980s. One of the photos shows officers carrying the stocks that restrained people who were beaten.) The main article featured this:
One of his sons, William L. Lewis, who also was convicted of enslaving children at the camp, said both he and his father were innocent men.
“I wasn’t guilty. I don’t care what nobody says. Was the Lord guilty?” asked the younger Lewis, 68, now of Montgomery, Ala. He served two years in prison on that charge.
He also shared that, in the 1960s, his father had waited three days outside the White House to give some materials to President Lyndon Johnson and that God truly did speak through his father.
However, one of the follow-up articles featured the stories of two women who had been members of the House of Judah but had left, and their assessments were different. One of the two, Celia Green, described her experience this way:
Everything was fine in the beginning. Then things began to change.
“The first thing they do is break you off from your family,” Green said. “They say, ‘You don’t need family. We are your family.’ That’s a cult. I didn’t know that then.”
[ . . . ]
Green soon saw no way out. The beatings were becoming more vicious. Armed “goons” patrolled the perimeter of the camp. People started ratting each other out, leading to more beatings. Stories spread about punishments for those who tried to leave.
Green did leave the House of Judah, but rejoined them for the move to Alabama, then left again in the late 1980s.
The final follow-up article took a brief look at the situation in Wetumpka, as it stood nearly a decade after William A. Lewis’ death. By that time, the property had been abandoned – “While no exact date is known, followers likely started leaving after Lewis died” – though remnants of the group’s time there could still be found strewn about. Reflecting on his encounters with them,
“The people aren’t like us,” [Sheriff Bill] Franklin said. “They’re real defensive: ‘What are you doing here?’”
The older men at the camp would question police, and be OK after hearing an explanation.
“(Lewis) would want to know what the deal was. For the most part, they were cooperative, but they were real private people.”
Yet, one of their neighbors, who preferred not to be named, “recalled that the camp used to put racist messages on a reader board at the end of its driveway.” She added:
“They put some of the most racist signs I have ever seen in my life, very racist signs. It all had something to do with race.”
She said people talked about the camp. But no one dared go up the driveway.
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