My longtime friend Lisa Ashmore messaged me Sunday night with a question. She noted the recent opening of the new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Incarceration as well as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice both in Montgomery, Alabama. While exploring the website for these two joined projects — one marking the horrifying legacy of lynchings across the South — she noted the appearance of a photo — this photo.
Because she knows I’m from Stokes County she asked a legitimate question: “Do you know what happened?” I followed the link through my phone but couldn’t really see what she was talking about. After checking on my desktop I had a better notion. The image was one of a handful rotating on the site’s main page. I was caught by surprise to see Stokes County, but really shouldn’t be.
I had this feeble response: “No idea.”
So I embarked on some research into lynchings in North Carolina and Stokes County in particular. I found a few sites with information about post-Civil War lynchings of both African-Americans and whites. Yes, frontier justice was really a thing and North Carolina, it seems, has a long history of ignoring the rule of law. It had just about the highest number of white lynchings in the region. First I discovered a site called A Red Record that is connected to the University of North Carolina. It documents dozens of lynchings recorded in North and South Carolina, including an interactive map. The alleged Stokes County incident, which occurred in the county seat of Danbury, didn’t make the map and I also noted that the most famous lynching in Alamance County isn’t there, either. That would be the killing of Wyatt Outlaw in Graham. Much has been written about Outlaw’s lynching in 1870 at the hands of a group known as “The White Brotherhood” and there is a movement to have a memorial to the former African-American town leader and one-time volunteer constable placed at Court Square near the statue of a Confederate soldier.
But this Danbury incident was new to me. Danbury is my hometown. Stokes County is where I was born and raised. The very idea that this could occur was and is very real in my experience. Racism was everywhere when I was growing up. But I had never heard of a lynching there before.
Then I saw this lead paragraph from a New York Times story published on June 22, 1881.
HIGH POINT, N.C., June 22.–The details of the lynching of two negroes at Danbury, Stokes County, have just reached here. The place where this affair occurred is about 50 miles from the nearest telegraph station.
I was able to finally retrieve an image of the story in the Times. It’s almost as troubling as the incident itself. Here’s the Times story datelined High Point because I assume that was the nearest telegraph station in 1881 to Danbury — which was rural then and still is now.
Funny, the names of those who participated in these hangings were and are never known — publicly. Just a bunch of anonymous citizens, I guess.
Here’s another report of the incident from the Winston Leader.
NEW DETAILS IN NEXT TWO GRAPHS: Monday night I received a message from Graham Flynt who has a long-standing interest in Stokes County history. He gave me this tidbit on the Stokes County lynching. … According to the Stokes County Historical Society the lynching occurred “across from Dr. Neal’s “in the Meadows Community. This supports anecdotal evidence from my Wall Family.” It is believed that a hanging took place at the end of Wall Road, close to Meadows. “There is a pine field there now. I have heard that the house across Highway 8 from the pine field was Dr. Neal’s home. Oak-Dun Estates are there now; the house was demolished several years ago.”
I have no doubt Graham is correct in what he heard but that’s also a pretty long distance from the county jail in Danbury where the men were abducted — especially for those times.
The museum and memorial in Montgomery were created to keep these violent and lawless events in the forefront of public consciousness. While white people were also the victims of lynch mobs, African-Americans were the targets at an exponentially higher rate — exponentially higher. No white males were lynched during this period outside of a murder charge — not the case for African-Americans who were lynched for any number of reasons. No white women were lynched, but African-American women were.
Who knows how many otherwise innocent people were killed by citizens running in packs like wild dogs. Even following the rule of law, investigations and trials by jury aren’t foolproof. These hangings, often of people whose names were not recorded, are nothing more than first-degree murder. Many hangings were over trivial matters — a lack of manners for example.
The troubling incident in Danbury — a town with a population of less than 200 — brings to mind an incident from my childhood in 1972. Two people were found dead — brutally slain — in their home, located between Danbury and Walnut Cove. Their 9-year-old daughter was missing and presumed kidnapped. The suspect was identified as an African-American man by the name of Otis Robertson. This set off an intense manhunt in which enraged citizens took part. My father expressed fears at the time of someone outside of law enforcement taking the law into his own hands. My father was also concerned over Robertson’s protection at the county jail in Danbury when captured. Robertson was caught without incident and moved to Surry County jail for his safety where he was later found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Read more about the case here.
I took a quick tour of the map provided by A Red Record. Here are a few lynching incidents I found from places where I’ve lived in North Carolina.
Alamance County, March 1869: Squire Alston was accused of attempting to rape a 14 year old girl. Members of the KKK entered his house and shot him in March of 1869. Alston’s wife and son attempted to fight off the KKK members. Alston’s wife split a Klan member’s head open with an axe. After this the other members shot at Alston and his wife, and they were wounded by gun shots. There was no abduction in this case; the members simply entered Alston’s house. Joe Steel denied that he was a part of the attempted lynching even though his head was split open.
Onslow County, February of 1919: John Daniels allegedly murdered Grover Dickey, foreman at the Roper Lumber Company in Camp Perry, with a blow to the head; Dickey’s wife was a witness to the crime. After it was confirmed that Dickey was dead, Daniels and a suspected accomplice, Daniel Petteway, were taken into custody by a sheriff’s posse and confined in the Jacksonville jail. A guard was placed by the jail to protect the alleged criminals, but early one morning four cars arrived at the jail and threatened to kill the jailer if he did not hand over the keys. After Daniels threatened to kill the first man who entered his cell, he was shot by four different men and “fell limp to the floor.” He and Petteway were “rushed” from the jail and Daniels’s body was later found hanging from a nearby bridge. Newspapers reported that the mob agreed to free Petteway if he would leave Onslow County.
Surry County, September of 1892: Thomas Allison, a tobacco worker, was jailed for the murder of W.H. Brown. Allison allegedly shot Brown in the middle of the day after the latter refused to participate in foot race. Most newspaper accounts surrounding the murder suggested that Allison had killed 3 other men before in Tennessee previously. These accounts also suggested that Allison’s criminal history had something to do with his being lynched, though speculated that it was primarily owed to a delay in his trial. Soon after the delay, a mob of around 20 masked men took Allison from his cell—and still dressed in his nightclothes—and hanged him from a white oak tree about a mile from the prison in Dobson, Surry County. His brother came a few days later to carry Thomas Allison’s body to Statesville for burial.
Rockingham County, June 1881: John Taylor was hired to drive Mrs. Irwin’s husband and her daughter to a concert. When Taylor dropped the two he off he rode a horse back to the Irwin household where he then raped Mrs. Irwin, with George Gunn as a witness. He and Gunn were both arrested the following morning and taken to Rockingham County prison, where Taylor was believed to be the guilty party. When rumors of a lynch mob began to form, Taylor was transferred to the Guilford County jail by Sheriff Johnston. The following weekend on Saturday June 11th a mob of about 100 masked people from Reidsville went to the Guilford jail to ask for the prisoner. When the sheriff wouldn’t hand over the keys, the mob broke into the prison and took Taylor from his cell. They began to bring Taylor, by horse and buggy, north to Reidsville. However they realized it would be morning by the time they got there, so rather than wait until then the mob stopped seven miles south of Reidsville, near Kernersville. There they placed him on a horse with a noose around his neck, secured the noose to a tree (either post oak or chestnut, located near Greensboro Street by Mr. Patterson’s house), and set the horse running. Taylor’s neck did not break, rather he “suffered death from strangulation.” The next day, a Sunday, large groups of people (which newspapers reported as numbering 2,000) visited the site of the lynching to observe and take souvenirs.
Caswell County, May 1870: As a part of the Kirk-Holden war, John W. Stephens was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Stephens, a Republican, was attending a Democratic Party meeting to sway a Democrat to run as a Republican for Sheriff. The man Stephens was trying to sway called Stephens to the basement of the courthouse where 9 men were waiting. The men held Stephens down and told Stephens to renounce his views before “sentencing” Stephens to death. The men let him look out the window to his house so he could see his kids one last time before tightening a lasso-style rope around his neck until his jugular was severed. An African American man in the mob had a bucket to collect the blood. When Stephens was dead, the men went back upstairs and carried on their meeting, leaving Stephens’ body downstairs.
Orange County, December 1869: Cyrus Guy allegedly made a snide remark to a white woman, prompting a mob to form and kill him. Members of the mob cut Guy in order to write his sentence in blood above his body before hanging him. After he was hanged, his body was left hanging in the tree on the highly-travelled intersection of Faucette Mill and Lebanon Road as a sign for other “Mulattos” in the area to know their place. Once Guy’s body was taken down from the tree by the Sheriff, his unclaimed body was buried in the Orange County Poorhouse Cemetery.
Orange County, August 1869: Jefferson and Daniel Morrow, two African American farm workers from Orange County, were lynched for the alleged crimes of barn burning and threats of rape toward a white woman. In July, 1869, three barns in Orange County burned to the ground in a single evening. The Morrow brothers quickly fell under suspicion and were arrested and confined to the Hillsborough jail. On July 8, a mob of Ku Klux Klan members abducted the two men from the prison and removed them to the “top of a hill outside of town. There they threatened the men at gunpoint before finally deciding on their innocence and letting them free. At some point in the encounter, one of the brothers was wounded with a gunshot in his thigh. Reports of this attempted lynching were widely circulated and much discussed in newspapers, with writers describing in minute detail the dress and conduct of the KKK members. Nearly a month later, on August 7, 1869, the Morrow brothers were lynched under suspicion of barn burning and the vague charge of insulting women. Reports at the time indicated that the lynch mob left a note identifying themselves as the KKK. In the wake of this lynching, Governor William Woods Holden threatened to declare Orange and other nearby counties as being in a state of insurrection owing to this lynching and other ongoing Klan activities.