Remembering Wake County’s Only Documented Lynching
On the afternoon Oct. 30, 1918, Ruby Rogers was in her house near Rolesville, rocking her 5-week-old baby when a man walked into the room and slapped her so hard she fell to the floor, she later told police.
He picked up a razor from a bureau in the room and told Rogers he would cut her throat if she made a sound. He struck her again, knocking her unconscious, she said, according to news reports of the time. She came to still on the floor, with the baby a few feet across the room.
Over the next several days, police brought a series of men before Rogers and asked if any had been her assailant. She couldn’t identify any of the first three, each of whom was later released.
The fourth suspect was George Taylor, whom police arrested in Wilson and brought to Rolesville on Nov. 5. At first, reports said, Rogers was unable to say whether Taylor was the man. But when she heard him speak outside the house, she said his was the voice she remembered from the attack.
Rogers was white. Taylor was black.
A report compiled by the student-led Wake Truth and Reconciliation Committee, relying on articles from The News & Observer and others from the time, said Taylor was put into a car to be driven 15 miles to the Wake County Jail in Raleigh. But a quarter-mile from the house, the car was intercepted by four men wearing blue masks and carrying two shotguns. They took Taylor and held him in nearby woods while a crowd of some 300 people gathered.
The mob took Taylor to a spot within sight of the Rogers house and, around 7:30 p.m., gunshots rang out. Taylor’s body was found the next morning. He had been tortured, shot more than 100 times, slashed with knives and hung by his feet from a bent pine tree. His death apparently ended the investigation of the assault on Ruby Rogers.
No one ever was charged with Taylor’s murder, which was described in the Greensboro Daily News later that month as “a genuine old-fashioned lynching,” the only one documented in Wake County history.
But there were others in the state.
While North Carolina was not the leader among Southern states in the number of lynchings that occurred here, historians say lynchings were frequent enough that African Americans got the intended message and many fled their towns or left the state entirely in response to mob violence.
A reader asked about lynchings through CuriousNC, a joint venture between The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun in which readers submit questions about North Carolina for reporters to answer. The query: How many African Americans were lynched in North Carolina and where are they buried?
The answer: No one knows exactly how many, though researchers say it was at least 100 and possibly as many as 300 in the years from 1882 to 1968. The number of lynchings per year in Southern states spiked during the period from 1890 to 1920, the same period during which the most Confederate monuments were installed.
Where the victims’ remains ended up is even more complicated.
Historical accounts debate the origin of the term “lynching,” but agree that a form of it was practiced in America as early as the 1700s. Though it was always an extra-judicial form of punishment for breaching laws or customs — circumventing the legal system — in its earliest use, it didn’t involve lethal force and it wasn’t aimed at a particular racial minority. Most early victims were white.
That changed after the Civil War and the freeing of several million African Americans from slavery.
Researchers, including Trichita M. Chestnut who wrote a story for the National Archives in 2008, say that during Reconstruction lynching became a tool used by white mobs to maintain a social order that was no longer held in place by judicial constraints.
Lynchings often were prompted by a claim that a black person had committed or was planning a crime, and the mob would intervene sometimes before law enforcement could even launch an investigation, ambushing the victim at home or on the street. In other cases, crowds took their victims from police custody. Few were ever prosecuted for the crime, with investigators finding the participants were “unknown,” despite photos and crowds of witnesses.
“What constitutes a lynching?” Chestnut asks in the article. “Although most people think only of hanging, lynching means much more. Lynching is the killing of African Americans who were tortured, mutilated, burned, shot, dragged, or hung; accused of an alleged crime by a white mob; and deprived of their life without due process and equal protection of the law.”
Lynchings often were covered by newspapers in the communities where they happened. In some cases, lynchings were planned far in advance, giving journalists time to promote the events and draw bigger crowds.
The Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, counted 4,745 lynchings between 1882 and 1968, of which it said 3,446 involved black victims. The school counted 101 lynchings in North Carolina during that time period, with 86 black victims.
In 2014, the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., published a report that counted 123 lynchings of African Americans in North Carolina between the years 1877 and 1950, including two in Mecklenburg County and three in Johnston County. None have been documented in Durham County. The report’s listing by county is available at http://nando.com/53r.
A University of North Carolina project called “A Red Record” is attempting to map sites of lynchings in the state, in part to demonstrate the geographic reach that news of a racial lynching would have had. The main purpose of the killings, Kotch and others say, was to intimidate and terrorize black residents who had social, political or business aspirations, and if lynchings occurred over a broad enough area, the threatening effect would have been powerful.
One of the project’s co-founders, Seth Kotch, an assistant professor of digital humanities at UNC, said that from the outset researchers knew, “We’re working with incomplete data,” because white people who might have documented the deaths often would not, and black families who knew about them could not.
Seth Kotch said that while North Carolina’s lynching numbers were relatively low compared to some other states’, ”We shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back about that. The thing I would emphasize is that you don’t have to have many to have a real generational impact. Just one in a neighborhood could drive dozens of families away.”
Last year, the Equal Justice Initiative opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which includes a memorial to the victims of racial lynchings. In a story in The New York Times, EJI founder Bryan Stevenson said part of the emotional impact of the memorial is, “Just seeing the names of all these people.” Many of them, he told the paper, “have never been named in public.”
The six-acre memorial, its website says, uses art and design “to contextualize racial terror. The site includes a memorial square with 800 six-foot monuments to symbolize thousand of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.”
For now, the Alabama memorial is one of the few places where racial lynchings are formally acknowledged or openly grieved.
As to the reader’s question about where North Carolina lynching victims are buried, that too is unknowable. Accounts of the day indicate that some, including black sharecroppers Lease Gillespie, John Gillespie and Jack Dillingham, who were lynched in Salisbury in 1906 for allegedly murdering four white residents, eventually were buried in unmarked graves. The bodies of many lynching victims were mutilated during and after their murders, with witnesses cutting off pieces to save as souvenirs. Some received the dignity of a gravestone, but the marker left off the way in which they died.
Organizers of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice hope that some day, people living in communities where racial lynchings occurred will organize, confront that truth about their past, and commemorate the human loss using markers already prepared by the Equal Justice Initiative. Some groups in North Carolina and other states have discussed taking dirt from known lynching sites to the Montgomery memorial.
So far, no group in North Carolina has claimed any of the markers that wait in Montgomery.
George Taylor’s burial site is unknown, but students who helped commemorate the 100th anniversary of his lynching last year hope to gather dirt from different significant places in North Carolina and take it to Alabama.
Fred Joiner visited the national memorial last year with a busload of nearly four dozen pilgrims from United Church of Chapel Hill, where he attends. Members of the church interested in the topic met for weeks before making the journey, reading books about lynching and talking about race relations in North Carolina and the U.S..
Joiner, who is African American, sees comparisons between racial lynchings and today’s disproportionate imprisonment of blacks and instances of excessive force used against black suspects by police officers. Visiting the memorial was overwhelming, he said.
“It’s hard to eulogize something,” Joiner said, “when it’s still happening.”