Deputies tried to lynch him in 1952. Now, the Wake County sheriff welcomes him.

Man deputies tried to lynch in 1952 gets apology from sheriff

Sheriff Gerald Baker apologized to Lynn Council and took down the portrait of a predecessor on Thursday, June 13, 2019 whose deputies tormented Council by hanging him from a tree in 1952 in Apex.
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Sheriff Gerald Baker apologized to Lynn Council and took down the portrait of a predecessor on Thursday, June 13, 2019 whose deputies tormented Council by hanging him from a tree in 1952 in Apex.

On a Thursday in 1952, two Wake County sheriff’s deputies drove a young black man to the woods off what is now Ten Ten Road, looped a plow line around his neck and hoisted him off the ground.

Lynn Council dangled there, feet swinging. But he didn’t die that day.

Now 86, Council explains his survival in a faint voice: “In a few seconds, Jesus took over.”

Council walked back into the sheriff’s office in downtown Raleigh on Thursday, 67 years later, finding a different reception. A dozen deputies stood with their hands folded, a few with their eyes moist as the elderly man recounted his ordeal.

Then Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker offered Council three gifts.

The first: a key to the sheriff’s office — big and silver.

The second: a glass case for storing it, engraved with the verse from James 1:12: “Blessed is the man that endureth ...”

The third: a framed black-and-white photograph of Sheriff Robert Pleasants, who held office in 1952. The photo will no longer hang on the sheriff’s office walls.

“We’ll just box it up and put it away,” said Baker. “I want to apologize to you for what happened to you by a member of this office. I cannot change what they did and its effect on your life. I ask you for your forgiveness.”

The Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, counted 4,745 lynchings nationwide between 1882 and 1968, roughly 75 percent of them involving black victims, N&O reporter Martha Quillin reported in January. It said that 101 were in North Carolina, 86 of them black victims.

But history tells only a few survivors’ stories. In 1930, the future civil rights activist James Cameron watched his two teenage friends hanged by a mob in Indiana, only to be spared at the last minute.

In a room quiet enough to hear dust falling, Council on Thursday described being arrested by then-Apex Police Chief Sam Bagwell, who believed him guilty of a robbery and subjected him to beatings despite his insistence on innocence. Chief John Letteney, the modern head of Apex police, apologized to Council in April, WRAL reported, telling him his predecessor didn’t deserve to wear a badge.

Telling the story a lifetime later, Council said he was defiant.

“I told that man, ‘You didn’t have that gun on you, I’d go to the wall with you,’ “ Council recalled. “And I would have.”

A few days later in the Wake County jail, Council said deputies told him, “We’re going to take you out in the country and hang you.”

So he rode with them, handcuffed and scared.

It was a big tree, Council said, a red oak not far from an area where he recalled Cary had a swimming pool. He wouldn’t confess, and the deputies let him down.

“I didn’t say no more to them,” he said. “They were wrong. They were wrong. ... Hang me for nothing. Gonna kill me. Yeah, that was rough. But everyone who was involved is gone. Jesus don’t like ugly. He knew I didn’t do it. He knew.”

As Council left Thursday, Baker invited Council to return and spend a day with him and “help me make some decisions. Got plenty of those to make.”

But the weight of past decades hung heavy in the room, and as Baker tucked the old sheriff’s portrait inside a cardboard box, Council smiled at his small audience.

“Y’all are some nice people,” he said. “Some nice people. Nice, active people. Pretty people.”

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.