Rob Christensen

Christensen: A new focus on lynchings in NC and the South

A grisly photo of three men hanging from a tree that appeared on the front page of The News and Observer still has as much power to shock today as the day it appeared in 1906.

The Salisbury lynching was not only one of the most gruesome lynchings, but it also marked a turning point in North Carolina’s effort to tamp down on the extralegal killings.

I was reminded of the Salisbury photo last week, when the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Ala., released what may be the most comprehensive report ever on a dark chapter in American history.

The report documented 3,959 lynchings of black people in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, at least 700 more than had been previously reported.

The Initative said it is important to document “terror lynchings” because they were used as a means to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation, and to keep black people in a subservient role. The lynchings were not only reactions to crimes but also occurred in instances where black people did not show the proper deference to white authority. There was one case where a black man was lynched for bumping into a white woman at a train station, another for failure of a black man to use “sir” when addressing a police officer and a third for failure of a black man to take off his World War I uniform.

The lynchings mainly occurred in the Deep South, with Georgia (586) and Mississippi (576) having the most. North Carolina (102) had the second-lowest number of lynchings; only Virginia had fewer. Based on population, North Carolina had the lowest per capita lynchings in the South.

Of course, the numbers are relative. One lynching is too many.

In N.C., a problem

The lynchings appeared to be most prevalent in North Carolina in the 1890s and in the first decade of the 20th century – a period of racial upheaval, when blacks gained political clout under Republican rule in the 1890s but lost it after the Democratic-led white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that brought about Jim Crow laws and literacy tests.

Unlike in the Deep South states, North Carolina political leaders tried to stamp out lynching.

“Feeling now that the black was mastered, the best men of the upper classes had time to begin to recover perspective,” wrote journalist W.J. Cash of Shelby in his 1941 classic book, “The Mind of the South.” “And among these the convention that no white man of any self-respect would participate in a lynching or indulge in (black) hazing of any sort was propagated with increasing energy from the opening of the century.”

It was a continuing frustration for Gov. Charles B. Aycock (1901-05) that 11 people were lynched during his four years as governor. Less than a month after taking office, Aycock ordered two companies of militia to the town of Emma near Asheville to prevent a prisoner from being lynched. Aycock offered $400 rewards for information leading to the conviction of a lyncher – as much as $30,000 for mobs.

But few people were willing to testify against their neighbors and the rewards went unclaimed.

In 1903, the legislature rejected an Aycock proposal to provide quicker trials and increased penalties for people charged with lynching.

The lynchings gave North Carolina a public relations problem. In at least two instances, other states refused to extradite black criminals to North Carolina fearing their safety could not be guaranteed. Aycock was angered when the Boston Guardian, an African-American newspaper, ran an editorial cartoon depicting him as a lyncher.

From one case, fury

The turning point may have been the Salisbury case, when a white family in Salisbury, a husband and wife and two of their children, were killed by ax and three black tenant farmers were charged. While court was in session in Salisbury, a crowd said to number in the thousands stormed the jail in broad daylight. The judge trying the case, the prosecutor and U.S. Sen. Lee Overman, a Salisbury native, stood on the jailhouse steps trying to convince the mob to disperse. A militia was on hand but, lacking the authority from the governor, gave way when the mob stormed the jail. Several law enforcement officers were shot.

The suspects had their fingers, toes and ears cut off and were otherwise mutilated before being hanged. Two girls, the surviving members of the slain family, were driven to the scene to view the three bodies swinging from the limb.

A furious Gov. Robert Glenn (1905-09) ordered three companies of militia to the scene. Traveling to Salisbury, Glenn vowed that the lynchers would be prosecuted and promised to back the judge and prosecutor. To make sure a mob didn’t try to storm the jail to free those arrested, two Gatling guns, rapid-fire guns that were forerunners to machine guns, were set up in front, and the jail was constantly patrolled by troops. The leader of the lynch mob was a man named George Hall, an ex-convict with a long criminal record. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

(Both Aycock and Glenn, it should be noted, were leaders of the white supremacy campaign which had whipped up racist sentiment in the state, but both sought to tamp it down once they took office.)

The first mass conviction of a lynch mob in the South occurred in Winston-Salem in 1918. The police and the militia stopped an attempt to lynch an innocent black man, and 15 white men were sentenced to serve one to six years in prison for their part in the mob.

The last lynching in North Carolina apparently occurred in 1930. But the consequences of the terror lynchings have had a lasting impact on American history, including contributing to the great black migration from the South to the North.