New report: Close to 4,000 were victims of lynchings in South

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 11, 2015

By Mark Wineka

The Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., released a report Tuesday concluding there were 3,959 victims of “racial terror lynchings” in the South from 1877 to 1950.

The report was based on five years of research and 160 visits to sites in the South. The inventory of lynchings lists totals for 12 Southern States, ranging from a low of 76 in Virginia to a high of 586 in Georgia during the 73-year period.

The number of lynchings given for North Carolina is 102, which would include five in Rowan County — two in 1902 and three in Salisbury in 1906.

The infamous 1906 lynchings of three African-American men — Nease Gillespie, his stepson John Gillespie and Jack Dillingham — became the subject of two books: Susan Barringer Wells’ “A Game Called Salisbury” and Claude Clegg’s “Troubled Ground.”

A few years ago, the Levine Museum of the South’s sobering exhibit on lynchings, “Without Sanctuary,” included details on what happened in Salisbury.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s report is titled “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.”

“Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of African Americans were lynched in the United States,” the report’s introduction says. “Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.

“These lynchings were terrorism. ‘Terror lynchings’ peaked between 1880 and 1940 and claimed the lives of African-American men, women and children who were forced to endure the fear, humiliation and barbarity of this widespread phenomenon unaided.”

In giving context to this kind of report, the Equal Justice Initiative said it is essential “that we begin to discuss our history of racial injustice more soberly and to understand the implications of our past in addressing the challenges of the present.”

The report says it identified “racial terror lynchings” and did not include hangings and mob violence that followed some criminal trial process.

A key finding, the EJI says, is that racial terror lynching was more prevalent than previously reported through the years. Its researchers documented at least 700 more lynchings of African Americans than the numbers given in the most comprehensive studies in the past, the EJI said.

Georgia (586), Mississippi (576), Louisiana (540) and Arkansas (503) had the highest number of lynchings, according to the report.

In states touching North Carolina, the numbers were 76 in Virginia, 164 in South Carolina and 225 in Tennessee.

The report also reached these conclusions:

• Many victims of the terror lynchings were murdered without being accused of any crime. Rather, they were killed for minor social transgressions or for demanding basic rights and fair treatment.

• Lynchings played a key role in the forced migration of millions of black Americans out of the South.

• In all the states studied, the EJI says it observed “an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss or address lynching.” Many of the communities where lynchings took place have gone to great lengths to erect markers and monuments that memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy and historical events during which local power was violently reclaimed by white Southerners.”

• The decline of lynching coincided with the increased use of capital punishment imposed by court order, following a trial that was often accelerated.

In 1902, Rowan County had attracted attention when a mob lynched James and Harrison Gillespie, ages 11 and 13. The African-American boys were accused of murdering a young white woman as she was working in a field on her family’s farm.

In his book, Salisbury native Clegg looked at that lynching and the even more famous lynching in 1906 — the first triple lynching in North Carolina since 1888.

Historical accounts say on Aug. 6, 1906,  a mob gathered outside the county jail, where six men were being held, having just been indicted for the bludgeoning deaths almost a month earlier — it was a gruesome ax murder — of Isaac Lyerly, his wife and two of their young sons.

The murders happened in Unity Township at Barber Junction. The Lyerlys were white. The six suspects in jail were black.

Members of the mob, reported to be in the thousands, broke into the jail, pulled three of the suspects, bound their hands and walked them roughly eight blocks to Henderson Grove, where they were hanged and their bodies mutilated and essentially placed on public display.

Their fingers and ears were cut off, and bullets had riddled the bodies. The ropes for the lynchings were thrown over the arm of a massive oak tree near the corner of Long and Henderson streets.

A public outcry against the lynchings from places inside and outside of North Carolina followed. J.P. Caldwell, editor of the Charlotte Observer, wrote, “Lynching in North Carolina will never stop until the killing of lynchers begins.”

The Richmond (Va.) News Leader said in an editorial, “We think the sentiment of the people of the South regarding this affair will be one of profound disgust and humiliation. … We sincerely hope that in North Carolina there will be a general sensation of shame.”

State and local authorities finally acted, arresting four men in connection with the lynchings and convicting, in the end, George Hall, for his role as ringleader. Hall was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and fined $500.

Hall’s conviction proved to be a landmark decision because it was the first time anyone in North Carolina involved in a lynching had been found guilty.

Clegg wrote that while lynchings didn’t completely disappear in North Carolina prior to World War II, “the number of incidents diminished greatly over the four decades following the Salisbury murders.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.