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The peacemaker: 50 years ago, a father faced his biggest test of all

SALISBURY — June Robinson sped off on foot toward Fisher and Lee streets in hopes of catching Edward Tracey Sr. as he was coming home from his job at Saleeby Produce.

Sure enough, Tracey was waiting at the traffic light as Robinson ran up.

“Winton’s been shot,” Robinson shouted. “Go to the hospital.”

It took a moment for Tracey to process what he had heard. Winton, his youngest son, should have been home by then from Knox Junior High. And who in the world would shoot a 14-year-old boy? But Tracey immediately turned his vehicle toward Rowan Memorial Hospital.

When he arrived at the emergency room, Tracey heard a discussion about whether his family could afford the fee for transporting Winton to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. Tracey immediately pulled out all the money in his wallet and said his boss, E.A. Saleeby. would make up any shortfall.

The money wasn’t necessary. Winton died at Rowan Memorial before any transport could happen. The young teen had been shot twice in broad daylight that afternoon on South Clay Street — once in the back and once at close range in the head.

A white man had killed him. Winton was black.

It happened almost 50 years ago now, on Oct. 13, 1967 — a Friday the 13th. It may seem odd, Johnnie Mae Tracey realizes, but she often associates that terrible period — the shooting, the tension afterwards, the funeral and the trial — with her late father and how he dealt with the whole ordeal.

The oldest of his six children, Johnnie Mae still refers to Edward Tracey as a peacemaker and bridge builder, a man who relied on his Christian faith to guide his actions, especially then.

“He was very extraordinary,” Johnnie Mae says, sitting in the shade of a carport at one of her father’s old houses.

Directly across from her sits Dixonville Cemetery, and beyond that, Tracey can see the rooftop of the vacant Lincoln School, which she attended through the eighth grade. She often walked through the cemetery on her way to Lincoln.

“I enjoy sitting out here,” says Johnnie Mae, now 75. “This is history for me.”

Edward Tracey Sr. died 20 years ago. Johnnie Mae, a retired educator who lives in Charlotte, has been spending most of her time since last fall trying to go through things in her father’s former residence on Old Concord Road, selling off or giving away furniture and sorting through pictures and other family memorabilia.

She holds up a framed picture of her father she had presented to him long ago. The words with it say, “By your concern and love, you have given me two things. One is roots. The other is wings.”

•••

Winton Tracey was sort of a chubby kid, who growing up had to stay inside a lot because of his asthma.

“He was a dynamic young man,” Johnnie Mae says of Winton. “He loved people. He would follow my dad all around.”

She pulls out a photograph from the old East Side Community Club that her father and John Coleman cofounded in 1964. The black-and-white photograph, which could not have been taken long before Winton’s death, shows all the adult leaders of the club and Winton standing with them on the far right.

He’s the only kid in the picture. Winton was among the first nine black male students who integrated Knox Junior High, and he was walking with white schoolmates when they approached some children on Clay Street, including a 10-year-old boy with a cap gun.

The boy fired the cap pistol several times at the teens, including three or four times at Winton, who asked the youngster to quit. When he did not, Winton shoved the boy onto the driveway of his house.

The 10-year-old announced he was going to tell his father on Winton. He went inside the house and a few minutes later, 43-year-old Virgil Lee “Shorty” Wise came out and asked “Who did it?” He then walked to the station wagon parked in front of the house.

Witnesses said as Winton started walking past the station wagon, Wise emerged from the car with a .22-caliber pistol. A neighbor yelled for Winton to run, but Wise shot Winton in the back.

Then, with Winton lying on the ground, Wise advanced to him, placed the gun about 18 inches from the boy’s head and fired again.

Salisbury Police officers G.H. Parks and W.C. Gilland started interviewing people as soon as they arrived and immediately were directed toward Wise, who was standing on his porch. He wore pants but had no shirt or shoes.

As the officers were approaching Wise, the suspect said, “I suppose you boys are looking for me. I killed the black son of a bitch.” Moments later in his bedroom, while Wise was putting on his shoes, he also pointed officers to the gun on his dresser.

•••

Word reached Edward Tracey soon after his son’s death that students at Livingstone College were gathering and preparing to respond to the shooting, possibly violently.

“My father went and talked them down,” Johnny Mae says. “My father was a very level-headed person. If he had not been, he could not have made it through the things he did.”

Johnny Mae still remembers her father’s restraint, though he wanted justice for Winton more than anyone else.

“Daddy said, ‘We’re just going to trust in God and follow the law.'” Tracey says.

But thanks to Johnnie Mae, the Tracey family ended up taking an extra precaution, and it started with the inquest into Winton’s death. The family had been told the inquest was going to be held at 11 a.m.

But early that same morning, while Edward Tracey was sitting on the porch, a white boy walked up to the front steps and motioned back to his mother, who was waving from a streetlight.

“He said, ‘My mother wants you to know the inquest will be at 9 o’clock, not 11 o’clock,'” Johnnie Mae recalls.

With her father’s permission, Johnnie Mae called Charlotte attorney Julius Chambers, who was making a name for himself as a civil rights lawyer during school integration. Johnnie Mae had met him previously through Dr. Clinton Jones.

“Let’s contact him and let him oversee the case,” she told her father. “Let him guide us.”

While the state was the family’s representatives, significant trust issues existed within the black community. Chambers and James Ferguson drove up from Charlotte and sat in on the inquest for the Traceys.

“If we had missed the inquest, he (Wise) would have gone free,” Johnnie Mae says, looking back, “and that happened many times.”

•••

In May 1968, a jury brought in from Davidson County found Wise guilty of murder after deliberating more than 15 hours. The trial itself lasted less than two days.

During the December after the shooting, Wise’s attorneys had received the court’s permission to have their client tested at Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, but Wise was judged mentally competent to stand trial.

Wise’s main defense during the trial was that he was subject to epileptic seizures and had no recollection of shooting Winton Tracey.

By the time of the trial, of course, Winton’s body had long been laid to rest at Oakwood Cemetery, where his parents also are interred today.

A large crowd attended Winton’s funeral, marred by the presence of some Ku Klux Klansmen along the route of the procession to the cemetery.

•••

Johnnie Mae has never been able to shake a premonition Winton apparently had of his own death.

It happened while Winton and his mother, Elizabeth Tracey, were walking by Noble-Kelsey Funeral Home on Fisher Street.

“The thing that really affected me a lot,” Johnnie Mae says, “was my brother told mom, ‘Mama, I’m going to be over there soon.’ He said, ‘I’m going to have one of the biggest funerals in Salisbury.'”

The words upset his mother, who wondered why Winton would say anything about the funeral home in the first place. She found out later, after his death, that A.R. Kelsey had given up to Winton’s persistence one day and offered him a look at the funeral home’s embalming room.

Johnnie Mae kept a laminated copy of pictures from Winston’s funeral that were printed in a black newspaper of the day, “The Afro-American,” from Oct. 28, 1967.

“Salisbury really turned out for us, white and black,” Johnnie Mae recalls of the support the family received after the shooting.

Prosecutors approached Edward and Elizabeth Tracey to ask whether the family wanted the state to pursue the death penalty for Wise. Again, Edward Tracey resisted the road most fathers, black or white, might have taken.

“My daddy definitely said, ‘We do not believe in the death penalty — we’re Christian,'” Johnnie Mae recalls.

Wise received a life sentence and would die in prison in December 1979.

As far as Johnnie Mae knows, no one in her family ever reached out to Wise in prison or would have anything to do with him. They tried to put the memory of that day and the trial behind them as much as possible.

“I have no hatred in my heart because of my mom and dad,” Tracey says, “because of what they instilled in us.”

•••

Johnnie Mae remembers her father as a man who was always working, trying to provide for his wife, Elizabeth, and their six children.

Edward Tracey sold produce for 30 years for Saleeby. Tracey credits her love of science and becoming a science teacher to the days when her dad would bring home snakes, spiders and other creatures he captured from the crates of produce shipped into Saleeby.

Tracey also owned the Caldwell Street Grocery Store near today’s Salisbury High School. He was part-owner, though Johnnie Mae learned this was disputed at his death, of Safety Taxi Co.

As much as he could, Tracey bought properties. He once owned, for example, the land on which today’s Rowan Helping Ministries shelter stands.

Edward Tracey was co-founder, along with John Coleman, of the East Side Community Club, the vision for which came to Tracey in a dream in 1964.

“It was about midnight,” he told the Post once. “I was awakened. Something told me to get into the community and bring the people closer together. It just stayed with me, and I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

The East Side Community Club built a clubhouse and playground. It supported or pushed for a clean-up campaign, joint revivals among churches, new streetlights, youth athletic teams and a youth group. It held summer programs for kids, donated food baskets to the sick and shut-ins, provided volunteers for Meals on Wheels and made contributions to the soup kitchen.

Beyond his work for the East Side club, Edward Tracey belonged to the NAACP and the Negro Civic League. He was a voting precinct judge, and before his death in 1997, he had been a longtime supporter of Livingstone College and Hood Theological Seminary.

He had served on the Salisbury-Rowan Community Service Council and the Rowan County Police Review Board.

Above all, Tracey had been devoted to Soldiers Memorial AME Zion Church. He was the church’s longtime treasurer, but it was his devotion as an usher for which he was well known in the AME Zion churches.

Tracey often was referred to as “Mr. Usher, the Usher of Ushers,” Johnnie Mae says. He organized, served and assisted usher boards in AME Zion churches throughout North Carolina.

“The church was his whole life,” Johnnie Mae says.

Edward Tracey had a tough upbringing. His mother — “a staunch church lady,” according to Johnnie Mae — died when he was young. Edward and his three brothers were sent out to different foster homes, and they didn’t all reconnect until they were adults.

“He really pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” Johnnie Mae says, but she adds he was influenced greatly by his mother before her death.

“I remember many hungry nights,” Tracey once wrote to his family, “but I also remember my mother’s faith strength and work in the church. This helped to pull me through.”

•••

Johnnie Mae Tracey says without the police’s due diligence and the help of Chambers, the attorney from Charlotte, she’s not sure that Wise would have been convicted.

Witnesses showed no reservations, she adds, and the police handled the case professionally.

“They thoroughly investigated it,” Tracey says. “They did better police work than what I see is happening today. Whatever feelings they had, they put it aside.”

This town still means a lot to Johnnie Mae. The fond memories of her father and mother, her brothers and sisters, the schools and churches, East Side and her neighbors — it all softens the sadness that happened on a Friday the 13th a half century ago.

It makes her proud of her family, especially her father, Edward O’Neil Tracey Sr.

Johnnie Mae sits back and enjoys a short-lived breeze going through the carport.

“My dad was a really fantastic guy,” she says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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