2018-02-17 / Features

Mob violence stoked racial fears


The image is fixed in the minds of most Americans – a man, usually black, hangs from a pole or a tree limb with a rope around his neck. Watching the spectacle, hundreds of onlookers display their pleasure by taking pictures of the victim’s body for souvenirs and by posing for pictures in front of the dead body. Regrettably, throughout American history such spectacles were nothing new. In colonial America, mobs use extralegal violence to murder religious outcasts. In the old west, citizens use lynching to punish so called criminals, while in the south, whites used lynching as a means of overturning the social revolution that occurred at the end of the Civil War.

In North Carolina, this drama played out dozens of times leading to a multitude of deaths. Like most of the south, the violence in North Carolina originated centuries earlier with the importation of black slaves. To control slaves, whites developed a harsh and inhumane system. The mandate of this system meant that slaves were governed by legally sanctioned violence. Even the most kindly and humane masters knew that only the threat of violence could force gangs of field hands to work from dawn to dusk… frequent public floggings reminded every slave of the penalty for inefficient labor, disorderly conduct, or refusal to except the authority of a superior. Yet, ever fearful of insurrection, planters also kept a sharp eye for suspicious slave behavior. When conditions warranted, vigilantes savagely suppressed both real and slave uprisings. For example, in the wake of the Nat Turner revolt, North Carolina mobs killed more than 40 innocent slaves and free blacks. Therefore, by the end of the period the practice of mob violence was firmly woven into North Carolina’s white society.

This Klan mask was made by a Person County resident about 1870. 
SUBMITTED This Klan mask was made by a Person County resident about 1870. SUBMITTED With such violence as a model, it is little wonder that after the Civil War, whites in North Carolina readily resumed this familiar form of terror. Nevertheless, the violence of this period would reveal something of North Carolina’s inner soul namely, a divided consciousness.

Recruiting billboards incited people to join the Klan. 
SUBMITTED Recruiting billboards incited people to join the Klan. SUBMITTED On one hand, state offi- cials passed laws and made noble effort to end mob violence. On the other hand, local law enforcement and white citizens refused to comply with anti-lynching legislation. Such division made it difficult to enforce the state’s lynching laws. This weakness turned out to be a boon for members of the Democratic Party which was struggling to find a way to return to power.

During the legislative campaign of 1898, Democrats launched a white supremacy campaign. Declaring that only white men were fit to hold public office, Democrats charged members of the Republican Party with supporting “Negro rule” in North Carolina. In addition, they launched the campaign of terror to keep blacks, the primary supporters of the Republicans, away from the polls. In the end, this campaign left in its wake the bodies of dozens of black men. Nevertheless, the campaign served its purpose by crushing the Republican Party and ending black voting rights.

Men in robes and hoods struck fear in the hearts of North Carolina’s African-American community from 1868 through the first half of the 20th century. 
SUBMITTED Men in robes and hoods struck fear in the hearts of North Carolina’s African-American community from 1868 through the first half of the 20th century. SUBMITTED Although at times North Carolina’s Democratic leaders failed to prevent the outbreak of mob violence, they nevertheless were forced by their own fears of losing poor white support, that they created a Department of Justice and an investigative arm, the SBI. With these new agencies North Carolina had a body of trained professionals that did not owe their positions to local voters. As North Carolina made these changes, a quadruple lynching in Georgia rocked the nation and forced the federal government to finally take action to look into the nation’s bloody pastime. The case also brought international and national condemnation to Georgia, a fate North Carolina officials were determined to avoid at all cost.

Person County has had its share of mob violence also. One case stemmed from an attempted sexual assault upon a 14-yearold white girl name Mary Ruth Allen. According to published reports on July 7, 1920, as the girl walked through an isolated area, a black man jumped from some bushes and knocked her to the ground. Before he could accomplish his purpose, the girl screamed and ran. Determined that the man not get away, neighbors formed a posse and tracked the assailant to some nearby railroad tracks. There they concluded that the attacker had boarded a freight train headed for Roxboro. For that reason, members of the posse jumped into their cars and rushed to Roxboro. Arriving at the train depot, the posse arrested Edward Roach, a 24-year-old African-American, as he got off the train. To ensure that they had arrested the right man, the posse brought Miss Allen to the jail where she identified Roach as her assailant.

However, Mr. Roach denied the charges. According to Roche he was at work when the assault took place. After leaving work, he walked to the Mount Tirzah station to catch the train to Roxboro. Along the way, he passed several white men working on a bridge and, most notably, two men who were searching for the girls assailant. Yet, despite a host of witnesses who could confirm his alibi, officials made no effort to check his story. Instead they charged him with rape and threw him in the Roxboro jail.

Roach’s arrest however could not have come at a more unfriendly location. Following the Civil War, members of the Ku Klux Klan in Roxboro routinely beat blacks for even the slightest offenses. Even more violent acts occurred in the town during the election of 1896. As a crowd of blacks attended a Republican rally, a mob of whites attacked the blacks with an assortment of weapons. During the ensuing ruckus “blood flowed freely,” and hundreds of blacks were wounded. Therefore, it was little wonder that on the morning following Roach’s arrested, a mob numbering more than 200 men surrounded the Roxboro jail. When the sheriff asked the mob to disperse, the vigilantes pelted him with stones and fired shots into the air to show that they meant business. Instead of returning to the jail where he could have mounted some sort of defense, the sheriff and his deputies retreated, leaving the jail unprotected. With the sheriff out of the way, the mob broke the locks off of Roach’s cell. Several miles away in the graveyard of an African- American church, they hung him in a tree. Then they riddled his lifeless body with bullets. The next day the solicitor held a hearing during which the sheriff and his deputies testified that they were unable to identify members of the mob. Yet, this seems unlikely since the sheriff passed many of the vigilantes in the street when he evacuated the jail. At any rate, the case did not end at this time. The day after Roach’s death, his boss, Nello Teer, released a signed statement in which he maintained that Roach was innocent. According to Teer, Roach was at work at 2:30 p.m., the time of the alleged crime took place. Moreover, he claimed that Roche worked all day and did not leave work until 5:30 p.m.

Perhaps due to this statement and to the violent nature of Roach’s death, from across the nation came a course of condemnations for North Carolina. The lynching also caused considerable concern among blacks in the surrounding area in the days following the murder. However, many whites still felt that blacks would attempt to retaliate in some manner. Perhaps to reassure themselves, local newspapers conducted a series of interviews with African-Americans. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, blacks had no feelings of animosity toward the lynching. Their chief concern was over the lynching in the church yard. There was always fear of retaliation while being interviewed. No one in the mob was ever prosecuted for the lynching of Edward Roach in Person County.

On August 15, 1941, Cy Winstead, a 22-year-old African-American was arrested for assaulting the sister of his white employer. As news of the assault spread an angry mob gathered around the jail. The situation grew worse when someone tossed a rope into a tree on the courthouse lawn and there was fear that Winstead would be lynched. After all Roxboro had been the scene of a lynching 20 years earlier. Yet, on this day blacks in the town were determined that history not repeat itself. At the height of the tension several dozen black Civilian Conservation Corps recruits armed themselves with sticks and marched toward the courthouse. However, before they reached the courthouse, gunfire rang out and the men scattered. With the CCC recruits out of the way, the mob turned its attention to the jail. Around 10 p.m., several men broke into a nearby bottling plant and hauled away several hundred empty bottles. They then launched a barrage against the jail. Another group of men charged the jail. However, when the men got near the door, the sheriff fired several canisters of tear gas. Then while the mob reeled from the tear gas, a handful of state troopers and police officers from Durham arrived to help protect the jail. Unfortunately, this did not dissuade the mob and for hours on end the small band of police officers and sheriff deputies held the jail while the mob fired a barrage of gunshots and bottles.

At 5 the next morning things calmed down enough for officers to put Winstead into a patrol car and raced him to Raleigh’s Central Prison for safekeeping. Nevertheless, apprehension remained hot and rumors began to circulate of an impending race riot. The next day Gov. Melville Broughton, in office less than a year, ordered the State Patrol and National Guard to Roxboro to restore order. The governor also ordered the State Bureau of Investigation to conduct an investigation. In a tribute to its efficiency, the SBI arrested five men and charged them with an attack on the jail. Six months later the state sentenced the men to prison terms ranging from 12 to 18 months. As a final outcome, the FBI investigation lead to a reduction of the charges brought against Cy Winstead. According to the FBI report, it appears that Winstead and the young woman were involved in a consensual relationship. Consequently, when the case reached the court, the judge encouraged Winstead to plead guilty to the charge of assault on a female and he was sentenced to a prison term of two to five years.

Documents at the State Archives and news accounts show that from 1865 through 1941 there were approximately 170 documented lynchings in the state of North Carolina and more than 4,000 in the United States. There are many more suspected cases but not yet documented.

Return to top