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Remembering Manly McCauley, a man who was lynched near Chapel Hill in 1898

Manly McCauley was 18 years old when he was lynched near Chapel Hill in 1898.

He’d been a farmhand for the local Brewer family. After an argument with her husband, Maggie Lloyd Brewer eloped with McCauley. They’d traveled about 40 miles before a group of white men, led by Brewer's husband, brought them back to town. 

A group of townspeople then took McCauley to an open wood and hung him on the branch of a dogwood tree, where his body remained for 10 days. Police arrested the men, but a jury acquitted them. 

The Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition held two ceremonies to honor McCauley on Saturday morning. The first was a private soil collection ceremony, where community members gathered on Carl Drive to put soil into several jars, mark McCauley’s grave and release his spirit. 

Renée Price, co-chairperson of the coalition, said it was a symbolic gesture because they don’t know exactly where McCauley was lynched. 

Relatives of McCauley, some from Baltimore, scooped the soil first, followed by community members.

“For out of the soil comes life,” ceremony leader Malika Mills said as she held up the jar of soil bearing McCauley’s name.

The coalition then held a public ceremony at Hickory Grove Missionary Baptist Church, where Malika led the community in pouring libations, or water, to acknowledge McCauley's legacy. Journalist Mike Ogle and Danita Mason-Hogans, project coordinator for Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, told McCauley’s story. 

“It can sometimes feel like ancient history, and it’s very much not,” Ogle said. 

He said Milton Brewer, who led the group that lynched McCauley, was born just after the Civil War ended. He died in 1960 in the same month that black students began sit-in protests in Greensboro.

To southern white communities, Mason-Hogans said, the scandal centered on a married woman’s decision to elope with a black man, not the lynching. In fact, she said, Democratic candidates used McCauley’s relationship with Maggie Brewer to rouse racial hatred and garner support in the 1898 election.

Gabrielle Daniels, Equal Justice Initiative project manager, spoke about the importance of reckoning with America’s history of racial injustice as a community.

Daniels guided the ceremonies, which are part of a larger project by the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based civil rights group. The group formed the Community Remembrance Project, which aims to promote awareness of lynching and memorialize its victims. 

Daniels said nations who face collective trauma need to confront their histories to overcome them. 

“Our nation has done an interesting job of not doing that,” she said. “And so, we’ve been left with a legacy of racial and economic injustice and inequality that in so many ways has not been preserved in our public memory.”

To create a more equitable society, Daniels said Americans must unpack and reconstruct that history as a community because everyone has inherited some part of that legacy.

For Mason-Hogans, that legacy is personal. She found out while researching that she’s related to Manly McCauley. She said her grandfather’s name is Joe McCauley, and her parents lived about a mile from the site where the coalition thinks Manly McCauley was lynched.

“I always say that I’m doing the work of my ancestors,” she said.

This work is hard, she said, and confronting America’s history of racial injustice may make white people feel guilt and black people feel shame. She called those emotions “unproductive.”

“We need to be brave together and face it together,” she said. “We’re at a point now where we need to move ahead and look forward and see how we can reconcile those two things together.”

In the ceremony, Daniels said justice is an ongoing journey. 

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“It is a struggle that does not stop,” she said. “We have to become the vehicle through which that justice is carried out.”