Orange County is home to the oldest public university in the country. And throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it was the location of multiple racial terror lynchings.
Community members and educators met virtually Thursday for a discussion on the history of lynchings in Orange County. The panel was the second event in the Light of Truth symposia, which celebrates the work and legacy of Black journalist Ida B. Wells.
Wells brought national attention to the widespread practice of lynchings through her investigative journalism, for which she received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in May.
Seth Kotch is director of the Southern Oral History Program and a professor in the Department of American Studies. He said between 1865 and 1947, there were about 175 reported lynchings in North Carolina.
“I think that many of us, myself a Chapel Hill resident born and raised in Orange County, have comforted ourselves that Chapel Hill, because we often vote blue, can congratulate ourselves for our progressivism,” he said. “Many of us … have failed to see clearly the way in which we're all implicated in this story.”
Paris Miller, an educator and member of the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition, started the evening by presenting accounts of lynchings.
Lynchings constitute many forms of violence and murder, though the term typically conjures images of a hanging. What distinguishes a lynching, however, is the lynchers' claims to justification and legitimization, Miller said.
“It is important to note here, the role of planned activity in establishing mob violence as a powerful and effective means of suppressing African American political participation and maintaining white supremacy to which Southerners would return again and again and again,” she said.
Following the Civil War, lynchings were used to punish and reverse the gains of recently freed African Americans, she said. Orange County became a centralized area of organized white supremacy in resistance to the social revolution that threatened white slaveholding aristocracy.
Miller said there are historical accounts of armies of Ku Klux Klan members riding down Franklin Street and beating Black people on UNC’s campus.
She also recounted the lynchings of several Black men in Orange County — four within a five-month period in 1869 — including Jefferson and Daniel Marrow, Wright Woods and Cyrus Guy.
Manley McCauley, a Black man who eloped with a married white woman in 1898, was also lynched by a mob and hanged in Chapel Hill. His body would remain hanging for 10 days, coinciding with the date of the Wilmington Massacre, a violent coup d'etat that Charles B. Aycock and Josephus Daniels — white supremacists and the namesakes of UNC buildings — played major roles in.
Miller said racist sexual politics in the South formed a web of racial subjugation for African Americans — particularly through the rape myth, which Wells dismantled in her 1892 pamphlet, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.”
Kotch also said it’s crucial to note the ways in which lynching was aided by the legal system, which overlooked such violence. There’s still much that is unknown, he said.
But some Wake County students and teachers are looking to change that.
Matt Scialdone, an English teacher from Middle Creek High School, said his experiences teaching an African American literature class and reading the novel “Just Mercy” pushed his class to get involved with the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project.
Through EJI’s Lynching in America map, students from Middle Creek and other schools began exploring the single reported lynching in Wake County, of a Black man named George Taylor in 1918.
KaLa Keaton, a Middle Creek senior and former student of Scialdone’s class, said being a life-long learner is important in the process of highlighting narratives of racial injustice. Her classmates tried to spread Taylor’s story to as many people as possible, which she said inspired the creation of the Wake County Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
Lynn Council, a Black man who survived a lynching attempt in 1952 by the then-Wake County sheriff and Apex chief of police, also approached the students to share his story after hearing about their work. Council was falsely accused of robbery, and the police officers attempted to coerce a confession out of him.
Keaton said she and her peers asked the Wake County school board to implement a follow-up class to African American Literature, called "Hard History and Civic Engagement."
“Textbooks and some learning plans, they're either completely inaccurate or they skew things to favor certain people and idolize certain people, when in reality, that's not what happened,” Keaton said. “I think just coming at history is not something that has to be pretty and beautiful and patriotic — that's the first step in order to truly serve the people in this country.”
The identification of sites of other lynchings and contextual information can be found at the website A Red Record — named for Wells’ work of the same name.
The Light of Truth series is co-hosted by the Center for the Study of the American South, Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and OCCRC. The next event, a dramatic reading of “Miss Ida B. Wells,” will be Oct. 18.
Panelists emphasized that the recorded lynchings discussed at the event are not a complete account of all the acts of terrors inflicted upon African Americans in Orange County and in the state.
“Today when we're looking at our campuses, and we're looking at discussions around Silent Sam, and what it means ... there's a paper trail to really follow this,” Miller said. “And all we have to do is go and look for it.”
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