PW special report – The battle for Alamance: A look at the past and present of one of North Carolina’s most divided counties

By: - March 19, 2021 6:00 am

Series Introduction

Part one: A troubled history of racism, violence and repression

“They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

– James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”

Illustration of a Klansman from A Fool’s Errand by One of the Fools (New York: Fords, Howard and Hurlbert, 1879) by Albion Tourgée. As the State Surpreme Court judge for the area including Alamance County, Tourgée attempted to prosecute the Klansman who lynched Wyatt Outlaw. As a novelist, he incorporated parts of Outlaw’s life into his historical fiction.

On a cold and drizzly February night in 1870 a mob of Klansmen came for Wyatt Outlaw, the first Black town commissioner of Graham.

Wearing robes and hoods, and armed with torches, swords and pistols, some 20 men broke down the door of his home on Main Street. They demanded Outlaw show himself, threatening to burn down the house. They stomped on the head and chest of his 73-year-old mother, who lived with him and his two young sons.

As his boys screamed in terror, the men bludgeoned their father, marching and dragging him half-naked to the nearby Alamance County Courthouse Square. There they hung him from a tall elm tree facing the courthouse and slashed open his mouth as at least 60 men watched.

When the sun came up on Sunday morning, Outlaw’s body still hung outside the courthouse. Even his friends and family were frightened to cut him down. The mob had pinned a warning message to his corpse.

“Beware ye guilty,” it read. “Both Black and white.”

Outlaw’s crime? Daring to challenge white supremacy.

Outlaw was murdered more than 150 years ago, but his work is far from over. New generations of activists, organizers, educators and politicians are still battling white supremacy in Alamance County — often at the site of Outlaw’s last stand.

No plaque, marker or memorial honors the remarkable life or horrific death of Wyatt Outlaw. Instead, outside the county courthouse where he was lynched, a 30-foot statue of a Confederate soldier stands as a monument to the seditionists he fought in life and the racist ethos that drove his murderers.

“That statue was put there not after the Civil War but in the Jim Crow era,” said the Rev. Ervin Milton, long-time pastor at the Union Ridge United Church of Christ in Alamance. “Like so many other things at that time, it was a way for white people to say, ‘We may have lost that war, but really we won.’”

Milton has been involved in the movement to remove the statue. He said its presence, towering over the site of Outlaw’s murder, continues to send a strong message.

“It’s an indication, as is Wyatt Outlaw’s story, that if you rise too far above where the powers that be want you, they will take everything from you,” Milton said. “Like Wyatt Outlaw, activists today have a lot of work to do and they still have so much to lose.”

Protests at the Confederate monument have become so fierce and frequent that Sheriff Terry Johnson attempted to ban them — a move struck down by a federal court. At demonstrations sheriff’s deputies often form a protective phalanx around the statue. Some deputies have shaken hands and high-fived members of neo-Confederate groups.

Meanwhile, in October, the same force pepper sprayed and arrested demonstrators, clergy and even a reporter during a voting rights event that culminated at the monument.

Rev. Ervin Milton

“Most of the folks there, we’ve been talking about Wyatt Outlaw more recently and raising the consciousness of it and trying to connect the dots between what happened with Wyatt and what’s happening now,” Milton said. “This is, I think, the plight of rural America. While Burlington is a city and Graham is a city, they have in a sense that farm rural mentality — the slaves and the sharecroppers and you need to stay in your place. And if you don’t, there will be repercussions.”

It is sad and infuriating that these battles are still raging, said historian Dr. Carole Troxler, professor emeritus of History at Elon University. But it is not surprising.

Troxler wrote what is widely considered the definitive account of Outlaw’s life, death and legacy for the North Carolina Historical Review. Like many of the disturbing episodes from in the state’s and nation’s past, Troxler said, Outlaw’s story has been neglected and distorted in ways that make it difficult to agree on what is actually history — never mind learn from it.

Much about Wyatt Outlaw’s life is still unknown and uncertain, overshadowed by the details of his tragic death. He was widely believed to be the mixed-race son of a Black woman and white man raised largely by a white family whose patriarch specified he was not to be sold like the family’s slaves or the wages of his labor kept by the family.

As an adult, he joined the Union army like some 100 other Black men from Alamance county, fighting Confederates in Virginia and Texas. He returned to Graham to become a businessman, community organizer, charismatic politician and founder of a local African Methodist Episcopal church. He organized newly freed Black men to vote, served as a constable and formed armed patrols of Black and white men to break up parties of Ku Klux Klan night riders.

Outlaw’s killers were never brought to justice. Though 18 men were indicted in connection with the lynching, the charges were dropped when the North Carolina General Assembly moved to  indemnify those accused of crimes as part of “secret societies.”

Outlaw was lynched the same year that the Klan murdered Republican State Senator John W. Stevens. The killings inspired William Holden, the Republican governor who first appointed Outlaw to the Graham town council, to crack down on the Klan. When conservative Democrats again took the majority, they reacted to Holden’s anti-Klan crusade by impeaching and removing him from office.

Troxler has served three times on the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Commission, a body that has been notoriously slow to approve markers related to incidents of racial violence in the state. A marker commemorating Outlaw’s life and murder was once proposed, Troxler said, but the commission rejected it.

Instead, on South Main Street in Graham, there is a vague marker commemorating the “Kirk-Holden War.”

“Racial violence in Caswell and Alamance counties in 1870 led to martial law, under Col. Geo. W. Kirk, impeachment & removal of Gov. W. W. Holden,” the marker reads.

That’s both an omission and a distortion, Troxler said. The term “racial violence” obfuscates what actually happened, she said — a wave of Klan murders designed to terrorize newly freed Black people and white progressives who challenged white supremacy. The term “Kirk-Holden War” blames Kirk and Holden, whose anti-Klan crusade defied a relentless racial and political terror campaign.

“I think it should be called the Caswell-Alamance insurrection,” Troxler said.

Racist terror unpunished

Centering the declaration of martial law and impeachment ignores the more terrifying truth of racist terror and the fact that it went largely unpunished.

“The take-home from the Holden impeachment was anybody who had advocated white supremacy, who had opposed the registration of and the voting of Black men, even these Klansmen who murdered people, they just got a cleared reputation,” Troxler said.

A truth that is too complex for a highway marker — and too complex for many people to grasp today — is that the violence during so-called Reconstruction was so intense in Alamance County because the area was deeply divided.

There was a lot of pro-Union and anti-slavery sentiment in Alamance County and the surrounding area before, during and after the war, Troxler said. That’s what helped to create such dramatic flash points.

“It was a deeply divided area then and it’s deeply divided now,” she said. “But our history, the history we learn in school and that the average person knows, doesn’t always reflect that.”

Dr. Carole Troxler

Correcting the historical record — even with highway markers and monuments — is an important step, she said.

Historical marker discussions can be fraught and complicated, particularly when they involve shameful moments in the history of a place. But Troxler said she rejects the notion, often advanced in such debates, that a marker honestly exploring a place’s history of racial violence is a permanent negative mark on a community.

“That’s a whole lot of hogwash,” Troxler said. “The whole nation is marked by it. It’s not even just the South. We need to mark as many of these places as we can out of historical honesty and out of respect for people who have been taken advantage of by formal and informal policies of white supremacy. We owe it. The nation owes it.”

Violence with a purpose and the problem of ‘dismemory’

The question of what the state and nation owes — and how it should be repaid — is the subject of Dr. William Darity’s recent work. Last year, the Duke professor of public policy co-authored From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.

Dr. William Darity

The book examines America’s history of racial violence and systematic exclusion of Black people from political, social and economic equality. Darity said the lynching of Wyatt Outlaw is the sort of original sin at the heart of the division we see in the state and nation today.

“I think one of the difficulties people have is, it’s very hard to grasp the scope of this violence,” Darity said. “It’s frequently said that the Wilmington Massacre, which occurs relatively late in the context of the 19th century, is the only successful municipal coup d’etat that ever took place in the United States. Absolutely not true.”

There were two previous, successful coups by former Confederates and Klan members in 1870s Louisiana, Darity said — the Colfax Massacre and the Coushatta Massacre.

“And in our book we attempt to identify two or three more,” Darity said. “These were explicit attempts to drive elected officials out of office, frequently in the process murdering them.”

The case of Wyatt Outlaw in Alamance County fits this profile. Though originally appointed as a town commissioner in Graham, Outlaw was later elected. As a town constable, he used the law to fight the Klan. Far from protecting him, his rise to positions of authority further inflamed white supremacists who wouldn’t stand for the political and social elevation of Black men.

“What we really need to talk about is the failure to achieve democracy,” Darity said. “The United States has long been undemocratic, particularly with respect to the status of Black Americans.”

It’s a problem that Darity explored in a paper written with Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of Medicine at Duke.

“This is a process that repeats itself throughout our history,” Bentley-Edward said. “There’s this feeling that Black people are gaining power and this feeling that it’s undeserved power. And that gets at who gets to be an American citizen and all the rights that come with it.”

There is a straight line to be drawn between Outlaw’s election and subsequent lynching and the reaction of the American right wing to the election of President Barack Obama, Bentley-Edwards said.

“The backlash was immediate,” Bentley-Edwards said. “We have Obama elected and that’s when you have the Tea Party folks get active and groups later in alignment with President Trump, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. You have this rise of these groups with this promise to preserve American rights for Americans. But who is considered ‘American’?”

The lynching of Wyatt Outlaw — and like so many such crimes in that period — signaled the beginning of a Confederate reclamation project, Bentley-Edwards said. The rolling back of voting rights, rights to free assembly and due process occurred across the South. Those who had fought to preserve the Confederacy now worked to dismantle reconstruction and put Black people back in their place.

“You’re seeing it again now where you have the big push of Black folks in Georgia and across the country who have organized and activated their voting rights,” Bentley-Edwards said. “And now you’re seeing laws across the country to put greater restrictions on voting. When there’s a rise in people asserting their citizenship, you always see this.”

It’s a cycle that has been costly for Black people in America.

Darity traces the racial wealth gap in the country to the failure of the federal government to provide formerly enslaved people with the 40 acres they were promised in the aftermath of the Civil War. At the same time, Darity said, the government allocated upwards of 280 million acres of land to approximately 1.5 million white families under the homestead acts in 160-acre lots.

But on an even more basic and horrifying level, the Outlaw case shows that Black Americans weren’t just denied land and financial opportunities available to white people. When they organized to change that system through the electoral process, they were murdered in ways that sent an unmistakable message: the penalty for opposing white supremacy is terror and death.

“The deprivation of that property, the deprivation of Black access to the electoral process which might have made it possible to ensure that the promise of this nation was kept — that was made possible by intense waves of violence,” Darity said.

“That violence was purposeful, that violence was extensive, and we need to know that,” he said.

The Black congressman and Civil War hero Robert Smalls calculated 53,000 Black people were murdered by white people between 1865 and 1895. Historians are increasingly convinced that number is probably correct, Darity said. That number — and what it represents — is vital, Darity said.

“Those murders were not matters of personal conflict,” Darity said. “These were political murders.”

The refusal to face that part of our history leads directly to the continued advancement of Lost Cause ideology, Darity said, and the inability to deal productively with the past and shape a working future.

“The key idea here is a term my co-author Kirsten [Mullen] coined in the process of working on the book — the phrase we call ‘dismemory.’” Darity said. “This process creates a false memory. This of course has political ramifications. Our explanation for how the world got to be where it is today is one that is grossly distorted.”

In a state where the General Assembly passes laws to protect Confederate monuments erected in the Jim Crow era against the local communities and institutions that increasingly want to remove them, historical accuracy matters.

“I think we have to engage in the struggle of making sure we have an accurate story of the historical record,” Darity said. “I think that’s absolutely crucial in coming to an understanding and agreement about what should be done to address this record.”

Any real discussion of the issue has to involve reparations, he said — something many people all along the American political spectrum do not want to discuss.

“There’s been an important struggle that has occurred in the past and there is still a very great struggle that lays ahead of us to tell the American story in the most accurate way,” Darity said. “I think what is positive in the American story is that there’s an aspiration that’s built into many of the nation’s documents. They deliver a message about what this country could be like. But it has never fulfilled those aspirations.”

For Troxler, the Elon professor, the modern problems in Alamance County are enormous — but so are the aspirations.

She’s meeting with church groups and activists now to talk about Wyatt Outlaw, the true history of the county and how it can inspire the next steps forward, however big or small.

“There’s been some suggestion that the new high school in the country be named for Wyatt Outlaw,” Troxler said. “Which I think would be brilliant.”

Milton, the Alamance County pastor, said acknowledging Outlaw’s life — and the horrible truth of his death — is an essential first step.

“In this community, I think the notion people have about talking about racism is, ‘Let’s not do it, and say we did.’” Milton said. “Let’s assume it didn’t happen. Let’s not talk about the history of slavery, of sharecropping, the history of lynchings and stories like Wyatt Outlaw.”

“But if you can’t talk about these things, you can’t face them,” Milton said. “And that’s how you get where we are today.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.