Patrick M. Valentine’s The Rise of a Southern Town: Wilson, North Carolina, 1849-1920 is an invaluable history of the city’s first seventy years. In a chapter devoted to the blossoming of Wilson’s tobacco market in the 1890s, Valentine details a gun battle in the street between banker and cotton man Alpheus Branch and new tobacco man Calvin Barnes. Nine years later, Barnes was murdered as he rode home in a wagon with his grandsons. Valentine describes the alleged killer, Jonathan [sic] J. Jefferson, as Barnes’ “black overseer” and notes the even-handedness of the law toward Jefferson, whose initial conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court on an evidentiary point and who was later found not guilty.
The decision in State v. Jefferson, 125 N.C. 712 (1899), made no mention of Jefferson’s race. This raised my antennae. Contemporary news accounts also failed to mention that Jefferson was black, though they did describe concerns that he would be lynched. Instead, reports explicitly describe him as “a white renter of Captain Barnes’,” having a “white face,” “pale,” and “slightly pale, but no different from the many other spectators.”
Here is what happened around sunset on 28 December 1899. First, the setting: “This road is known as the New Road and comes into Wilson from Barefoot’s Mill and enters the city at the old circus grounds. About a quarter of a mile from the city limits is a small stream — Hominy Swamp — and just beyond this is a steep hill descending to the swamp. The steepness of this hill has necessitated its being cut down so that the road is in a cut, the banks on each side rising about eight feet. At the left side of the road at this hill the woods comes up to a small bluff overlooking the road. About half way down the hill in this woods a fence corners and runs at right angles with the road and parallel with the swamp for nearly half a mile, when it turns to the right and running almost due South, makes the line between the lands of A. Nadal and Mrs. Sid Clark. Where the fence corners near the hill on the New Road was the place selected by the perpetrator of this most dastardly crime.”
“Captain” Calvin Barnes and two grandsons had spent the day at his farm. As their horse-drawn buggy descended the hill towards Wilson, Barnes was shot in the back. The crack of the gunshot and the children’s screams attracted Ned Bunch, “a negro man close at hand,” who grabbed the reins of the runaway horse, climbed into the buggy, and drove Barnes to his home on Nash Street. Drs. Needham B. Herring and Nathan Anderson soon arrived, but Barnes died about 2:30 the next morning. Before he passed, Barnes told his friends that he had recently had words with John J. Jefferson, who managed one of his farms. Jefferson gave an alibi, but was quickly arrested and brought before a coroner’s inquest, which returned a charge against him. Fearing a lynching, the sheriff secretly moved Jefferson to Lucama, where he was put aboard a train for safekeeping in Raleigh.
The Raleigh Post carried a salacious confession that appeared in the Wilson News the very same day – on the very same page – that the News reported Barnes’ murder. “Jefferson is a tall, sparsely built man. He has a grizzley brownish beard that conceals his white face. His eyes are positively wicked.” “I shot at him,” the paper quoted, “They swore this thing on me, and I reckon I killed him.” Jefferson went on to detail a litany of grievances against Barnes, including failure to buy supplies, interference with his hands (i.e. farmworkers), and attempting to make Jefferson work his daughter in tobacco. The night before the murder, Jefferson asked Barnes if he had brought some cloth to make dresses for Jefferson’s daughters. Barnes had not and Jefferson threatened to kill him.
Jefferson was tried and convicted in late October, and his execution by hanging was set for November 16. He appealed the verdict on the basis that one of the State’s contentions had been that Barnes had made a dying declaration that Jefferson shot him. The State Supreme Court ruled that “[s]tatements of deceased, made shortly before his death, that he had quarreled with the prisoner in the morning, and that after sunset somebody shot him, and that he saw a man running out of the bushes, but could not recognize him, as it was too dark to recognize him, and to have prisoner arrested, are inadmissible as dying declarations.” “At most, the evidence was but the opinion of the deceased that the prisoner shot him….” (Further, the indictment was flawed.)
On 22 June 1900, Jefferson was retried and, to the shock and outrage of local citizenry, acquitted of Barnes’ murder.
- Ned Bunch – in the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: teamster Ned Bunch, 50; wife Lissa, 50; and children Mary, 16, Martha, 13, Orra, 11, Willie, 9, Mattie, 7, and Lucy, 5. Ned Bunch died 19 March 1916 in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was born 1851 in Wilson County to James Bunch and an unknown mother and was married. Malissa Bunch was informant. [Less than a year after the trauma of intercepting Barnes’ bleeding body, Bunch carried the dying James A. Hunt home after he was shot down in the street by Jefferson D. Farrior.]
- John J. Jefferson – in the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: John J. Jefferson, 50, farmer, prisoner in the Wilson County Jail. [Valentine may have confused this Jefferson with John Jefferson, 52, a black day laborer, who appeared in the same census of Wilson township.]
Narrative abstracted from articles in the Durham Sun, 30 August 1899; Wilson News, 31 August and 26 October 1899; Wilson Daily Times, 1 September 1899; News & Observer (Raleigh), 23 June 1900, as well as the text of the Supreme Court decision.