When I stumbled upon this article, I was not sure if the terrible incident it described involved African-Americans from Wilson County. (It turns out they were not.) I did know, however, that state legislator Troy T. Barnes of Wilson co-sponsored a bill to award the victims pensions, and I knew I wanted to know more.
Wilson Daily Times, 29 March 1935.
A review of the widespread state news coverage reveals:
- In December 1934, Woodrow Wilson Shropshire, 19, was sentenced to 120 days on a chain gang for drunkenness and drunk driving. In January 1935, Robert Barnes, also 19, was sentenced to a year “on the road” for possession of a stolen camera. Both were sent to a Mecklenburg County labor camp.
- In January 1935, Shropshire and Barnes were placed in solitary confinement for alleged insubordination and cursing at a guard. The men were chained in a standing position against a wall for eight hours a day for four days. During the cold nights, they slept in an unheated room with little covering. The camp doctor failed to check on them as required by law. Both suffered severe damage to their feet that led to gangrene.
- In early March, Wilson and Barnes were taken to Central State Prison in Raleigh where their feet were amputated. The following week, the state legislature opened an investigation into the matter.
- Per testimony, the men originally been held at Mecklenburg County camp #411. When they attempted to warm themselves at a fire without permission during frigid January temperatures, a guard warned them away and Shropshire cursed him. Because camp #411 had no solitary confinement, they were moved to camp #413. Barnes, Shropshire, and a former prisoner named John Reid testified that a prison guard beat Barnes unconscious for spitting on the floor. The men were fed half a biscuit twice a day and a small amount of water. Prison officials claimed the men’s feet had been damaged by erysipelas, a strep bacterial infection. And/or their gangrene had been caused by the men stuffing rags too tightly between their skin and shackles. (“It is astonishing,” [testified prison physician] Coleman, “how some prisoners will mutilate themselves to escape work.”]
- The investigation turned up an additional atrocity — the secret burials of Black convicts in a Watauga County cornfield during construction of the Boone Trail state highway in 1930. (The men had been reported as escapees.) Legislators had questions about the laws concerning prisoners in state camp, the limits (or lack thereof) on the kind of punishment guards could mete out, and the practice of transferring prisoners to camps with “little dark houses” used for solitary confinement. Three state representatives, including Barnes of Wilson, sponsored a bill providing a lifetime pension for Shropshire and Barnes.
- In early April, the camp superintendent, camp physician, and three guards were arrested and charged with crimes including neglect, torture, maiming, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. Shropshire was taken by ambulance from Raleigh to testify before a Mecklenburg County grand jury; Barnes was still too weak from his injuries.
- The committee’s recommendation, issued in late April, was conservative. North Carolina penal camps could continue using whips and “dark cells” to punish prisoners. On the bright side, Shropshire and Barnes were to receive prosthetic feet and jobs in the highway or prison departments.
- By mid-May, the State had spent $500 for four sets of artificial limbs for the two men, but neither was strong enough to use them.
- The trial got underway in mid-July. Surprise — all defendants were acquitted!
- Shropshire made good progress adjusting to his prosthetics. He declined a job in Raleigh, preferring to return to Mecklenburg to be near family, and the State promised to find him a job there. Barnes continued to struggle. In 1940, when he registered for the World War II draft, he was described as unemployed. His card noted “both feet amputated below knees.”