lynching

Hanging tree guitars.

“Freeman Vines has been building guitars for fifty years, and no two of them are alike. While a commercial guitar company like Gibson or Fender seeks uniformity in their instruments, Vines seeks singularity. He doesn’t force his raw material into a predetermined form. Instead, he follows its lead. He closely considers the unique qualities of the wood and allows his own artistic spirit to connect with its character and its history.

“This material might be an old mule trough, a torn down tobacco barn, or a broken piano. Or it might be a hanging tree.”

That hanging tree is said to be the black walnut at which Oliver Moore was hanged in 1930, the last official lynching in Wilson County. Folklorist and photographer Timothy Duffy, founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation, has spent years with Vines, chronicling his craft. Hanging Tree Guitars emerged from Vines and Duffy’s collaboration with folklorist Zoe Van Buren.

A review at the Foundation’s digital exhibit of Vines’ work: “To meet Freeman Vines is to meet America itself. An artist, a luthier and a spiritual philosopher, Vines’ life is a roadmap of the truths and contradictions of the American South. He remembers the hidden histories of the eastern North Carolina land on which his family has lived since enslavement. For over 50 years Vines has transformed materials culled from a forgotten landscape in his relentless pursuit of building a guitar capable of producing a singular tone that has haunted his dreams. From tobacco barns, mule troughs, and radio parts he has created hand-carved guitars, each instrument seasoned down to the grain by the echoes of its past life. In 2015 Vines befriends photographer Timothy Duffy and the two begin to document the guitars, setting off a mutual outpouring of the creative spirit. But when Vines acquires a mysterious stack of wood from the site of a lynching, Vines and Duffy find themselves each grappling with the spiritual unrest and the psychic toll of racial violence living in the very grain of America.”

 

Carolina Posse Kills Ex-GI.

The lynchings of two Wilson County men are recorded at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The name of the first, killed in 1887, is unknown. The second man, shot to death in 1946, was J.C. Farmer, a 19 year-old veteran of World War II.

Farmer and some friends were in Sims, a village in the western part of the county, playing around while waiting for a bus to take them into Wilson for a Saturday night out. Constable Fes Bissette confronted the group, ordering Farmer to get into his squad car. When Farmer refused, Bissette hit him in the back of the head with a blackjack, drew his gun and tried to force Farmer into the car. The two scuffled. Seizing control of the gun, Farmer shot Bissette through the hand and fled. An hour later, 20 to 25 white men, including Alcoholic Beverage Control agents armed with submachine guns, cornered Farmer near his mother Mattie Barnes Farmer‘s house and opened fire.

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.02.26 PM.png

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.02.42 PM.pngScreen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.02.59 PM.png

Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 11.03.25 PM.png

New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, Va.), 17 August 1946.

Though the scant news accounts available are silent, it appears that Farmer was driven ten miles to Wilson to Mercy Hospital, where Dr. Badie T. Clark pronounced him dead from a “gun shot wound chest” about 30 minutes after arrival. Clark also noted on Farmer’s death certificate, by way of explanation: “shot by officer of law in gun duel” though it is not at all clear which member of the posse’s shot hit Farmer, and there had been no “duel.” (Also, who transported Farmer to town — his family or law enforcement? Why was he seen by Badie Clark, a white doctor, rather than, say, Joseph Cowan, who was Mercy’s African-American staff physician? Here’s a guess: Dr. Cowan didn’t dare.)

In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress issued We Charge Genocide: An Historic Appeal to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People, a “record of mass slayings on the basis of race.” Among the litany of such state-sanctioned crimes committed from 1945 to 1951 was the killing of J.C. Farmer.

Equal Justice Initiative’s 2015 Lynching in America report mentioned J.C. Farmer’s murder in the chapter described racial terror directed at African-American veterans: “No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.” Farmer’s death was just one of a wave of such lynchings in 1946.

——

In the 1930 census of Oldfields township, Wilson County: Josh Farmer, 51; wife Mattie, 46; and children William A., 21, Josh W., 17, Waneta, 14, Lonnie D., 12, Robert, 10, Albert H., 6, and J.C., 3.

In the 1940 census of Taylor township, Wilson County: Jack Farmer, 59; wife Mattie, 55; and children Authur, 24, Jack Jr., 23, Robert, 20, Harry, 16, J.C., 13, and Juanita Barnes, 22, and her children Mattie Lee, 3, and Marjorie, 1.

J.C. Farmer registered for the World War II draft on 21 October 1944, was honorably discharged on 16 August 1945, and was dead 13 days’ shy of a year later.

——

For the hanged and beaten. For the shot, drowned and burned. The tortured, tormented and terrorized. For those abandoned by the rule of law.

We will remember.

With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice. With courage because peace requires bravery. With persistence because justice is a constant struggle. With faith because we shall overcome.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

A sacred space for truth-telling.

We traveled this weekend to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit Equal Justice Initiative’s recently opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum. The Memorial is “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”

“The memorial structure on the center of the site is constructed of over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns.”

I wandered beneath the monuments, which hang from the rafters like the broken bodies of the men and women whose deaths they commemorate, searching for Wilson County. I turned each corner with a rising sense of anxiety until there, among the final stelae:

However, “the memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.”

Wilson County, here is yours. Come get it.

For more about the Memorial and Museum, please click here and here. And until such time as you can make your way to Alabama, please consider a donation to support EJI’s work “to challenge poverty and racial injustice, advocate for equal treatment in the criminal justice system, and create hope for marginalized communities.”

“… and O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck, put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts. Hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”  

 Toni Morrison

Strung from a tree and shot to death.

The story broke 86 years ago today. Twenty-nine year-old Oliver Moore, accused of raping two small white girls, had been dragged from a Tarboro jail by a mob of 250. After hauling him across the line into Wilson County, the crowd strung Moore from a tree with plow lines and shot him to pieces. (He may have been “maltreated” — castrated — beforehand, but that was just a rumor.) Officially, it was the first lynching in North Carolina since 1921, and the first ever in Wilson County. The sheriff was chagrined. “… I shall not hesitate to bring the leaders to justice,” he declared. “If I find them.”

North Carolina’s relatively progressive governor, O. Max Gardner, professing outrage from his vacation spot, called Moore’s lynching a disgrace, but dawdled over a decision to have the state lead an investigation into the murder. The first coroner’s jury threw up its hands.

SRL 8 21 1930

Statesville Record & Landmark, 21 August 1930.

Governor Gardner offered a $400 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the lynchers, and Wilson County’s solicitor uttered strong protestations of his intentions to see this thing through.

However.

“Not a clue,” said the Edgecombe County sheriff. The mob had been quiet and swift and manned with utter strangers who’d been shrewd enough to remove their license plates.

SRL 8 21 1930 2

Statesville Record & Landmark, 21 August 1930.

And four days later, the matter wrapped.

Officials were “unable to place the blame.” There was not a clue. On the other side of the state, Statesville’s newspaper of record expressed disappointment in the outcome and wagged a disapproving finger at Down East folks who apparently strongly supported “mob murder.” (Memory of the notorious 1906 Gillespie-Dillingham triple lynching just down the road in Salisbury had apparently faded into the ignominious past.)

SRL 8 25 1930

Statesville Record & Landmark, 25 August 1930.

——

Though newspaper reports emphasized that the crowd had taken Oliver Moore into Wilson County — presumably to shake the jurisdiction of Edgecombe’s hapless deputy sheriff — his death certificate was filed in Edgecombe and described his place of death as “near Macclesfield.” The coroner duly noted Moore’s sex, race and marital status, then skipped the rest of the personal preliminaries to bluntly record a cause of death: “riddled with bullets and shot from hands of unknown mob (lynched).”

S123_1058-1771

I have not identified Oliver Moore in any census. The Morgan family, however, lived in Township 9 (also known as Otter Creek township), which shares several miles of border with Wilson County approximately 12-15 miles east of Wilson. Oliver’s brother, who refused (did not dare?) to claim his body, may have been the Andrew Moore, 23, listed with his young family in the 1920 census of Otter Creek.

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 4.29.29 PM

We do not know who, in fact, attacked the Morgan sisters. We never will. We do know, however, that justice was not served.

For a minute analysis of the lynching of Oliver Moore, offering details of the alleged rape, the kidnapping of Moore, the response of local citizens and media, and a social and historical outline of Edgecombe County, see the Chapter “North Carolina Slips Back” in Arthur F. Raper’s The Tragedy of Lynching, published in 1933 by the University of North Carolina Press.