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September 22, 2021

Salisbury will make history with installation of marker commemorating 1906 lynchings

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — This week, Salisbury will be the first city in North Carolina to erect a marker acknowledging Jim Crow-era violence and ongoing racial injustice.

Since 2017, members of the local Actions in Faith and Justice organization worked with dozens of others and the Equal Justice Initiative to install a historical marker in proximity to the Rowan County Courthouse, where three Black men named Jack Dillingham, John Gillespie and Nease Gillespie were abducted and dragged from the Rowan County Jail to what is now North Long Street and lynched by a white mob of more than 5,000 people. The three had been accused of the ax murders of four members of the Lyerlys, a white family who lived in the Unity Township at Barber Junction.

The marker will be 3.5 feet wide and about 3 feet high. On a black background with silver lettering, one side of the marker will commemorate local lynchings during the Jim Crow-era, not just the 1906 lynchings. The other side will provide broader historical context about the occurrences of lynchings in the U.S. because Salisbury is only a “microcosm” of what happened across the nation. Called the Community Remembrance Project, EJI has placed such markers in cities in Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma and Minnesota. Salisbury’s marker will be the first in North Carolina.

Efforts to install the marker in Salisbury date back to 2017, when a service of “Truth, Healing and Reconciliation” was held at North Long and Gillespie streets near the site of the 1906 lynchings. Since then, the AFJ has worked with Equal Justice Initiative to continue community engagement that centers the experience of past and present racial injustice experienced by Black Americans.

The marker will be placed outside of Oak Grove-Freedman’s Cemetery, which contains more than 150 mostly unknown African-American men, women and children. In April, the city issued a certificate of appropriateness to install the marker, which shipped from EJI’s headquarters in Alabama.

Through the Community Remembrance Project, EJI has documented 4,084 lynchings in 12 Southern states, including  102 in North Carolina, between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, which is at least 800 more lynchings in these states than previously reported, according to EJI’s “Lynching in America” report. In addition to the three infamous ones in 1906, there were two others in 1902.

Claude Clegg III, a professor teaching African-American and southern history at the University of North Carolina, said the marker will serve as an important piece of symbolism for the community. He likened it to “a step on a longer road” toward racial reconciliation, social justice and economic justice, adding that the acknowledgment of such violence is the first step.

Clegg is the author of “Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning in the New South,” which details the 1906 lynchings. Clegg, who grew up in Salisbury, said he was shocked when researching the violence to realize he and others in the community had never been taught about the 1906 lynchings, especially knowing he passed the site of the incident his entire life. He was particularly struck by the “historical forgetting” of the lynchings and how durable the “forgetting” had been for at least 100 years.

Clegg said historic change tends to move slow and reckoning will be uneven. But it’s heartening, he said, to see a coalition of Salisbury residents step forward to “seize this moment in history” by acknowledging such violence happened here in hopes it would never happen again.

Clegg said there will always be people who fear “stirring things up in the present,” but he encourages all to study history because it contains lessons about how we deal with the present and think about the future.

“The more we know about the past, the more we know about ourselves,” he said. “It’s a disservice to dismiss it as just the past that shouldn’t be learned and talked about.”

Like Clegg, Salisbury resident Ed Norvell told the Post he never knew the story of the lynchings until an article in the Post was published decades ago. He read Clegg’s book, and said he noticed many of the legal experts at that time have names familiar in Salisbury today. He referenced U.S. Sen. Lee Overman, who was in Salisbury at the time and appealed to the mob to go home. He was ignored.

“We need to tell the whole history of our community, not just bits and pieces,” Norvell said. “Salisbury finally sees that it’s time to put this marker in. It’s a part of our history that’s dark and not really happy, but … we have to tell the good stories as well as the bad to tell the full story.”

Norvell also helped Actions in Faith and Justice advance this project.

Rev. Olen Bruner, former pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church, is co-chair of Actions in Faith and Justice and a key local in advancing the remembrance project. He called the marker a step toward “bridging the gap” of racial issues locally and across the nation, which he said can only be done by coming together. 

“We’ve been engaged over the last four years to do things that bring Black and white people together to talk about these issues and understand how they currently affect the brown and Black communities,” Bruner said. “Across the years, we have been developing a community that believes in racial and social justice. Talking to rich and poor, engaging with learning and trying to understand one another.”

Bruner called the lynching incidents in 1906 a “transformation” of slavery. By referencing the marker’s proximity to the Rowan County Jail, he emphasized the narrative of modern-day racism in the form of mass incarceration of Black Americans.

“It’s all about democracy. We will be telling the truth because until American faces up to its ugly past, it can’t move forward,” Bruner said. “There is a resilience that exists in Salisbury that has been fostered by people who want to live a good and decent life. And because of such, we continue to fight.”

Mayor Karen Alexander credited the grassroots effort of those who worked to get the marker to Salisbury for utilizing all the systems in place to advance the project, calling it a great example of what can result from “working together across all boundaries.”

“It’s another great example of how when we work with each other, we can advance good work that’s great for our community,” she said. ”

Alexander said the work builds on the foundation started more than 60 years ago under the tenure of Mayor Wiley Lash, who worked to integrate the local school system.

“It took hundreds of people all across the community,” Alexander said. “This is the culmination of all that work.”

The marker will be installed by city staff this week. A Service of Remembrance to honor the installation will feature North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green as keynote speaker at 7 p.m. Friday at the Soldiers Memorial AME Zion Church. Other “Truth Be Told” observance services will include a community dialogue at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Council Street, and a performing arts celebration at 11:30 a.m. at St. John’s Lutheran Church on West Innes Street.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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