Nearly a century after a young black man died at the hands of a white mob near Roxboro, he’s getting a memorial service some say is long overdue.
It’s one of two events in the Triangle on Saturday to commemorate those killed by lynching.
The other, in Orange County, is part of the Community Remembrance Project started last year by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which asks communities to collect soil from lynching sites, erect markers and help create a national memorial acknowledging “the horrors of racial injustice.”
Ed Roach was 24 years old when he died July 7, 1920. His death is the only recorded lynching in Person County, according to the A Red Record project at UNC-Chapel Hill, which studied 172 lynchings in North Carolina from the 1860s to the 1940s.
His death was widely reported and came as activists were pressuring newspapers to roundly condemn lynchings, said project director Elijah Gaddis.
In Roxboro, Roach’s death caught the attention of Angie Brown, a retired teacher and docent at the Person County Museum of History.
“I had always heard all my life there had been a lynching here,” she said. “When I came to the museum 15 years ago, there was absolutely nothing in it about African-Americans. Perhaps there was a display for Black History Month and that was it. And so I became very involved with trying to make sure our history was on exhibit.”
Roach was from Reidsville in Rockingham County and was working on a road construction project when he came to town to see a doctor and was arrested, she said.
A white teenage girl had told police she had been approached that afternoon by a black man who she said had tried to attack her. When Roach arrived in Roxboro by train, newspapers reported that he was arrested and taken to jail where the girl identified him.
That evening, about 200 men came to the jail and demanded the sheriff hand Roach over. Reports said the sheriff resisted but left with his deputy after the crowd grew unruly and fired shots into the air.
When the mob couldn’t find the keys to Roach’s cell, they used a blowtorch to cut open the metal cage.
They took Roach to a black church on the outskirts of town where they lynched him with a chain. They also shot him numerous times before leaving his lifeless body hanging.
Roach is said to have pleaded for his life, saying he had not attacked the girl.
The next day after a mortician retrieved Roach’s body, the men of Shady Hill Baptist Church cut the tree down, dug up the roots and burned it all. They wanted to remove all memory of that horrific event, Brown said.
Later, Nello Teer, his employer, wrote to The Herald-Sun decrying the “ghastly mistake.”
Roach, a crew leader or foreman with the Durham-based road construction company, was at work when the alleged attack occurred, Teer wrote.
No one was ever punished for participating in the mob that killed Roach, Brown said.
Bringing attention to Roach’s death now is a way to begin the healing process, she said. A memorial service will take place at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, at Shady Hill Baptist Church.
“We cannot undo the injustices of the past,” said Michael Rudder, chairman of the museum board of directors. “However, recognizing them and honoring the victims of such heinous actions together make a leap in reconciliation. Participation in this special memorial service is a small way we as citizens can support Jefferson’s premise from the Declaration of Independence and reiterated by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address that ‘all men are created equal.’”
Orange County history
Remembrance and reconciliation are also goals of a free symposium from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Passmore Center, 103 Meadowlands Drive in Hillsborough.
“Lynching, Racial Terror and Monuments of Hate,” will feature North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, N.C. Central University history professor Freddie L. Parker, UNC-CH history professors Claude Clegg and Fitzhugh Brundage.
The need to talk about the history of racial violence “is intensifying every day,” said Renee Price, an Orange County commissioner and founder of the nonprofit Free Spirit Freedom, part of the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition.
Price and James Williams, a former Orange County chief public defender, started talking about the project last year. Healing won’t begin until the truth of what happened is acknowledged, Williams said.
“The fact that we are so uncomfortable is a result of the fact that we haven’t confronted this before,” he said. “We’ve always swept it under the rug, or looked away, or pretended or rewritten the actual history of what happened.”
Talking won’t change the past, Williams said, but it can create understanding and an opportunity to make better decisions.
That is also the goal of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, which capped nearly 30 years of work last year with the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
Over 800 steel monuments, each bearing a victim’s name, hang from the memorial. In a nearby field, identical monuments wait to be installed where the lynchings occurred. The initiative has cataloged more than 4,400 “racial terror” lynchings in 12 Southern states between 1877 and 1950; historians and others say that estimate is far too low.
Orange County has one name on the memorial: Manley McCauley.
Williams attended the memorial’s opening last year and wanted to find a way to bring Manley’s duplicate marker home.
“I wanted to know was how we could become involved and partner with DJI to help improve people’s understanding about that period of our nation’s history and help better understand where we are today and why we are in the circumstances we are today related to race or criminal justice and a number of other things,” Williams said.
McCauley was hanged in Calvander, outside Carrboro, after he eloped in 1898 with his lover, a white married woman, according to A Red Records. The woman’s husband, a wealthy Orange County farmer named Milton Brewer, was part of the 18-man posse that went after them, finding them in Jonesboro.
Mrs. Brewer was returned to her father’s home, and she and her husband were scolded for their “belief in racial equality” that “naturally” led to the affair, the website reports.
Hanging was a common way to lynch someone, but victims also were burned, shot, tortured, raped and mutilated, their body parts sold as souvenirs. Some lynchings were publicized, attracting thousands of men, women and children to cheer the spectacle. Black churches, businesses and homes also were targeted.
Those who joined in the lynchings were rarely punished, even when the allegations against their victims proved false.
“When you read and understand the barbarity of what people did to other human beings, it hurts,” Williams said. “I’m not suggesting that even for our county these are going to be easy discussions, but I think we live in an environment where the community for the most part is ready to have these conversations.”
The United Church of Chapel Hill already has started looking into the history. Senior pastor Cameron Barr said last year at least 25 more lynchings have been documented between 1865 and 1920 in Orange, Alamance, Durham, Chatham, Wake, Person and Caswell counties.
The list includes a pair of Orange County brothers killed in 1869 and other acts of terror involving the newly formed Ku Klux Klan that prompted then-N.C. Gov. William Woods Holden to accuse Orange and surrounding counties of being in a state of insurrection.
Daniel and Jefferson Morrow narrowly escaped death in July 1869 after the Klan took them from the Hillsborough jail to a hill outside town and threatened them at gunpoint. The brothers were accused of setting three barn fires and threatening to rape a white woman.
One of the brothers was shot in the leg, but the mob let them go. Local newspapers later reported that another group identifying itself as the Klan lynched them about a month later.
That same year, a man named Cyrus Guy was hanged from a tree at the intersection of Faucette Mill and Lebanon roads near Efland for alleged remarks to a white woman. Ben Johnson, a former slave who saw the hanging, told the story in 1937 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project:
“They tries him there in the woods, an’ they scratches Cy’s arm to get some blood, an’ with that blood they writes that he shall hang ‘tween the heavens and the earth till he is dead, dead, dead, and that any nigger what takes down the body shall be hanged too,” Johnson said.
“Well sir, the next morning there he hung, right over the road an’ the sentence hanging over his head. Nobody would bother with that body for four days an’ there it hung, swinging in the wind, but the fourth day the sheriff comes an’ takes it down.”
A memorial service for Ed Roach will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, at Shady Hill Baptist Church, 1500 Old Durham Road in Roxboro.
A free symposium, “Lynching, Racial Terror and Monuments of Hate,” will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Passmore Center, 103 Meadowlands Drive in Hillsborough. Register at https://tinyurl.com/occrcsymposium.