I know where to get books about lynching: library, online, book store. But where – and when – do we read them?
Before I go to sleep at night, I’ve been reading Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning by Claude A. Clegg III which is probably not the choice of Sleep Specialists. It’s about a triple lynching in Rowan County, NC where my mother was born and my father grew up. Between 31,000 and 37,000 people lived in Rowan County in 1906 – the year of the lynching and this account states that about 2000 witnessed the lynching of Nease Gillespie (age 55), his son John Gillespie (age 14, 15, or 16) and Jack Dillingham (in his late 20s or early 30s) for the murder of Isaac Lyerly (age 68), Augusta Barringer Lyerly (age 42), John H. Lyerly (age 8), and Alice Lyerly (age 6.)
The three black men may or may not have had anything to do with the murders. They never confessed to the crime, even in the terrifying moments before they died, according to witnesses. But on the night of August 5, 1906, they were arrested, removed from the Salisbury, NC jail without trial, hanged, tortured, cut, and shot in front of a crowd of about 2000 onlookers. Many witnesses took home souvenirs of flesh.
My grandfather was 11 years Old at the time and it’s possible that he or members of his family witnessed that horror – or that he and family members visited the site of the lynching in the days to follow. People did this.
So when do we – white people – educate ourselves about the realities of white privilege in our nation’s history by reading books about such horrors? By the pool this summer? Out on a patio sipping adult beverages? Before we hit the pillow at night?
Students – I hope – are assigned these books in class. But what about those of us who are long past formal schooling?
There are book groups, of course. There are lectures by the authors. But my greatest hope is that we also read books that make us uncomfortable in Church. (Note: yes we should be reading the Bible too and if the Bible doesn’t make us uncomfortable then we aren’t reading very closely.)
While lots of young and old Presbyterians from Charlotte have been touring Birmingham and Montgomery and Memphis this week, we need to make our own pilgrimages of pain to those places. I know I’m headed to Salisbury soon to a place once called Henderson Park, about a quarter mile south of the intersection of N. Long Street and Bringle Ferry Road.
Where will you be reading books about lynching? And where will you be traveling to learn more about a particularly evil part of our history?
Dr. Claude A. Clegg III is Lyle V. Jones Distinguished Professor in African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Salisbury, NC is his hometown.