The Caswell County Courthouse, a squat, utilitarian building near the main highway in Yanceyville — about 40 miles northeast of Greensboro — houses the case files for Imperial Wizard Chris Barker and Grand Dragon William Hagen’s pending charges related to the attempted murder of their fellow Klansmen Richard Dillon. Barker, who was released from jail on Feb. 14 after posting a $75,000 bond, is due back in court on June 26. Hagen’s next court date is on the same day, but he’s already in jail awaiting sentencing in Orange County, Calif. for a conviction related to the 2015 beating of a homeless man outside of a bar, according to a report in the Orange County Register.
Meanwhile, in Caswell County, the justice system has experienced serious challenges. The combined Person/Caswell and Rockingham County district attorney offices have been under investigation since last July for possible theft of state funds related to a scheme in which the two district attorneys hired each others’ wives, according to reporting by the News & Record. Rockingham County District Attorney Craig Blitzer resigned on March 10, but Wallace Bradsher, his counterpart in Person and Caswell counties, has resisted pressure to follow suit.
A couple blocks up the hill from the current court stands the old Caswell Courthouse, an ornate building that now houses county government. A historical marker outside the old courthouse references a colorful history that is likely familiar to Chris Barker: “Erected about 1861. Murder of JW Stephens here in 1870 led to martial law and Kirk-Holden ‘War.’”
Caswell, along with Alamance, its neighbor to the south, held a reputation as being Ku Klux Klan strongholds in the years after the Civil War as the secretive paramilitary group attempted to terrorize free blacks into submission while also intimidating the white radical Republicans who upheld the cause of interracial cooperation. In 1870, Gov. William Woods Holden declared the two counties to be in a state of insurrection when local leaders refused to control violence against blacks and white sympathizers, according to a June 2006 article in This Month in North Carolina. Holden declared martial law in Alamance on March 7, 1870, a couple weeks after white vigilantes lynched Wyatt Outlaw, a black member of the Graham Town Commission.
State Sen. John W. Stephens, a member of the Republican Party and Union League, was lured into a secure room in the Caswell Courthouse while a meeting of the white supremacist Democratic Party was taking place upstairs on May 21. There he found eight white Ku Klux Klan members and a black man. According to an 1873 account in the New York Times, after Stephens refused to renounce his Republican principles while asserting that his black constituents depended on him, he “was thrown down on a table, two of the Kuklux holding his arms. The rope was ordered to be drawn tighter, and the negro was ordered to get a bucket to catch the blood. This done, one of the crowd severed the jugular vein, the negro caught the blood in the bucket, and Stephens was dead. His body was laid on a pile of wood in the room, and the murderers went upstairs, took part in the meeting, and stamped and applauded Democratic speeches.”
As a result, Gov. Holden declared martial law in Caswell on July 8. According to Tomberlin’s account, General George W. Kirk led a state militia into Alamance and Caswell counties, and arrested more than 100 people, who were jailed in Caswell County to await trial before a special military court. Yet the balance of power was to be reversed in short order: Under President Ulysses Grant, the federal government declined to support Gov. Holden’s actions, and the prisoners were released in late August. The white supremacist backlash against Holden would lead to his impeachment in December and removal from office early in 1871.
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