Winston-Salem’s 1918 race riot and the first draft of history
“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.”
— Jonathan Swift
Hundreds, and eventually thousands, took up arms outside the old Town Hall at the corner of Main and Fourth streets, where the Cardinal Klimpton Hotel now stands in downtown Winston-Salem.
The first ones started showing up around noon, with mayhem on their minds. More followed, sharpening the violent edge of the crowd. And then even more: opportunists sensing the impending chaos, fire and safety officials hoping to contain it, concerned and outraged citizens on either side.
And deep inside a Town Hall jail cell sat Russell High, an innocent man whose only crime was being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was November 1918 in Winston-Salem, the newly conjoined Twin City. That year, President Woodrow Wilson approved the concept of time zones and Daylight Savings, and the US Post Office had just launched its airmail fleet.
Billy Graham was born that year, and the bareknuckle boxer John L. Sullivan died. RJ Reynolds, too, had passed just a few months before; no doubt his absence was keenly felt among the citizenry of the city he built.
Ironically, a week before what would become known as the Winston-Salem Riot of 1918, peace was declared overseas. World War I had finally come to an end after four bloody years. The country prepared to welcome its fighting men back home.
That, too, layered angst upon the collective subconscious of the lynch mob that formed outside the old town hall on Sunday afternoon, calling for High’s head.
While many African-Americans answered the call to serve, the US military was still segregated throughout the Great War and wasn’t all that anxious to arm and train legions of black Americans just a generation or two removed from slavery. As a result, most black men of laboring age remained stateside, and in cities like Winston-Salem they took up much of the factory work that got left behind.
And everyone in the city knew that, sooner or later, the irresistible force of the returning soldiers would meet with the immovable object of the black labor force.
Just a couple weeks earlier, a similar scene had played out in Rolesville, just outside Raleigh.
“NEGRO LYNCHED BY CROWD IN WAKE CO.” read a headline on page 10 of the Nov. 7, 1918 Raleigh News & Observer. It described the death of George Taylor, “a negro who had given county officers trouble before,” after being abducted on the way to jail by “four masked men, who are credited with wearing blue hoods over their heads….”
His crime: “criminal assault” of a Mrs. LS Rogers, who identified him on her front lawn before he was put in the car.
Within six hours he was found “hanging by his feet from the limb of a tree” near the Rogers’ house, his body and the tree behind it “riddled with bullets,” his flesh “mutilated by knives.”
“One of the things which precipitated this lynching, it is said,” the News & Observer explains, “is the fact that Taylor was the fourth negro who had been carried before Mrs. Rogers for identification. Three others had been arrested and later released when she exonerated each of being her assailant.”
We newspaper people pride ourselves on providing the first draft of history, a mandate established by the US Constitution, right up front and center. But harkening back to the days of newspapering in the early years of the 20th Century, we remember that information did not flow quite so freely as it does in our digitized reality.
Phones were uncommon, particularly in North Carolina. Some newsrooms still used pigeons to send and receive photos, items and other bits of data in 1918. The telegraph had been established by then, transferring basic, encrypted information instantly over long distances. Still, much of the scuttlebutt was delivered by word of mouth, and we all know how that goes.
The social science of journalism had yet to be strictly defined, and it was well within the rules for a newspaper to frame an issue, cast an uninformed opinion or even omit coverage of a significant event entirely.
So I suppose in some ways it’s not so different. Lies can fly out at the speed of a tweet, and a discredited press corps fights form behind to correct the record.
Russell High found himself in the town jail after an incident reported that very morning on the front page of the Journal, below the fold:
“WOMAN OUTRAGED AND HUSBAND SERIOUSLY WOUNDED.”
The lede describes the incident as “one of the most cruel, fiendish and revolting crimes ever committed in this section.”
As it goes, Mr. Jim E. Childress, aged 63, and his wife Cora, some 15 years his junior, took a Saturday evening walk to Pulliam’s store on North Liberty Street in the Inverness Mills section of town. As they crossed under the Southern Railway trestle, “a negro stepped out before them, holding a revolver.”
Cora Childress related the story to the Journal reporter.