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 Kimpton 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.
“We were much too frightened to make any outcry,” she said. “The negro forced us to leave the road and move back along the footpath running along the railroad…. Then he shot my husband twice.”
The assailant, she said, then brought her further along the footpath.
From the Journal: “Chief Thomas asked her if she had been offered any violence. Her answer was: ‘Yes.’
“Sheriff Flynt then asked if he had accomplished his purpose, and her answer again was: ‘Yes!’”
This is how rapes were described in newsprint in 1918: just the barest suggestion, but everybody knew what it meant.
“He walked away in the direction of town, after telling me that if I said anything my character would be ruined,” she elaborated, adding that the man had also stolen $2.25 from her.
Mr. JS Pulliam, proprietor of the store, and a few other townsfolk found Jim Childress crawling towards the road, shot in the head and torso.
Forsyth County Sheriff George Flynt and Winston-Salem Police Chief JA Thomas collaborated on a manhunt. The two lawmen found “three negroes, a woman and two men,” near the Mengle Box Co. on the tracks, and gave chase when they separated and ran. Sheriff Flynt took after one of the men, and reported exchanging gunfire. Flynt took a bullet to the hand, “between the knuckles of the middle and third finger,” according to the Journal, and sustained a wound to the neck. The assailant made off.
“The sheriff says he feels certain that he was the man wanted.”
The day the story broke, Chief Thomas arrested Russell High on Fourth Street. High was black, he had just ridden into town from Durham and he had a gun in his possession. Thomas took him to the Childress home so Cora could identify him from the porch as a thin scattering of neighbors and onlookers drew near.
It is now understood that Thomas asked Cora if she had gotten a good look at High, and she nodded yes before they retreated inside the house, where Cora told Thomas that High did not match the description of her assailant. But all the crowd saw was the nod, and word began to spread.
By the time Thomas brought High back to the town jail — no reason for this was given in the contemporaneous accounts— it was too late.
Thomas and High got back to the jail around noon; shortly afterward men from the Inverness Mill neighborhood began to gather. By 4 p.m. there were a few hundred. By 6 p.m. on that autumn evening, there were a few thousand. They wanted High. Thomas refused to surrender him.
The standoff continued as each side bolstered their ranks. Thomas had called in the Home Guard —a city militia made up of men too old or infirm to fight overseas — and stood them with bayoneted rifles inside town hall. He also had the police and fire departments on hand. He introduced speakers such as Mayor Robert Gorrell, who implored with the throng that they were after the wrong man, arguments buttressed by Mr. WM Hendren, Mr. PH Hanes Sr., Mr. HG Chatham, reverends HA Brown and WL Hutchins, and even Cora Childress herself, who insisted that she had never seen High before that day.
It changed nothing.
The mob surged towards the building and an unknown number actually got inside to confront High locked in his cell. The jailer would not relinquish the keys. Three shots rang out, one of them finding a member of the mob; in the confusion the Home Guard cleared the building as unrest grew outside.
At 6 p.m., it is generally agreed, the standoff broke for good.
That’s when they turned the fire hoses on the crowd, pushing them back from the entrance to the hall. That’s when the gunshots started to ring out in earnest, when pandemonium descended on the corner of Fourth and Main streets as bullets, bricks and bodies flew everywhere. And that’s when it started to rain, throwing a veil of confusion over the scene.
“Two white people are dead,” reads the lede of the page 1 sidebar in the next day’s Journal. The piece describes the looting of the Hege hardware store of guns and ammunition by “mostly very young boys.” The Journal reported, “[B]y a seemingly unanimous impulse, they set out in search of other stores.”
They cleared out Walle-Huske of weaponry, then took guns and knives at Dalton Brothers on Trade Street. Mr. Roberts, of Robert’s hardware, reportedly told the would-be plunderers: “Boys you will get me, but the first one to come in at that door will get shot.” There were no takers.
The Journal further described the mob as boys between 14 and 18 years of age. “[M]any of them were still in short trousers, and not a few of them did not understand how to properly shoot the weapons…. The only argument that appealed to these boys was the warning to stop firing before they had wasted all the ammunition in the city.”
It is understood that these were white boys, as “negro” or “black” was a necessary descriptor in the newspaper style of the day when referring to African Americans.
Thus armed, the lynch mob took up occupancy at the Union Depot on Third and Chestnut streets, firing into the air and at black passers-by.
Meanwhile, the mayor had alerted nearby law enforcement, and word had gotten to Gov. Thomas Bickett, who enlisted as much of the state’s military as he could muster. Troops came in by train from Greensboro, Charlotte, Mt. Airy and Raleigh with men, machine guns and an M1918 Ford tank, which by sunrise was parked across from the town hall. But by then it was over.
The official death toll was five including fireman Robert Young, who was killed while hosing down the crowd in front of town hall, and 13-year-old Rachel Levi, struck by a stray bullet through a window of her father’s Main Street store. At the end of a long list of those injured — home guardsmen, bystanders, rioters, police — the Journal reported, “Three colored men were reported to have been killed and several colored people were injured.”
Black lives obviously did not matter much in 1918.
Papers across the country had picked up the story by then, with varying degrees of agreement. The New York Times placed it on page 8 of the Nov. 18 edition, under the headline “SOUTHERN RACE RIOT COSTS FIVE LIVES.” In the Times account, after disbursement the armed mob made for the black sections of the city. “Late tonight however,” reads the report, “there had been no clash between the whites and the blacks.”
Contrast that with the story from that day’s Greensboro Daily News, which reported that the crowd broke up after Cora Childress’ exhortations. “When news reached the negro quarter of the city,” it went on, “demonstrations began immediately. Hardware stores and pawn shops were broken open, and the negroes procured arms and ammunition, completely ransacking the stock and shooting wildly in the streets. Later the negroes marched up the main streets of the city, firing at random, and leaving disorder in their wake.”
The incident made the papers in 22 states — there were only 48 in 1918 — from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Burlington Free Press in Vermont.
The New York World wrote: “Winston-Salem has been the scene of a race riot as a result of which it counts, along with its damaged reputation, five persons slain by a mob and many injuries …. The crime in Winston-Salem is two and conspicuous, where it might have been one and soon forgotten. The one crime was that of a man. The other was that of a large proportion of the citizens of a community that should be far above such a lamentable resort to mob violence.”
Oddly enough, one paper that declined to write about the incident was the Twin-City Daily Sentinel, Winston-Salem’s other paper, which didn’t touch the story until three days afterwards, in the Nov. 20, 1918 edition, in what seems largely a response to the World editorial, which it quoted extensively. The page 4 commentary poured a cool glass of water on the embers of the conflagration.
“Immediately following such an occurrence,” it reads, “it is very difficult often to see things in their true perspective and there is a consequent danger of underestimating vital elements and over-estimating comparatively trivial elements. That this is true is shown by the hasty expression of some outside papers on the events here last Sunday.”
In its cool-eyed observations, the editorial insists “there was no element of race rioting involved, as some newspapers on the outside have assumed…. Any tendency to confuse it with an expression of racial antipathy would be unfortunate….”
The Sentinel did pick up the story of the aftermath on Nov. 22, 1918, with a page 1 report.
Fourteen men had been arrested for trying to break into the jail, another dozen or so for looting, a single murder charge for Ernest Cromer for the murder of the fireman Robert Young and a slew of extra bodies just lying around the jail cells waiting to be charged.
Gov. Bickett appointed a special session of Surry County Superior Court under Judge HP Lane to handle the indictment on Dec. 30.
A small item on page 2 on Jan. 11 announced the end of arguments in the trial, and that sentencing would likely be carried out later in the day. The Sentinel never mentions the man’s name again.
The Journal, which also had a piece on Jan. 11 about closing arguments, likewise dropped the story.
For the verdict in the Comer case, we must turn to the Western Sentinel, another daily that covered the city.
“ACQUITTAL OF ERNEST COMER IN MURDER CASE” reads the page 1, left-hand headline. “Defendant shakes hands with jurors after verdict of ‘not guilty’ is reached,” a subheading clarifies.
It took about 15 minutes.
The takeaways here are significant, not the least of which is that the city of Winston-Salem held off a lynch mob in a time when, in other parts of North Carolina, these vigilante groups were often successful in violently murdering young black men.
But while city leaders banded together to save Russell High, three other black people were slain in the city that night, and none of the newspapers saw fit to even carry their names or causes of death.
There’s a connection, too, with the Black Lives Matter movement: a systemic devaluation of the African-American population and a deep chasm between outcomes for black and white.
Though he was never seen in Winston-Salem again, Russell High walked away from this one. But more than 100 black people were lynched in North Carolina in the years between 1877 and 1950, according to a report by the Equal Justice Institute. What would have happened to High if Cora Childress had positively identified him as her attacker.
A serious question: Why did Chief Thomas bring High back to jail after the meeting at the Childress house?
Another interesting aspect of the saga is the nature in which it unfolded in the press: an uneven patchwork of reporting by primitive newsrooms as chaos descended on their city, the speed at which the information reached the furthest corners of the country and the degree of accuracy in which it arrived, the framing of the issues according to bias or custom, sensational omissions of uncomfortable subjects at a time when American race relations were in an overtly oppressive state.
This phenomena, also, is not entirely relegated to the past.
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