“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.