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Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning in the New South

Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning in the New South

by Claude A. Clegg III

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In Troubled Ground, Claude A. Clegg III revisits a violent episode in his hometown's history that made national headlines in the early twentieth century but disappeared from public consciousness over the decades. Moving swiftly between memory and history, between the personal and the political, Clegg offers insights into southern history, mob violence, and the


In Troubled Ground, Claude A. Clegg III revisits a violent episode in his hometown's history that made national headlines in the early twentieth century but disappeared from public consciousness over the decades. Moving swiftly between memory and history, between the personal and the political, Clegg offers insights into southern history, mob violence, and the formation of American race ideology while coming to terms on a personal level with the violence of the past.

Three black men were killed in front of a crowd of thousands in Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1906, following the ax murder of a local white family for whom the men had worked. One of the lynchers was prosecuted for his role in the execution, the first conviction of its kind in North Carolina and one of the earliest in the country. Yet Clegg, an academic historian who grew up in Salisbury, had never heard of the case until 2002 and could not find anyone else familiar with the case.

In this book, Clegg mines newspaper accounts and government records and links the victims of the 1906 case to a double lynching in 1902, suggesting a long and complex history of lynching in the area while revealing the determination of the city to rid its history of a shameful and shocking chapter. The result is a multilayered, deeply personal exploration of lynching and lynching prosecutions in the United States.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Clegg, an Indiana University Professor of History, spies a century-old photograph of a lynching that occurred in his hometown, Salisbury, N.C., and is driven to write a book about it, seemingly solely for the academic reader. In his epilogue, Clegg notes without irony that North Carolina finally co-sponsored a symbolic U.S. Senate resolution apologizing to victims of lynching nearly a century later. Although Clegg explains that lynchings were designed to cower and harm blacks, North Carolina's lynchings still sound excessively harsh. Clegg spares no detail and the faint of heart-or stomach-should beware. Eventually he turns to the lynchings in the photograph, where six black men were charged with the murder of a local white family; three of them were immediately lynched. The book is crammed with historical information (the Appendix, Chapter notes, and Bibliography occupy 37 pages), but unlike masterful historians, Clegg eschews the vivid descriptions that would have brought his book to larger life. Instead there is detail, perhaps too much.
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From the Publisher

"Seed's scholarly, yet accessible, appreciation, supplemented by a comprehensive bibliography, reaffirms the ongoing standing of Bradbury's work, especially in the context of his most famous books such as Fahrenheit 451."—Sydney Morning Herald

"A fine book, deeply researched and elegantly written, that tells us some very important things about the relationship between lynching and the modernizing state in the early twentieth century."—Florida Historical Quarterly
"In this crisp and trenchant account of a North Carolina lynching that was at once tragically commonplace and surprisingly exceptional, Claude A. Clegg III deftly combines local history of the highest caliber with an impressive command of the latest scholarship on lynching and an eye for the broadest implications of his story."—W. Fitzhugh Brundage, author of The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory

"This compelling microhistory of several North Carolina lynchings adeptly locates the significance of these events in the matrix of local race relations. Deeply researched and sensitive to nuance and complexity, Troubled Ground viscerally and appealingly reconstructs historical events pivotal to an understanding of the history of lynching and criminal justice."—Michael J. Pfeifer, author of Rough Justice: Lynching and American Society, 1874-1974

"Beautifully written."—The Journal of American History

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Troubled Ground

A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning in the New South

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2010 Claude Andrew Clegg III
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07782-1


Searching for a Troubled Past

In 2000, a book was published that pictorially represented the history of lynching in the United States. I neither recall when I first heard of this work, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, nor the date that it arrived at my home as a mail order. Nonetheless, as a student of history, I felt compelled to peruse the book and add it to my collection. From beginning to end, the work is a grim journey through the darkness of America's racial past. It is a graphic rendition of nearly a century's worth of hangings, burnings, shootings, and butcherings of African Americans—and a few others—by mobs, abetted by the failure of the country's leaders and citizenry to make meaningful efforts to halt such extralegal executions. Comprised of postcard photos, newspaper snapshots, and other images, I found Without Sanctuary powerful, even overwhelming, in its unrelenting visual statements about the possible depths of human depravity. I also found the volume, wrapped in its solemn black dust jacket, a disturbingly grotesque undertaking, but one that I felt necessary. After all, while there is arguably no tasteful way to present the appalling distasteful, I could appreciate what the author was asking the reader to see and to contemplate.

As I turned the pages and fixed my eyes upon the next picture and subtitle, I tried to imagine what the white faces that gazed back at me represented as they grinned beside smoldering or hanging corpses. I wanted to know and, at the same time, did not want to know what they were thinking. There was too much going on in some of the images to psychologically digest all at once. Some of the photos had obviously been taken in urban settings with stores and paved streets, while others captured lynchings conducted in backwoods and remote rural stretches. There were crowds of all sizes, with many self-consciously aware of the photographer and others entranced by the gruesome spectacle that they had created. People posed dramatically, leaned against trees and posts, tugged on the leashes of hunting dogs, and angled for a better view of the camera. Children are present in several of the images, undoubtedly brought to the lynching site by curious parents, some of whom were likely perpetrators of the murder. Many of the pictures suggest a broad communal participation in the killing or at least its observance, judging from the presence of women, the professionally dressed, and the unmistakably festive atmosphere. The black-and-white coloring of the photos conveys a sense of age, of things long past. However, the racial configuration of the images is undeniable in its pattern and message.

To be sure, the book infrequently portrays the lynching of white men, and at least one black woman suspended from a bridge, her neck, like so many others, bent unnaturally into almost a ninety-degree angle by the hangman's noose. Still, the bulk of the book—as were the vast majority of known lynchings—is about black male victims and white (mostly male) mobs. For me, it was these images that were the most difficult to mentally process, given their explicit portrayals or veiled suggestions of dismemberment, disfigurement, and other tortures. One has to look hard at these pictures simply to have a chance at believing them. And to believe them means to be horrified and brutalized by them, prompting a reflexive desire to quickly turn the page.

I looked at more of the pictures and read their descriptions—Texas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, on and on. There are very few states in the country unsullied by this past, with some more steeped in this history of mob murder than others. As a historian, I had known about this quintessentially American phenomenon and had even taught classes on African American history that treated lynching in some detail. But none of this prepared me for one of the images that I came across as I thumbed through this most arresting volume. The picture itself, rendered in sepia tones as opposed to black and white, is not the most macabre in Without Sanctuary. In relative terms, it might strike the intrepid viewer—that is, those who could endure viewing the full contents of the book—as a typical lynching scene involving black men and their white tormenters at the turn of the twentieth century. Immediately one notices the peculiar arrangement of the hanging bodies, which had been suspended from a tree branch by ropes tied around the neck and right leg of each victim. Also, the tattered clothing of the men, each with chest exposed, is discernable. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that one of the bodies was obviously not that of a man, but of a boy, perhaps in his mid-teens. Moreover, evidence of torture was clearly visible on the torso of one victim, along with telltale blood stains on his clothing. In common with many of the other depictions, I learned later that this lynching had drawn a huge crowd. Yet in the photo, only one white face is clearly visible, although the hands of others appear at the edges as they touch the massive oak. As had become my habit before turning the page, I glanced at the description of the picture, image no. 12, to see where and when this tragedy had occurred. And there it was as plain as the photo that it referenced: "The lynching of five African American males. August 6, 1906, Salisbury, North Carolina."

Although it was several years ago when I first saw this picture, I recall the moment as if it had happened only seconds prior to the writing of this sentence. I gasped audibly upon seeing the place name and for an instant felt strangely outside of time. I had been born and raised in Salisbury, a small town in south-central North Carolina. I had gone to school there as a youth, and most of my mother's family still resides there to this day. While not the most progressive town in the country, Salisbury, in hindsight, did not seem a product of a particularly vexed racial past, no more than the average "New South" town. But there it was graphically on the page: black bodies dangling from a tree as white onlookers readied themselves for the camera. My childhood and pubescent years suddenly seemed touched by this obscene image in abstract ways that I struggled to understand. Later, I would learn that three, not five, people had been murdered during the 1906 lynching, all accused of killing a local white family. As it would turn out, this revised body count was of little consolation once I also discovered that another lynching had occurred on the outskirts of Salisbury in 1902 in which two black boys, both charged with murdering a white woman, were hanged and shot to death by a vengeful crowd. No one had ever mentioned to me that lynchings had occurred in Salisbury; perhaps no one I knew had a memory of them. Anyhow, now I knew and had to know more.

My mother, now sixty-one, had also been born and raised in Salisbury. When I broached the 1906 lynching to her a few years ago, she had no recollection of the story, though she seemed less surprised to learn about it than I had been. My father, who had come to Salisbury in the 1960s, also had no knowledge of the event. In speaking with other local people, it became clear that there was not much in the way of a public consciousness of this tragedy that had occurred a century earlier. At best, scattered third- and fourth-hand remnants of the story might exist amongst a handful of older residents of the city, but no observer accounts. As with all things, the steady march of time had placed living memories of the event well beyond contemporary city and county residents. Perhaps there had, too, been a purposeful process of forgetting, in which both blacks and whites separately decided to cease talking publicly about these horrors that had so disfigured local race relations. Confronting these realities, I resolved to further pursue the stories behind both lynchings as a formal research project, confident that the details were hidden in written records of the period.

As an academic historian, I had been trained to study the lives of dead people, past eras, and long forgotten events. Thus, the evidence for my previous research projects tended to be found in archives, libraries, old newspapers, and state records. Unlike, say, the reportage of a journalist or the legal brief of a defense attorney, my craft was much less dependent upon the spoken word, even if some of the processes for deducing conclusions were common to these other professions. Academic historians are typically trained to be "objective" and open-minded as they approach their subject matter, basing their arguments and conclusions upon rigorous interrogation and cross-examination of a copious and varied array of sources. Many of us imagine ourselves as disinterested interpreters of the past or even as scientists of sorts, constructing theories, testing data, and making judgments—all the while holding our own personal biases at arm's length. To a certain degree, it is an impossible approach to the world of knowledge, since we are all products of our unique experiences and particular values. Even the most accomplished scholar must choose research topics and determine the value of findings through subjective lenses. Nevertheless, I decided to approach the 1902 and 1906 lynchings as I would any other research project, unearthing the history by way of traditional historical methods and assessing it with the historian's "objective" eye.

But, of course, herein lay the problem. I had become interested in the Salisbury lynchings precisely because they evoked something personal and internal. Wading through all of the alarming photographs that Without Sanctuary had to offer was definitely a visceral experience. And there were many faces of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders who resembled otherwise ordinary people whom I had come across in life. However, none of these images riveted me in the same way as the hometown photo, even though other depictions in the book reeked of greater sadism and carnage. In committing to write about these episodes, I would have to eventually come up with a way, a language, to write about them. But all I could start with were seemingly unanswerable questions, of which there were many. For instance, how does one find the "objective" words or intellectual framework to discuss a newly discovered wound that is imminently personal? Can one be truly connected to a past that arcs backward over a century of time, living principally in the shadows of fallible memory and the yellowing pages of archival collections? In this rare instance, I was positioned both as insider—having been born and raised in Salisbury—and outsider—having lived elsewhere since age fourteen. Did I have the right to tell this story for all to witness while being decades removed—and presently residing hundreds of miles distant—from the site of the tragedies? Did I have an obligation to tell the tale as an individual with a unique connection to the affair and the motivation to render it as a published work?

In grappling with these questions, I settled on telling the story in the most thoroughly reasoned and evidence-driven manner possible, relying upon the traditional tools and methods of the historian's trade. As was the case with my previous books, I spent a lot of time in archives handling crumbling documents, in libraries staring at microfilm readers and borrowing countless books, and scribbling research notes and random thoughts whenever the notion struck. However, ultimately, it was not enough for me to simply write a conventional, footnoted history. I had come across too many names, places, and events that stirred my own memories, which had now taken on an enhanced personal value. In concluding the book with an epilogue based upon observations of the present, the book had become surreally autobiographical and contemporary in meaning by the time that the last words were written. As a work of history, I believe that this study of the Salisbury lynchings—from the sensational and dramatic murder mysteries that precipitated them to the historic prosecution of one of the lynchers in 1906—serves as an interpretative optic for understanding the myriad of social dynamics that produced the thousands of mob murders that punctuate the American experience. As more implicitly a work of self-discovery, I am confident that this book will also speak to those countless people across the country who have had to (or will have to) come to terms with a tragic past that was thrust upon them by forces beyond their control, whether this involved the chance hearing of a shocking tale or the random discovery of a jarring photograph from days long passed.

The pages to follow endeavor to establish a new vantage point on both the story of racial violence in America at the turn of the twentieth century and efforts to stop it. In excavating the Salisbury lynchings in particular, this work renders the local, human stakes involved in the everyday vagaries of race relations in the New South, while juxtaposing these realities against the larger context of southern history and the African American experience in the age of Jim Crow. In zooming back and forth between close-up footage and panoramic shots of these intertwined histories and phenomena, this book arrives at a number of conclusions, or better yet, discoveries of interest. First, the extent of official complicity—at all levels of government—in perpetuating a culture of mob violence by either fomenting it for political gain or failing to quell it in the name of public safety was widespread. Presidents, governors, congressmen, sheriffs, coroners, and others were all implicated, especially in cases where lynchings were imminently predictable and thus avoidable. Moreover, much of this collusion was replicated in the southern press amongst reactionary journalists who stirred racial animosities by prosecuting blacks accused of crimes in the editorial pages before any legal proceedings took place. Over time, news reportage of lynchings, supplemented by circulated photographs, racist demagoguery, and salacious rumors, created social scripts that conditioned the public's reception and expectations of lynchings and their aftermath. Thus, for every lynching that involved certain typical elements, a custom of such violence became further institutionalized. Consequently, the stylistic performance of the act itself informed later mob murders, whether privately conducted or ritualistically carried out before vast audiences.

In Salisbury and elsewhere, lynchings served the purpose of hardening racial boundaries between blacks and whites. In many instances, such extralegal executions were principally designed to assert white privilege and black exclusion and otherness, whether regarding access to economic resources, social space, or the rights of citizenship. Even when a lynching was ostensibly a response to an alleged crime, the nature of this kind of murder could reveal larger communal anxieties about control over black labor, African American electoral power, shifting demographic trends, or black male access to white women. On this latter point, a rape complex, indeed hysteria, was both a salient cause and byproduct of the lynching mania that swept the South for decades after the Reconstruction period. Shamelessly invoked by white politicians, editors, and others, fantasies about bestial black lust for vulnerable white bodies was instrumental in fracturing interracial political alliances and justifying for many the worst iterations of mob violence, including castrations, disembowelments, and burnings. Similar to many other lynchings, the Salisbury affairs were spectacles of savagery that drew a cross section of the white community. It was customary to assume that such crimes were the doings of the lower class of a given area, acting out of an almost atavistic instinct stoked by racial hatred. But the 1906 lynching, and many others, demonstrated that a broad spectrum of the white community often participated in and observed such grisly happenings. As much as some editors, governors, mayors, sheriffs, and business owners would go through the motions of lamenting such mob outbursts after the fact, their tacit approval or at least known indifference was usually necessary before the mob could confidently proceed with its work.

Finally, this book is about new beginnings and the unending past. The lynching epidemic that gripped the nation was a post-Civil War phenomenon. The southern states served as the primary terrain upon which most lynchings occurred, even as the region's white elites promised economic development, educational reform, and racial peace, if not racial equality. Many of the demons that inscribed lynching on southern history and culture were unleashed by self-serving Democratic politicians who orchestrated statewide campaigns during the 1890s to deprive black men of the right to vote. Ironically, once this goal was achieved, these same white politicians—now governors, congressmen, and judges—were shocked to learn that the racist passions that they had cultivated during their election campaigns were not so easily placated. Further, their agendas for attracting external investments, bolstering municipal development, restoring the rule of law, and revitalizing the Democratic name brand were threatened by the lingering spirit of the mob. In the case of North Carolina statesmen such as Charles Aycock, Robert Glenn, and others, lynchings would mar their terms in office in ways that were arguably self-inflicted but no less dismaying. Increasing criticism and changing times spurred official action against mob violence, and the 1906 Salisbury lynching would actually result in the first conviction of an accused lyncher in the history of the state. This successful prosecution would not rewrite the social script of lynching to the degree that mob murders disappeared from North Carolina or that the public suddenly expected that perpetrators of such crimes would be brought to the bar of justice. However, the precedent-setting conviction pointed toward a different "New South" vision, one that might take the state and the region toward a fuller and more humane embrace of its diverse people and potential.


Excerpted from Troubled Ground by CLAUDE A. CLEGG III Copyright © 2010 by Claude Andrew Clegg III . Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Claude A. Clegg III is a professor of history at Indiana University and the author of The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia and An Original Man: The Life and Times of Elijah Muhammad.

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