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Marker acknowledging 1906 lynching of three Black men dedicated in Salisbury

NC Poet Laureate will speak at dedication service, other events also planned
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 9:40 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 7, 2021 at 12:06 AM EDT
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SALISBURY, N.C. (WBTV) - An unpleasant part of Salisbury’s past was acknowledged this weekend with the dedication of a historical marker that details the 1906 lynching of three Black men.

“The bigger picture the understanding of getting a community of people together to even begin to talk about something as ugly or as nasty as this, and yet, in that same process coming to know one another, creating a community, creating unity between black and white alike,” said Reverend Olen Bruner.

The dedication is the first Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Historical Marker of Remembrance in North Carolina. It is placed at the Oak Grove-Freedman’s Cemetery near the corner of W. Liberty and N. Church Streets.

The original case involved three black men charged with the brutal murder of five members of a prominent Rowan County farm family near Barber Junction.

It began on July 13, 1906 when 15 year old Addie Lyerly was awakened by the smell of smoke in the family farmhouse. Sleeping in an upstairs room, Addie rushed down the stairs and made a shocking discovery.

A mother, father and three children were dead, and immediately neighbors blamed the three sharecroppers. The Lyerlys had been arguing earlier with those sharecroppers, according to neighbors. And with little to work with as far as a crime scene was concerned, investigators followed the leads suggested by neighbors.

Five men were arrested and taken into custody, then sent to Charlotte for their own protection.

When it came time for the trial, three of the five were facing murder charges. The three, Nease Gillespie, John Gillespie, and Jack Dillingham, were placed in the jail for the night. At that time the jail stood where the Rowan County Courthouse stands today.

“The local newspaper reported ‘there was violence in the air’” local historian Terry Holt said in a 2018 interview. “That night about 2000 people gathered around the jail and decided that justice would not wait. They went into the jail, pushed beyond the guards, opened the doors, and got the three suspects, bound them with heavy rope and took them down the street to the hanging tree where they were all three hanged and you could hear them saying no, we didn’t do it all along the trail.”

After the men were hanged, folks in the crowd shot the dead bodies over and over again. Left hanging in a tree at the corner of Long and Henderson Streets for days, the men were eventually buried in an unmarked grave.

The incident was largely forgotten until the last few years, specifically in 2015 when a new study on lynchings in the South included the Salisbury incident.

The service will take place on Friday at 7:00 p.m. at 306 N. Church Street.

On Saturday there will be two special services. At 10:00 a.m. the Equal justice Initiative Speaks program and Community Dialogue will be presented at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

“This is not about truly the past. What’s it really about is a place where we mark time so that we look at the past and we begin to look together to a brand new future,” Reverend Bruner said “We’re looking to build a better Salisbury, not a bitter Salisbury. A better Salisbury not just for me but for all of us.”

In a statement, the Equal Justice Initiative said it believes “we need a new era of truth and justice that starts with confronting our history of racial injustice. The dehumanizing myth of racial difference endures today because we don’t talk about it. Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Projects empower communities to intentionally reflect on our history through historical markers, dialogue and collaborative community action.”

At 11:30 a.m., a service will take place at St. John’s Lutheran Church that will feature North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green. This service will celebrate the Black community through music, poetry, and dance.

The marker and event locations are within 1-2 blocks walking distance of one another. The events are provided by gifts of time, talent and resources through local citizens, grassroots groups, businesses, participating churches and the City of Salisbury. The marker itself is a donation from the Equal Justice Initiative.

All events are free and all are welcome

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