New study on Southern lynchings brings up ghost of Rowan's past

Published: Feb. 10, 2015 at 9:59 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 24, 2015 at 7:45 PM EST
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The Lyerly Farmhouse Photo courtesy The Salisbury Post
The Lyerly Farmhouse Photo courtesy The Salisbury Post
The five originally charged in the case Photo courtesy Susan Vaughan's book "A Game Called...
The five originally charged in the case Photo courtesy Susan Vaughan's book "A Game Called Salisbury"
Local historian and Rowan Museum President Terry Holt speaking to WBTV
Local historian and Rowan Museum President Terry Holt speaking to WBTV

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - A grim period in the history of the US involving lynchings in the Southeast is getting a new look.

New data released today by the Equal Justice Initiative shows pre-meditated murders blanketed the Southeast between 1877 and 1950. To see the full report, click here.

The number in the Carolinas is low compared to other areas like Arkansas and Mississippi, but a high profile case happened in Rowan County in 1906 that stands as one of the most shameful chapters in American history.

The Rowan Museum at the corner of N. Main and Council Streets celebrates highlights and accomplishments of the African-American community in Salisbury, but the same building played a major role in one of its most shameful chapters.

"This is where the case was to be heard, the jury was to be seated here and the judge was to hear the case here," said Terry Holt, a local historian and President of the Rowan Museum.

That 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.

"Her mother and father and two younger siblings had been bludgeoned and axe murdered and the bed set on fire," Holt said. "She reached out to try and pull the covers and the parents off of the burning bed and in that burned herself."

A mother, father and three children were dead, and immediately neighbors knew who to blame.

"The thought was, well we know who did this it had to be the Lyerly's sharecroppers," Holt said.

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.

"So many people have already tracked through the scene that they couldn't determine who was involved or who was guilty, there was very little evidence left at the scene," Holt added.

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.

"In early August they were brought back here for the trial and found that only three of them were actually going to be charged with the murder," Holt added. "They brought them into this room and showed the evidence against them and then said the trial will begin tomorrow."

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'" Holt added. "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 in a tree at the corner of Long and Henderson Streets for days, the men were eventually buried in an unmarked grave.

The incident made national and worldwide news in 1906, but then seems to have faded from memory. Historian Terry Holt says it's a painful reminder of how things once were in the South, and in Rowan County.

"We have moved on," Holt said. "We have watched our community grow, we've elected black leaders to our community and race relations seem to be improving. We want this to be a piece of history, but not something that's spoken a lot about or repeated in any way. It is a time period and we have moved on."

The lynching was investigated but no one was ever charged, the thought being that people from outside Rowan County instigated the violence. That case, combined with others across the South, are said to have graphically shown the need for justice in the South.