1906 lynching of three black men creates new controversy in Salisbury

Published: Aug. 8, 2018 at 3:29 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 9, 2018 at 10:10 AM EDT
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SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - One of the worst moments in the history of Rowan County has stirred a new controversy when debate erupted over a proposed resolution condemning the event.

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. "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.

On Tuesday during the Salisbury City Council meeting, the following proclamation was presented by Mayor Al Heggins:

WHEREAS, Friday the 13th, in July of 1906 brought with it the tragic and brutal deaths of four  white murder victims in Unity and the neighboring townships in Rowan County; and

WHEREAS, the names and ages of these victims were Isaac Lyerly- 68, Augusta Barringer Lyerly- 42, John H. Lyerly-8, and Alice Lyerly- 6; and

WHEREAS, the despair and shock of these deaths, fueled by the overt racial hatred for and racial  violence towards African Americans in the United States and locally, propelled our Salisbury  community towards more violence; and

WHEREAS, the judge, bearing responsibility for this case, called in local military soldiers to  maintain order, because the officials of the local government and community were steeped bias, bigotry, racism, violence and hate –creating an environment which did not favor or provide due process and protection for those accused and detained; and

WHEREAS, the soldiers, being aligned with the same prejudiced beliefs as the local government officials, did nothing to stop the white mob storming the county jail the night of August 6, 1906 and apprehending three accused African American males; and

WHEREAS,  the names and ages of the accused were Jack Dillingham – in his late 20's  or 30's, Nease Gillespie- 55, and his son John Gillespie 14 or 15; and they were marched to a nearby field; and

WHEREAS, the mob hung them by their necks from a tree; tortured and molested them and lastly  riddled their bodies with bullets…bringing more brutal death; and

WHEREAS, this horrible occurrence in our City left a gaping, unresolved harm that taints present  day human interaction and stunts the growth of authentic equity and prohibits bone deep healing.

NOW,  THEREFORE,I, AI Heggins, Mayor of the City of Salisbury, do hereby proclaim August 6, 2018, as a


Across the city. We must all work diligently to eradicate bias, prejudice, bigotry, violence, racism and  hate; and be intentional in our efforts to build fairness, open-mindedness, peace, anti-racism and love.

This the 6th day of August 2018.

The resolution that was being considered by council reads as follows:

             WHEREAS, the act of reconciliation is a bringing together of that which has been divided; and

WHEREAS, when a community suffers a deep hurt, it is wise to address the harm; and a way to do this is to engage in restorative justice; and

WHEREAS, restorative justice is a process whereby all identified stakeholders come together to collectively resolve an offense and its impact on the present and the future; and

WHEREAS, restorative justice creates space to build empathy and understanding between the victim and the offender…for each other; and 

WHEREAS, the ultimate goal of restorative justice is to achieve a sense of healing by diligently and intentionally repairing the harm done to the victim, the offender and the community; and

WHEREAS, Friday the 13th, in July of 1906, brought with it the tragic and brutal deaths of four white murder victims in Unity and the neighboring townships in Rowan County; and

WHEREAS, the names and ages of these victims were Isaac Lyerly - 68, Augusta Barringer Lyerly – 42, John H. Lyerly – 8, and Alice Lyerly – 6; and

WHEREAS, shock and despair propelled our Salisbury community towards violent action because of the overt racial hatred for and racial violence towards African Americans in the United States and locally; and,

WHEREAS, the judge, bearing responsibility for this case, called in local military soldiers to maintain order, because the officials in charge of the local government and the community were steeped in bias, bigotry, racism, violence and hate --- creating an environment which did not favor or provide due process and protection for those accused and detained; and

WHEREAS, the soldiers, being aligned with the same prejudiced beliefs as the local government officials and the community, did nothing to stop the white mob from storming the county jail the night of August 6, 1906 and abducting three accused African American males; and

WHEREAS, the names and ages of the accused were Jack Dillingham – in his late 20's or 30's, Nease Gillespie – 55, and his son John Gillespie – 14 or 15; who were marched to a nearby field; and

WHEREAS, the mob hung them by their necks from a tree; tortured and molested them and lastly riddled their bodies with bullets…bringing more brutal death; and

WHEREAS, this horrible occurrence in our City left a gaping, unresolved harm that taints present day human interaction and stunts the growth of authentic equity and prohibits bone deep healing.

         NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, We, the City Council of Salisbury, do hereby resolve to begin and participate in the reconciliation process, by apologizing for our government's role in this atrocity and formally acknowledging the unjust lynching of the afore named African Americans in our community. We also offer our heartfelt condolences to all the descendants of those senselessly murdered on July 13, 1906 by intruders and those murdered on August 6, 1906 due to the systemic and institutional violence based in racial hatred.

We must all work diligently to eradicate bias, prejudice, bigotry, violence, racism and hate; and be intentional in our efforts to build fairness, open-mindedness, peace, anti-racism and love;

This the 7th day of August 2018.

The proclamation differs from the resolution in that a proclamation is a ceremonial document issued by the mayor to formally recognize certain events, causes, groups or people.

A Resolution is voted on by the council and is administrative in nature; it can express a policy, legal action, or be used to make a public declaration of goodwill.

During the meeting, there were objections to the resolution.

Council members Brian Miller, David Post, and Karen Alexander all said that the council needed more time to study the resolution.

After nearly an hour of sometimes heated discussion, it was agreed that the resolution would be discussed further and possibly changed.  If that doesn't happen, the resolution will go to the Faith and Action Justice Committee, the council agreed unanimously.

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