17 The Truth

Stanly Has a Lynching: The Murder of Alexander Whitley: A Family Legacy Entangled in a Web of Fiction & Folklore.


 

17

 

The Truth

 

Esse Quam

“To Be Rather Than To Seem”

— The North Carolina State Motto

 

   Exploring the branches of my ancestral tree led to the discovery of many family members whom I came to know and love as the story of their lives unfolded. As I looked at them through the prism of time, I also saw my own reflection and came to a clearer understanding of who I am and what I stand for.

   I came to admire the strength and independence of my great-great-grandmother, Susannah Whitley. Her choices for her life and family must have alienated her in her small, conservative community and led to a difficult life during a harsh period of history. My heart broke as I read the lines written by Heath Thomas dismissing her as “an unwedded and denigrating her relationship with J. C. Burroughs as associated with “an evil and the characterization of my great-grandfather as “sired by a fugitive from a Confederate provost I could not understand why any man would so viciously malign my family. Those words evoke sensational, titillating emotions for most readers. But, as I discovered, they do not represent the truth, and while I cannot change that, I can at least document them as false and misleading.

   I saw the raw strength and strong will of my petite grandmother, Nelia Whitley Barbee, a warrior living with her children in a community surrounded by those who had murdered her father. She was immersed in stories of her father’s evil deeds served up as entertainment when “Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker,” a preacher’s song, played in barns and her neighbors danced and hummed I could only imagine what Nelia faced as she undertook the task of replacing the red oak memorial to the lynchers by claiming the bones and moving them to a grave of her choosing. I was proud of her. That she was resilient is an understatement.

   My mother’s childhood and young adult life were influenced by her mother, who must have daily mulled over her plan to take possession of her father’s remains. It was through some innate determination that Mom resisted the false stories of her grandfather and continued to question things she knew were not right. She kept hope alive that one day, someone would “do something.”

   The task my mother unknowingly assigned me began as a simple research project, but it became my life for several years, consuming my thoughts as I dug deeper and wider, searching for answers that would explain why Alex was lynched, why he was selected for that harsh punishment. I was overcome with grief and anger on many occasions as I read accounts of lynchings and stories of mobs of men burning people alive. I could not imagine how those families healed after such merciless and brutal attacks on their loved ones.

   For over 125 years the savage murder of Alexander Whitley has been used to promote political and religious messages as well as provide entertainment for adults and children in Halloween celebrations. These false and misleading stories glorifying lynch law and the lynching of “Alec Whitley” will continue to be repeated and celebrated. But they will never remove the stain of guilt from the men in the lynch mob and those who stood in silence and watched, nor from those who demanded silence from subsequent generations.

   As I read the news accounts that described Alexander Whitley, I began to see how the facts became less important than the story line. When I realized how Rev. Harrington had perverted “Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker,” offering it as a celebration of this murder, I was both furious and shocked. I was raised as a Southern Baptist. Even as a child and young adult I knew that preachers were not always as pious as they pretended to be, or even as the community held them out to be. But learning that Harrington wrote his song for use at this lynching left me staring at his words, unable to comprehend what I perceived to be a betrayal of faith. I could not understand how a preacher could commit such a hateful act.

   Attacks by newspaper editors, couched as mockery about the lynching and burial of Alex, were aimed at J. C. Burroughs. Through their words I began to understand how some in the community must have despised him for his wealth and his arrogant dismissal of moral values in a conservative community.

   Most disappointing was my discovery that academic researchers relied on Heath Thomas’s story and failed to verify the material they published, which served as the basis for future research. This lapse meant that later generations would not find the truth, but would continue to parrot false information.

   I was furious as I read the Heath Thomas story that contained such vile and degrading descriptions of Susannah, J. C. Burroughs, and Alex. His story had become the legacy of my family, and I refuse to let that stand as the final word. Thomas did what many newspaper writers do, interjecting his personal beliefs into an existing narrative. But he went beyond mere embellishment and fun folklore about lynching. His story hung over my relatives, cowing them to the shadows, shaming them by his pontifications. Because he was never challenged or questioned, his fake news story became accepted as folklore and history.

   There is a clear statement about why Alex was chosen for lynching—“just desert.” His murder, like thousands of others, was part of a larger portrait painted by white men in that era. Unlike many lynchings, his did not simply fade away after a few lines in a newspaper. Alex’s lynching and his life became a tool used by men to advance their agendas and support the virtue of lynchers.

   It is difficult to fathom what those men were thinking as they gathered and talked about lynching this 31-year-old man. Did they think about how his seven-year-old daughter would survive or feel when they murdered her father? Were they motivated by the desire for revenge on J. C. Burroughs, who had perhaps stepped outside of their social norms, and they saw an opportunity to take him down? Did Sheriff Snuggs extract revenge for Burroughs’s criticism of his execution of a summons in the Howell case by defending his keys rather than Burroughs’s son? Were these men jealous of Burroughs because he had accumulated land that might hold a fortune in gold? Did they believe their families would be proud of their commission of this execution under lynch law that was in fact cold-blooded murder?

   The truth is that they, like thousands of men who organized and participated in lynch mobs across this nation, were cowards who hid behind red or white shirts or masks. They were able to commit murders and torture and intimidate citizens both black and white because they were protected by others who stood in silence. It was through this silent acquiescence, not only from community members, but also law enforcement and legislators, that this murder occurred and the practice continued.

   This lynching was replayed over and over through songs and stories, reiterating the rightness of their actions, the need for such an atrocity. Through the years that followed, stories of the murder of Alex Whitley were published to promote and legitimize lynching. The publishers of these stories displayed no empathy for the suffering of Alex Whitley’s family or for other families whose loved ones were lynched.

   J. C. Burroughs, Nelia, Mom, and I, and hundreds of descendants of Alexander Whitley faced a heavy dose of pain with each publication and reiteration of these stories. Our loss of a family member, portrayed as an evil fiend, was exacerbated by the fear of being shamed through association.

   The truth is that we do not know how D. B. Tucker died in 1892 in Arkansas. The truth is that the dying declaration of Alexander Whitley was “I AM INNOCENT!” After untangling the folklore and fiction about this lynching, what I learned is that the need of men to murder earned them their place in history, summed up in the headline that proudly proclaimed “Stanly Has a