1 The Bones

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


 

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The Bones

 

   I was not yet born when my Grandma dug up her daddy’s bones from beneath the red oak tree in Town Creek, where he had been murdered by a mob 39 years earlier, and had them re-interred in a Primitive Baptist Church cemetery. My fascination with the story about my great-grandfather began when I was a child musing over the snappy phrases on headstones during my family’s ritual of visiting dead relatives on Sunday afternoons. We rode across the county, in whatever second-hand car Dad had running, from our farm in Richfield to Oakboro, where he and Mom had been born and raised. Mom always insisted we stop at the church and visit Grandma’s grave.

   Mom and Dad strolled around the cemetery, stopping at headstones and reciting the genealogical connections of our families, often interjecting their judgment on the character of the deceased. These walking tours among the dead Whitleys and Barbees provided a rich oral history of our family and their communities, and hinted at the deeper social issues that bound them together.

   Our graveyard outings always wrapped up at the graves of Nelia, Titus, and Alex, with Mom telling the story of how Grandma Barbee dug up her daddy’s bones and put them in the ground: “Right there beside of her,” Mom would say, pointing to the adjacent headstones. Nelia died on March 15, 1957, at the age of 73 and was laid to rest between the two men she loved: her husband of 46 years, and her father, Alexander Whitley. BARBEE appears on a large granite headstone in the front row of the cemetery, tucked on a hillside and surrounded by towering oak trees. The names Nelia Ann Whitley Barbee and Titus F. Barbee are on the other side of the headstone with the words “Gone but Not Forgotten.”

   A smaller marker bearing the name of Alexander Whitley stands to the left, with the simple caption Nelia chose to describe her daddy’s death: “Not our will but thine be done.” There is no explanation of why Grandma Barbee had the date of June 10, 1894, inscribed on Alex’s headstone, instead of the date of his murder: June 9, 1892.

 
 

   As I listened to the tale told in hushed voices, as if the souls of the dead still lingered to listen, my small fingers often traced “Alexander Whitley” in the cold granite. I wondered what it was like for Grandma after the mob killed her daddy, and how she got those bones moved.

   My grandmother was only seven years old when her father was murdered. The aftermath of Alex Whitley’s murder was similar to that of other lynchings of the time; his family members continued to live in the community among those who marched with the mob to commit or condone the murder. Apparently, Grandma either could not or was not allowed to attend school. Whether she was sheltered to protect her from hearing stories of her father’s murder or from enduring insults by people in the community is unknown. Details of who cared for her and where she grew up have been successfully erased.

   I found no public records of her life until she married Titus Barbee on December 5, Their marriage is documented by their signatures in the Marriage Record of Stanly County, and beside the name “Neely Ann Whitley” is an X indicating that Grandma was unable to write her name. Subsequent census records verify her illiteracy.

   Nelia and Titus settled in Oakboro, Stanly County, and raised 11 children on a small farm. Local lore suggests that Titus resembled Alex: both strong, tall, handsome men.

 
 

Nelia Ann Whitley Barbee and Titus F. Barbee

 

   It was called a lynching at the time, but the “bone moving event” captured by the Greensboro Daily News of September 2, 1931, softens the act of murder, characterizing it merely as “a man hanged.”

 

Bones of Man Hung in 1891 Are

Alex Whitley was Accused By Stanly Mob of Murdering Bert

 

(Special to Daily News)

Albemarle, September 1.—The remains of a man hanged near here on a June night in 1891 or 1892 were removed from a grave near the spot yesterday and re-interred at Smith Grove cemetery near Oakboro.

 

The man, Alex Whitley, white, was hung by a mob of citizens from western Stanly for the alleged slaying of a former citizen of Stanly County, Bert Tucker, both of whom were living in the west. Whitley came to Stanly for refuge and was located and imprisoned. The late Buck Snuggs was sheriff then, but despite his efforts, Whitley was seized and hanged without being given a trial.

 

The grave revealed only a few decayed parts of the coffin and some five or six small bones of parts of the limbs.

 

Mrs. Titus Barbee, a daughter of Mr. Whitley, had the work

 

   This news article reported the truth, just not the whole truth. Alex Whitley was accused of but not tried in a court of law for the death of Daniel Burton Tucker. In fact, my great-grandfather was murdered by a lynch mob of 75–100 men from Stanly, Cabarrus, and Rowan Counties in the darkness of a summer night in 1892. Like so many others, this report vilified the victim of a lynching rather than exposing and condemning the vile conduct of a lynch mob.

   As the sun rose, the morbid scene orchestrated during the night was left on display as part of the continuing ritual of his murder: an announcement of the first lynching in Stanly County. Word quickly spread across the countryside: “Stanly had a lynching!” As reported in the Vidette, people from adjoining counties came to the tree, paraded past the dangling corpse, and gawked at

 

   where his lifeless body was left to be seen by hundreds of citizens who were drawn there after daylight to view in wonder and horror so unusual a scene for this section of our

 

   As the sun set, men arrived at the site, dug a hole beneath the lifeless body, and cut the rope, dropping it into a crude coffin. With their shovels, they covered up his dead body with dirt, but it would be words from respectable men in positions of authority that distorted and buried the truth.

   The grave under that red oak tree marked the murder of Alex Whitley. As one newspaper accurately reported, “This is the first murder, by lynching, ever committed in Stanly. It is a genuine Folks gobbled up tales of this mob murder like peach cobbler at a family reunion. Unlike other lynchings, the death engendered tales of crimes committed by Alex that escalated and went unchallenged. The tree to which he was hanged became a symbol of the power and the continuing presence of the murderous lynch mob. News reports of his grave impressed on readers the power of the lynch mob and how their verdict would not be challenged, even by a prominent

   Two weeks after his murder, a local paper, the Concord (NC) Standard, publicly mocked and chastised Alex’s family, chiding them for leaving his remains “beneath the tree to which he was hanged.”

 

Buried Where His Neck Was

 

The Standard learns of something that is pretty tolerably tough. It is reported to us that the body of Alex Whitley, the man that was recently lynched in Albemarle, went begging for a place. His relatives took no thought of him, and no friend could be found. His body was buried beneath the tree to which he was hanged.

 

’Tis sad. A lone grave is there by the roadside—no one to guard it, respect it or build it a tomb. Such is

 

   The Standard became the guardian of the grave, reporting on its condition and assuring folks that Alex Whitley was still in the ground under the tree where the lynch mob dropped him. Speculation that his body had been removed from the sunken grave led the paper to publish this declaration on July 7, 1892:

 

Stanly News Says This

 

The grave of Alex Whitley, the lynched man, needs attention at once. It has sunk in a foot from the top and should be refilled. The suppositions that the body were removed is unfounded and untrue. Let the authorities look after this

 

   This disturbance of the grave site spurred gossip that Alex was no longer buried in the hole beneath the tree and sparked imaginations in an already excited community. The possibility of his mysterious disappearance spawned the idea that he was now a ghost. A preposterous story published by the Standard on July 21, 1892, mockingly depicts a man walking by the grave carrying a shotgun for protection.

 

Afraid of Whitley’s

 

A good joke is told on Joe Moose, who moved from Concord to Stanly to live some time ago. He lives in the country the short distance and works over in town. He goes to his work very early in the morning and returns home after dark at night. He carries his double-barrel shotgun every time. He claims that he carries it to kill rabbits with, but as he has to pass right by the grave where the lynched Whitley was buried, it is supposed that this has something to do with his carrying his gun. Joe takes it good humoredly, but he sticks to his gun just

 

   These words fed the voracious appetites of the readers, reinforcing the image of a mysterious evil man who deserved his lynching.

   This story is not about whether Alex Whitley was guilty of any crime; it is about his murder by lynching, the indisputable crime committed by a mob on a summer night in 1892. As a child, I grew to admire Alex Whitley and viewed him as a courageous, brave man who refused to be bullied. The image burned in my mind was of a young man searching for an advocate among the familiar faces as he sat on the back of a mule, hands bound, a noose around his neck, surrounded by a mob of angry men. His defiant assertion, “I AM INNOCENT!” haunted me, until decades later I began to dig up stories of his murder in pursuit of the truth about this man whose blood runs through my veins. His dying declaration resonated and rang true throughout my excavation of history and folklore.

   My childhood was marked by summer afternoons when Mom and I were alone, sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of our farmhouse, perched on a hill at the intersection of Highway 8 and Highway 49, in Richfield, North Carolina. Mom was a master gardener, and green beans were her favorite vegetable. During these times, as we strung and snapped the beans to be canned, Mom shared some of her feelings about the murder of her grandfather, Alex Whitley.

   I witnessed my mother’s pain as she spoke about reading the stories published in local newspapers about Alex. She would tear up and shake her head, declaring, “It’s not right. I don’t see how anybody could do that! Somebody ought to do something!” My mother was angry and hurt, though I would not entirely appreciate her pain and her anger until I began this research. I, like my mother and her mother, experienced the lynching of Alex Whitley through the images conjured by the descriptions of his murder and burial in the stories men told and published. Mom did not know how to stop the publication of the stories, nor how to respond to the false and demeaning depictions of members of her family that were a public shaming. She was just mad about it and wanted it to stop.

   The seeds of her anger and skepticism planted in me on that porch in those summer afternoons, that something was “just not right,” guided me on this journey. Nothing in the stories explained how or why Alex Whitley was selected for the only lynching in Stanly County. I came to appreciate the pain, shame, and hopelessness she suffered when she read those stories about our family that only depicted evil deserving of execution.

   Grandma moved the bones to a church cemetery, but that did not absolve Alex of the perceived crimes he committed. It was my discovery of many other stories of men, women, and children similarly murdered by mobs that placed his story in the context of our country’s lynching history.

   These stories and images, with Alex and thousands of other victims declaring, “I AM INNOCENT!” set the course for my search for the truth about how my great-grandfather, a young white man from a prominent family, was lynched. This book explores how the killing of Alex Whitley became accepted as right and just, and how his murder was exploited to reshape the story as a biblical blessing in a ballad, a fictional story celebrated as news, and eventually a “Ghost as part of children’s Halloween festivities.