4 A Ballad and a Preacher

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


 

4

 

A Ballad and a Preacher

 

Lynching, like the crucifixion, was a public execution in which the victim was humiliated, mocked, mutilated, tortured, and, in many cases, stripped naked. Lynchings, like crucifixions, served as an instrument of control used by the powerful against the less powerful, intended not just to punish the individual victim, but also to warn, terrorize, and ultimately control the larger group to which the particular victim

 

   Raised in the Southern Baptist religion, I grew up sitting in a pew in a local Baptist church on Sunday mornings. Fiery sermons and sorrow-filled hymns promised us salvation if we were saved, and I wanted to be saved, not left behind on that apocalyptic day of the Second Coming. I was well schooled in salvation, resurrection, and the promise of eternal life.

   The first story about the lynching of Alex Whitley was written by a prominent Baptist minister, Rev. E. P. Harrington. One ballad analyst concluded that “Lines Written on the Assassination of D. B. Tucker” was written between the time news of Tucker’s death reached Stanly and the lynching of Alex, and thus was “probably written for distribution at Whitley’s A single copy of the work survived as a broadside, a small rectangular Ballads were often printed on broadsides and distributed at lynchings as At first look it appears to be an ill-constructed ballad, wandering from a sermon on the evils of alcohol to a eulogy for D. B. Tucker. “Lines” was more than an amusing toe-tapping fiddler’s tune; it was a lynching ballad penned and blessed by a respected minister in the community.

   But no one asked why a Baptist preacher like Harrington would write a lynching ballad and distribute it at the lynching. Stunned at the casual acceptance that a respected Baptist minister would compose and disburse such a vile message, I was driven to investigate what had prompted him to write the song. Harrington’s sermon was well delivered to his audience—a lynch mob.

   Harrington was an elder, a Baptist minister, a storyteller, and a composer and singer of ballads, living in Big Lick, a small community in Stanly County, in He chose “Young Edwin in the Lowlands Low,” a well-known ballad in North Carolina in that with a similar theme, as the tune to aid in the telling of his

   Academic analysis of this ballad and its construction concludes that, like other lynching ballads, it does not explicitly condone lynching but describes the emotions of community members who committed a This analysis assumes that Rev. Harrington only reflected the community’s emotions, rather than intending to shape emotions through his sermonizing song. Yet a critical reading reveals that the song condoned and promoted the lynching of Alex Whitley (verses 4, 5, 6, and 7), under the guise of a sermon on Prohibition (verse 1) wrapped in a eulogy to D. B. Tucker (verses 2, 3, and 8). Harrington’s version of Tucker’s death and his judgment of “Aleck’s” guilt was repeated for decades, as folks in Stanly County, where Nelia Whitley still lived, sang his words for entertainment at square dances.

   As I studied “Lines” and analyses of this and other ballads, those harsh admonitions of preachers in my past played in the background. I was well versed in the punch lines of sermons, those last summations that offered every congregant an opportunity to confess her sins and ask for forgiveness. The familiar stories often followed similar themes, told in a threatening tone and set against seemingly inarguable tenets that left only two choices—be saved and obtain everlasting peace, or be lost forever.

   The deeper significance of Harrington’s ballad became apparent when viewed against an historical background that included the role preachers like Harrington played in politics and lynching in 1892. Harrington constructed an infamous character named “Aleck Whitley,” depicting him as a scheming, cunning monster who preys on an innocent young school teacher. Alex is remembered as “Alec Whitley, a man of dark and evil reputation whom many people though there is scant evidence of any involvement between the courts and the real Alex Whitley in matters beyond petty crimes. Other men in Stanly County had committed murder and had perhaps come close to being lynched, but Alex Whitley was the only one selected for lynching. As the villain “Aleck,” Alex was convicted by Harrington, and his guilt in the murder of Tucker became embedded in the minds of Stanly residents as they sang and danced to his tune in barns across the county for decades.

   The relationships between D. B. Tucker, Alex Whitley, and Alex’s half-sister Judy Burris have been dismissed as unimportant in the analysis of the ballad and in stories about Alex Whitley and the lynching. But in order to understand and describe this and other stories about lynchings, I needed to know who these people were and how they were connected. Further, how Harrington obtained the information on which he constructed his ballad is disclosed through an exploration of these relationships and his position in the community as a revered minister. The key to understanding the deaths of Tucker and Whitley turns on how these two men came to be together on a January night in Arkansas and what Judy’s role was in the events.

   The suggestion of kinship between Alex and D. B. was a recurring theme in Harrington’s ballad, in news reports of the lynching, and in the statement by Judy Burris. News reporters also published as fact the erroneous conclusion that Judy Burris and Alex were married. The connections between Alex, D. B., and Judy are revealed through my family tree, and this kinship is a key factor in identifying false statements in this ballad and in subsequent stories that evolved after the lynching. In verse 3 of Lines, “Aleck” says:

 

“Go home with me Cousin Burton [emphasis added], and get your lodging free.”

 

   In verse 7 Harrington reiterates the family relationship between Tucker and Alex when the character of “Judy” says:

 

“Oh, Aleck, you’ll die in public sure,

For murdering Cousin Burton [emphasis added] …”

 

   In her statement after the lynching, Judy repeated a vague association that Alex and D. B. “claimed to be News reports about the lynching also mentioned that Alex and D. B. were related.

   Until I began this research I was unaware of any family relationship between Alex Whitley and D. B. Tucker, and after much genealogical investigation was surprised to find that they were in fact related. Tucker was the husband of Alex’s cousin once removed, Sophia Morton. This general familial relationship offers an explanation of how and why they connected after their migration to Arkansas.

   With the discovery of these relationships, my search shifted to finding an explanation for how the death of one white man in Arkansas led to the murder by a lynch mob of his cousin by marriage, a white man in a county in North Carolina 800 miles away, that until then had no recorded lynchings.

   Because Harrington composed his ballad for the lynching, I thought Tucker must be an important man in the community, a beloved son taken mercilessly before his time, who deserved a eulogy from a prominent minister expressing such horror and anger of citizens that the man merely accused of his death should be lynched. Yet as I discovered details about D. B. Tucker’s life that had been omitted from previous analysis of this lynching, I began to understand how the legend of “Alec Whitley” was shaped and why a community harboring the murderers of Alex Whitley embraced it.