Activists See Shades Of 1870 Lynching In Alamance Today

Sep 3, 2020

Protesters in downtown Graham on July 11, 2020. Among other demands, they wanted the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse removed.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Protesters are drenched with sweat as they make the mile-and-a-half walk from Burlington to Graham on a hot July day.

These Black Lives Matter protesters are heading to the town square where they’re greeted with insults and Confederate flags from a group of mainly white counter protesters.

Led by Reverend Greg Drumwright, he advises them to ignore the counter protesters. He said it's more important to get their message out to the masses.

"The message of justice," he said "The message of Black Lives Mattering. The message to dismantle white supremacy, is a larger message than anything that our counter protesters could have uplifted today and that's just not here that's all over the country."

Graham's town square is home to a Confederate statue, which has been the site of numerous protests over recent weeks. Graham sits in Alamance County, a county steeped in history and racial tension.

Graham's History

Graham's downtown square doesn’t just honor a Confederate soldier. It's also home to the lynching of the town's first Black commissioner and constable.

After Reconstruction, Wyatt Outlaw was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan for allegedly shooting at them in 1870.

His great-great-grandson, Samuel Merritt said Outlaw should be remembered by Graham beyond the small plaque that exists now.

"The part that really gets me is that no justice was rendered. We're supposed to be a nation of laws and of justice and that was just laughed at," he said. "It would be so helpful to my family. If there was some way to at least acknowledge in some way what happened."

After Outlaw's lynching, Governor William Holden tried to dismantle the KKK in both Alamance and Caswell counties. However, he was removed from office and remains the only governor in North Carolina to be impeached.

In 1914, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the Alamance County Confederate Memorial. It’s been defended by city and county politicians ever since.

Historian Seth Kotch said there will always be a strong connection to the past through the statue.

"The question is how connected is that history to the present and one way in which that history is connected to the president is considered memorialization, which is perhaps why there's so much angst about removing Confederate memorials among today's white supremacist, because those memorials have been there, reminding them of what they think is their superiority for generations and generations," he said.

A truck shows its support for the Black Lives Matter movement in Graham. Protesters say they feel they receive unequal treatment from Sheriff Terry Johnson.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Sheriff Terry Johnson

The downtown square has not only been the site of protests, but some physical altercations as well.

Some residents, especially the Black Lives Matter supporters, say they've felt unequal treatment by Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson during these situations.

Johnson has been in office nearly two decades. He prides himself on being a sheriff with "Christian values" as well as protecting his community from organized drug traffickers and gangs.

"They crossed the border illegally the first time, that is not my concern," he said. "But when they cross the border illegally, come in here and deal drugs and kill people, cartel activity, that is my concern."

He boasts that he'll never surrender to political pressure and that’s shown through his continued partnership with ICE and participation in the 287g program. The ACSO joined the 287g program in 2007. This program allows ICE to pick up undocumented immigrants after they’ve been arrested for a crime and alerted by the sheriff's office.

Johnson said he's more concerned that undocumented immigrants pose a safety risk to citizens.

"The jails are full all over this nation of immigrants, criminal immigrants, not the people just crossing the border, but people that are coming here for a reason, to victimize our children our citizens with drugs, murder, rape, robbery, you name it," he said. "Some of the people including sheriffs in this state and nation is saying, well, that's not my problem. It is their problem. They swore to uphold the law, whether we like the law or not, we took an oath to uphold that law."

Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, right with cap, meets with the Rev. Greg Drumwright after the July 12 protest.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Alamance County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer, Bryon Tucker said Johnson shows no preferred treatment to anyone, especially when it comes to the downtown protests.

"We hate that it's perceived that the sheriff is treating them differently, but he's telling both parties the same thing to be respectful of each other," he said.

Black Lives Matter supporters have said they want to vote Johnson out of office and for the Confederate monument come down. However, bringing the statue down is only the first step according to Kotch.

"I think that the activists who are protesting the monument understand that it's just one part of a much bigger movement," he said. "If we can dismantle some of these more visible and aggressive forms of white supremacy, perhaps that will give us some momentum towards dismantling other more insidious forms of white supremacy."

Protesters raise their fist to show their solidarity with the Black Power movement. Protesters say the Confederate statue in downtown Graham needs to come down.
Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Alamance County

Kotch said white supremacy exists almost everywhere. In Alamance County, he sees starker shades.

"I think it perhaps shows a different style of white supremacy," he said. "It's more of a boastful, aggressive style. It's one that revels in the way in which these memorials do harm to black people and others."

Sylvester Allen Jr. is a lifelong resident of Graham and Alamance County. He said there’s been plenty of times where he was racially profiled.

"I've been stopped in broad daylight just so the officer can check and make sure that the guitar sticking out of the back of my car is mine," he said. "Then he'll just run my license, just to make sure. I've had the police called on me by churches, because I asked for their help, when I had a flat tire."

In decades past, the Ku Klux Klan has had a strong presence in central North Carolina. Even though their presence has been diminished for the most part, Allen said he still remembers a strange feeling anytime he'd go to the town square as a child.

"I would walk around here and I wouldn't see a whole lot of black people in the square, and I go why," he said. "Why is it that I feel this eerie feeling?" 

Allen agrees that taking the statue down would be a meaningful step. That's something Tucker said the sheriff will do as long as he gets approval from county commissioners.

"If there's a lawful order to remove the statue, he's good with it, but until that order comes, it's our task to protect it," he said. "He's either way. If it needs to come down, he's good with it."