In The Jim Crow Era, 'After-The-Fact Lynchings' Spread Racial Terror In Durham And Elsewhere

Sep 24, 2018

Not all racially-motivated killings in the Jim Crow-era were classified as "lynchings." Activists are trying to document the rest.

Part two of a two-part series. Listen to part one here.

One of the ugliest parts of American history is getting new attention.

The lynchings of black Americans, once common across the south, are the subject of a striking new memorial in Alabama, and the Justice Department recently reopened the investigation into one of the most notorious, the 1955 killing of teenager Emmett Till.

But most racially-motivated killings during what's called "the Lynching Era" actually weren't lynchings. In Durham, one of these nearly-forgotten cases in 1946 foreshadowed the coming drama over the "Jim Crow" laws that forced black passengers to ride in the back of buses.

"A big sign when you got on there said, 'Colored seat from rear to front, white from front to rear,'" said N.C. State Rep. Mickey Michaux, who was a teenager in Durham in 1946. "As long as you were riding Fayetteville Street and Pettigrew Street, there wasn't a problem, but when you crossed the tracks, if you had a bus full of black folks, they got up and gave their seats to white folks when they got downtown."

"They accepted it, they accepted it," he said.

WWII soldiers brought resistance to Jim Crow

Durham locals may have accepted it, but when World War II brought thousands of black soldiers to nearby Camp Butner, they often didn't respect the traditions of Jim Crow.

In one incident, some soldiers turned over buses that were used on the Camp Butner-Durham route because they were forced to wait until all the white soldiers were transported.

And so many of them challenged the blacks-in-the-back law on Durham city busses that drivers complained it had become nearly impossible to enforce.

Historian Tim Tyson says black soldiers from the north hadn't dealt with the daily humiliation of Jim Crow laws and were unfamiliar with the code that black southerners were raised under.

"It was the little dance that you have to know, the little minuet at the counter when you're going to deal with the landlord, and you're a sharecropper," Tyson said. "You have to know how to go in there."

"Nobody says, 'There's a pistol in the desk drawer, and I can kill you if I want,' but both know it's true, and we both have to know how that dance goes."

Private Booker T. Spicely, in undated Army photo.

So if you were black, you were expected to use submissive body language, a deferential tone, and pick your words carefully. Those were things Private Booker T. Spicely -- who was from Philadelphia -- did not do after he boarded a Durham bus in 1944.

Spicely sat in front. Then two white soldiers got on. The driver, Herman Lee Council, told Spicely to move to the rear.

"As they're coming onto the bus," Tyson said, "Spicely gestures to the driver and says, 'This man says I must go to the back of the bus. But aren't I wearing the same uniform you're wearing? Aren't I as just good to stop a bullet as you are? Why should I have to go to the back of the bus?'"

Spicely did move to the back, but kept complaining. He mocked Council for being unfit to serve in the military.

"Those were fighting words," Tyson said. "But he must've sensed that he'd crossed the line with the bus driver. So when Spicely got to his stop, he got off and he went out the rear door of the bus."

"He said, 'If I said anything that offends you sir, I apologize.'"

But it was too late for an apology. As Spicely exited via the back door, Council pulled a .38 caliber pistol from under his seat.

"Council went out the front door quickly, down the side of the bus, and shot Spicely in the heart," Tyson said.

The gun was so close that the first shot scorched Spicely's uniform shirt. The bullet punched through the soldier's dog tag and he doubled over. Council fired again, and Spicely fell to the sidewalk. Council climbed back into the bus, then drove off to finish his route.

Military police officers took Spicely to a nearby hospital, which refused to treat him because he was black. He died just after reaching another hospital that would treat him.

Just hours later, a block of white-owned businesses in downtown Durham caught fire and was destroyed. Tyson is convinced that it was a reaction by some in the black community to the killing.

Later, Council surrendered to police and was charged with murder.

"The Durham conservative black leadership went to the white power structure, got assurances that there would be justice," Tyson said. 

That helped tamp down anger and protest in Durham's black community and the city's Hayti neighborhood - a self-sufficient African-American neighborhood that was called “the Black Wall Street” for its relative affluence.

But at his trial, Council testified that he had fired in self defense, and that Spicely had put his hand in his pocket as if he had a weapon. The all-white, all-male jury deliberated just 28 minutes before acquitting him, a verdict that Tyson says doesn't hold up to logic.

"When you get off of the bus to go shoot somebody, obviously that person is not running at you threatening your life," he said.

A forgotten, but pivotal moment for civil rights

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice project at Northeastern University, which investigates and documents such forgotten killings, said Spicely's wasn't unique.

"This is a pretty classic case, and there are about eight or nine other cases look pretty much like it," said project director Margaret Burnham. Among other places, bus drivers also shot black soldiers in Texas, Alabama, and Louisiana.

But the victims, including Spicely, aren't named on the new lynching memorial. That's because they weren't attacked by mobs, so they technically weren't lynched.

Tyson says, though, that the same terrible underpinnings were at work.

"I would call it an after-the-fact lynching," he said. "Because a black man violates some white man's sense of what the racial mores are supposed to be, is insufficiently deferential, or they have an ordinary garden-variety human argument."

"Which is white supremacy. It happened all the time here," he said.

Burnham says there were many, many more of these kinds of killings than lynchings, which is why her group is trying to document as many as possible before witnesses and family members who know the details are all gone.

As Burnham talked about Spicely's case, she cited a pivotal moment for the civil rights movement.

"His protest was small and it was quiet, but certainly if we can call Rosa Parks a heroine -- and we do, there was stamp honoring her life and deeds -- then certainly Booker Spicely was, as well, a hero."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.