Monday, December 20, 2010

Tanks and Gatling Guns Defending Salem - 1918

The New York Times - 1918

Southern Race Riot Costs Five Lives: Army Tank Corps Called to Quell a Lynching Mob in Winston-Salem, N.C. Battle with Home Guards, Jail-Storming Crowd Overcomes Them, as Well as Police and Fire Companies

Winston-Salem, N.C., Nov. 17. – The death toll in the riot here tonight which followed efforts of a mob to storm the jail and lynch a negro prisoner had been increased to five—a woman spectator, a city fireman, and three Negroes. The police believe that a detailed search tomorrow will show that at least seven persons were killed.
Racial tensions were high in America following World War I. In 1919 alone, 25 race riots, mostly by whites, rocked the nation’s cities. More than 70 blacks are known to have been lynched following the war. Resentment came to a head when whites returning from the war found blacks holding jobs normally reserved for whites. The growing black population in Winston-Salem heightened tensions in the city. The Ku Klux Klan, which enjoyed resurgence after the war, marched through local neighborhoods.

This building tension came to a head on Saturday November 16, 1918, as white couple Jim and Cora Childress strolled toward Pulliam’s store about one half mile from there home. As she and her husband reached the Southern Railroad trestle, over what is now Inverness Street, they were accosted by a black man who hit Jim over the head with a pistol, robbed Cora of $2.25, dragged her down into a ravine and allegedly raped her.

There are many confusing variations to what occurred next. The sheriff was summoned to the scene and deputies began looking for a man fitting a somewhat vague description offered by Cora who claimed that she could identify him. They observed a man generally fitting the description and a pursuit began. The Sheriff joined in and the man turned and fired, hitting the Sheriff in the hand. The posse lost the assailant and the Sheriff ordered a roundup of suspects. A number of people were initially arrested but released. Police stopped Russell High on Sunday afternoon on the corner of Fourth and Depot streets for carrying a concealed weapon. High, a black man recently moved here from Durham was reported by the Sheriff as having “borne a good reputation, had been industrious, and had spent the greater part of the time in his room…” The police were convinced that he had nothing to do with the attack. Rumor abounded that the police had arrested the man and charged him with rape.

On Sunday afternoon, November 17, a large group of whites gathered on Courthouse Square and rumors of lynching began. By evening, the crowd had grown estimated to be between 2,000 and 3,000. There was a lot of drinking and some of the crowd began to break into hardware stores and steal firearms to force a jailbreak. The Mayor, other civic leaders and even Cora Childers appeared and tried to reason with the no avail. The crowd was chanting “We want that nigger! We want to lynch him.”

Forsyth County Court House
Mayor Ralph W. Gorrell called in the Home Guard, (the Forsyth Riflemen having been activated for service in World War One and were in Europe). The Home Guard was made of mostly old men and young boys; certainly not the disciplined paramilitary unit that made up the Forsyth Rifles. The Home Guard surrounded the jail and called for the fire department with the idea they could disperse the crowd using fire hoses. The hoses were aimed at the crowd and water turned on. Gunfire erupted from the direction of the crowd. Police, Sheriff's deputies and the home guard returned the fire. Several people were hit including Rachel Levi a 13 year old girl, killed by a stray bullet while watching from a second story window; a citizen who was part of the mob; a home guardsman; and Bob Young. Young had been a member of the Winston-Salem Police in 1913. Later, he was a city fireman. At the time of the riot, he was a shoe salesman. When the fire department was called to disperse the crowd, he helped man the hose...and died in the gunfire. Police Sgt. Cofer was wounded in the hand. Officer Robert Bryan was also injured and absent from duty for three weeks. At some point during the foray the mob broke through and rushed into the lobby and down to the cell block. Shots rang out. The bullets, presumably meant for High, hit one of the mob instead. Police and the Home Guard pushed them out of the building.

The crowd broke and ran down 4th Street into the black residential section. Gunfire was heard throughout the night until about 3:00 AM Monday morning. Several black residents were killed for whom death certificates exist. Eyewitnesses say that many other blacks were killed as well, but their bodies were stuffed into culverts or thrown onto railroad boxcars and sent out of town.

The Mayor summoned National Guard troops from Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh who patrolled the streets. A tank was set up on the square. By daylight on Monday, while the night of gunfire and violence had ended, gatling machine guns were set up on Fourth Street aimed toward the black residential area in anticipation of a counterattack that never came.

Russell High was taken by authorities to Raleigh early Monday morning for his protection. He served time for his weapons violation and was never seen in Winston-Salem again.

In the following days, a number of people were charged with inciting a riot and attempting to break into a public jail, which was then a capital offense. Sixteen white men were convicted and given sentences ranging from 6 to 14 months on the county road gang. One black man was convicted of the murder of a Southern Utilities Company worker and executed in Raleigh.

Strange thing about the World War I era South, thousands of whites riot, a few whites are killed, most probably from bullets from guns fired by whites, a number of blacks die, no one knows how many, tanks and gatling guns are deployed to defend against blacks who haven't done anything, and only one black man is convicted and executed for murder of one white man. And we wonder why we have racial tension.

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