I recently found this description of the 1921 lynching of an African American tenant farmer in Jones County, N.C.:
Jones County is quiet today, following the lynching Sunday at noon of Jerome Whitfield, colored, who assaulted a young white woman Saturday afternoon…. News received from citizens of Jones county… was to the effect that between 1000 and 1500 men took part in the proceedings….
The woman positively identified Whitfield as the man who had attacked her. The mob then proceeded to take their captive to a spot about a mile away, where they strung him up by the arms. Scores of shots were fired into the suspended man’s body.
I found this story in the research files at the Swansboro Historical Association in Swansboro, N.C. It was an Aug. 15, 1921 clipping from the Sun Journal, a newspaper published in New Bern, N.C.
Jerome Whitfield lived near Hiram’s Chapel, on the west side of Jones County. The alleged victim was a 19-year-old farmwoman, the wife of the man for whom Whitfield sharecropped.
White men came from four counties to join the mob. One report claimed they fired a thousand bullets into Whitfield’s hanging body.
According to another account, Whitfield, when captured, did not seem to know why the posse was after him.
As the white mob carried him away, he begged his captors to let him see his wife and children one last time. They did not grant his request.
A rape may have happened, or not. Whitfield may have been the assailant, or not. We will never know. There was no trial, no cross-examination of his accuser, no medical report and no witnesses called to inquire as to Whitfield’s whereabouts at the time of the alleged crime.
In fact, we don’t even know what the newspaper account meant by “assault.” In some cases, whites treated a black man flirting (or seeming to flirt) with a white woman as a capital crime.
Think of Henry Marrow in Oxford, N.C., Emmett Till in Mississippi, or a case from Martin County, N.C. that I wrote about some years ago.
We have to see the lynching of Jerome Whitfield in light of a wave of white hysteria and a deep fear of African Americans that swept eastern N.C. in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
That white fear of African Americans is a strange phenomenon, and one that I do not understand fully when I see it in the historical record. And I see it often.
Or when I see it now. And I see it often.
If white political leaders or commentators expressed any outrage over the lynching of Jerome Whitfield, I did not find their words. I thought the Raleigh newspapers might raise a protest, but no.
Closer to Jones County, the New Bern Sun Journal’s editor, for one, meekly proclaimed his opposition to lynching in general, but not to Whitfield’s.
Nothing really ever changes, the Sun Journal’s editor seemed to be saying, at least not when it comes to the lynching of black men. “Newspapers may write against and pastors may preach against lynchings until they are black in the face—and there will still be lynchings,” he wrote.
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A special thanks to the Swansboro Historical Association and its extraordinary researchers, Anthony James, Amelia Dees-Killette and David Killette. They compiled the research files where I found the newspaper story on Jerome Whitfield’s lynching.
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