This is the second in a special series on Jim Crow and our coastal waters that I am calling “The Color of Water.” In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting 7 or 8 stories about coastal North Carolina’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “sundown towns” and racially exclusive resort communities. You’ll eventually be able to find the whole series here at “The Color of Water.”
Today I am remembering a Saturday morning at St. Thomas AME Zion Church in Swansboro, N.C. The old church rests on a hill overlooking the historic seaport’s downtown, which today is full of antique stores, seafood restaurants and souvenir shops.
Swansboro is a small town located in the central part of the N.C. coast, approximately 25 miles from where I grew up.
That Saturday in January, 2011, was a special day: the Swansboro Historical Association (SHA) was recognizing the historic importance of the church and its freedmen’s school.
Founded in 1869, St. Thomas is one of the oldest African American churches in Onslow County. The freedmen’s school, established in 1868, had once stood nearby.
A remarkable trio of local women organized the ceremony: SHA activist Amelia Dees-Killette; the church’s minister, the Rev. Doris Tomberlin; and one of the church’s lifelong members, Helen Shepard.
After a lovely ceremony and the unveiling of a historic plaque, a number of us walked around the churchyard and cemetery.
As we chatted in the church’s front yard, we looked down on the site where Swansboro’s old town gate had once stood.
For half a century, my friends in Swansboro told me, that gate marked an unalterable line in local black people’s lives.
Blacks might pass through that gate and come into town during the day without any danger. However, they had to pass back through that gate before sunset, much as did blacks in the white suburbs of South Africa during the Apartheid Era.
On that day at St. Thomas, old timers still remembered the sign that used to be posted at the town gate.
The sign read: “Nigger don’t let the sun set on you in this town.”
A Sundown Town
Today, in the second installment of my special series called “The Color of Water,” I am looking at the story behind that sign that was posted for so many years at Swansboro’s town gate.
It’s the story of a specific historical moment—the summer of 1922—but it is also the story of how Swansboro became what people call a “sundown town” for roughly half a century.
Historians use the term “sundown town” to refer to a community that was all-white and in which whites did not allow African Americans to stay inside the town’s limits after dark.
This is also a story about silences. For long decades, that sign was not spoken of. Swansboro’s long history as a “sundown town” was untold, unmarked and unremembered.
That began to change in 1998. A local historian, a retired dentist (and friend of mine) named Jack Dudley, mentioned the sign by the town gate in an excellent book of historical photographs, Swansboro: A Pictorial Tribute.
More recently, two remarkable local historians, Amelia Dees-Killette and Anthony James, have been determined to document this part of Swansboro’s past more fully.
To uncover the story, they have done extensive research in old newspapers, court records and other historical documents.
At the time they began this research, both taught history at Coastal Carolina Community College (CCCC) in Jacksonville, the county seat.
(Amelia has since retired from CCCC, and Anthony now chairs the college’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.)
Both also reside in Swansboro and have deep roots in Onslow County, where Swansboro is located.
Amelia, by the way, currently co-chairs the SHA’s board, and she’s played a leading role in establishing the group’s wonderful new museum, the Swansboro Regional Heritage Center.
Amelia and Anthony also worked closely with Stephanie Bell-Rose, who has her own deep roots in Swansboro. I met Stephanie for the first time that winter day at St. Thomas in 2011, and it was a great pleasure to talk with her.
Stephanie resides in New York, but she comes from a long line of highly educated and accomplished African American men and women with roots in Swansboro.
In recent years, Stephanie has been exploring her family’s history in Swansboro. Not surprisingly, the events that led to the sign by the town gate touched her family in a very personal way.
Her passion and conviction about the importance of the story added a powerful sense of urgency to Amelia and Anthony’s research efforts: it meant a lot to them to know that somebody cared so deeply about a story that for so long had been engulfed in silence.
In the future, I’m sure that Amelia, Anthony and the SHA will find ways to tell the story more fully than I am doing here. I’m also confident that Amelia’s dauntless husband, David Killette, will be involved. He’s played a critical role in this work, too.
Perhaps Stephanie and her family will return to Swansboro to be part of those efforts, too.
I am grateful to them all for their generosity in sharing their historical research with me. While I also did some research, I relied most heavily on the newspaper accounts, court transcripts and other historical documents that they collected over the years.
I thank them for guiding me down what was inevitably a dark, twisting and difficult path into our coastal past. Such journeys, I’ve learned, are always best taken when you’re not alone.
The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan
The story begins in the summer of 1922, and the first thing we need to remember is that racial tensions had rarely been higher in coastal N.C. than in the early 1920s. White violence had grown widespread, and much of it could be traced to the Ku Klux Klan.
After the First World War, the Klan had undergone an unprecedented revival and had grown to its greatest popularity at any time in American history.
Alarmed by the “First Red Scare” and a rise in black demands for equal rights, millions of white people joined the Klan across the U.S., and KKK nightriders were frequently seen in eastern N.C.
Lynchings, cross burnings and other acts of white racial terrorism reached a peak during those years.
In many ways, the early 1920s reminds me of two earlier periods of white racial violence in North Carolina’s history: the white supremacy campaign of 1898 and the Klan’s original wave of terror in 1868-71.
In the early 1920s, the countryside around Swansboro had not been immune to that kind of white racial violence.
In 1921, for instance, an immense mob of whites lynched a black man in Jones County. They killed the man, a black farmer named Jerome Whitfield, roughly 40 miles from Swansboro.
You can read my blog post on the lynching of Jerome Whitfield here.
The Murder of Cy Jones
Events in Swansboro in 1922 unfolded against that backdrop. What’s known is this:
A rural mail carrier, courier and taxi driver named Cyrus “Cy” Jones was shot on August 5, 1922 while traveling on the Swansboro Loop Road, near what is now the Oyster Bay subdivision. He was white. Before he died, he allegedly told witnesses that four young black men had shot him.
A white posse quickly tracked down one of the alleged assailants, a 15-yr-old boy named Willie Hardison. He was the sexton at St. Thomas.
When Hardison denied knowledge of the event, the posse’s members used what a local newspaper called “third degree methods” to force a confession.
The New Bern Sun Journal reported that the posse’s leaders beat Hardison with an automobile inner tube.
At his trial, Hardison testified that that the posse shot at his feet, and then strapped him to a log and beat him.
He still did not confess. According to newspaper accounts and court testimony, the teenager only confessed when one of the posse’s members picked up a board and moved to bludgeon him with it.
One account claimed that the posse also threatened to lynch Hardison immediately, rather than carry him to the sheriff to be arrested and tried, if he did not confess.
After being beaten and threatened in that way, the terrified young man confessed his own guilt, and he implicated three friends.
“We got to have somebody tonight”
The local police quickly arrested those three young people. According to one of them, George Williams, either the sheriff or someone in one of the posses told him at the time, “`George, if you know anything about it, tell it because we got to have somebody tonight.’”
Two months later, an all-white jury convicted Willie Hardison of first-degree murder and sentenced him to the electric chair.
At the time, a newspaper described Hardison as “an orphan… [who] for the past eight or ten years has shifted for himself. He is bright and above the average intelligence.”
During much of that time, a local farmer had given Hardison a home because he was an orphan. That farmer’s name was Nash Bell and he was Stephanie Bell-Rose’s great-grandfather.
Trials and Prison
In a separate trial, another all-white jury found the other three young persons guilty of first-degree murder. They included George Williams and a pair of brothers, Fred and Frank Dove. They were also sentenced to the electric chair.
According to newspaper accounts, the three had been convicted largely by Hardison’s testimony.
Hardison went to the electric chair in April of 1923. On the morning prior to his electrocution, he wrote a confession in which he declared that he killed Cy Jones with premeditation. He claimed that he had intended to steal his car and leave Swansboro.
In that confession, Hardison did not indicate why he had not taken the car. He also did not mention the only motives that were ascribed to him and the other three boys at the time of Cy Jones’ death.
One of those motives always seemed highly unlikely, but it was one that prosecutors raised repeatedly in court: in short, the prosecutors accused the young men of seeking revenge because Cy Jones had not given them a ride home from a dance hall a month before the shooting.
The other alleged motive concerned money. Local people often hired Cy Jones to carry government checks to a bank in Maysville, in Jones County, that would cash them. Prosecutors insinuated that the four young people might have killed him as part of a robbery.
In his confession, Hardison absolved his friends of any involvement in the killing. As a result, North Carolina’s governor, Cameron Morrison, commuted their death sentences to life imprisonment.
Gov. Morrison commuted their sentences, but he did not grant them a pardon, even though both the original trial judge and prosecutor supported such a move.
Four years later, in 1928, the state’s next governor, Angus McLean, granted the three a full pardon. By then, of course, they had served nearly 6 years, much of it at hard labor.
A Secret Order aiming at the Ku Klux Klan
That is not all the story. On the night after Cy Jones was shot, a white mob may also have lynched a black man named Baynor Blackwell. He was married to Frank and Fred Dove’s sister.
White press accounts and trial records consistently referred to Blackwell as a “negro lodge leader.”
The lodge in question was a local chapter of an African American fraternal order called the Knights of Gideon. At least one of the young men arrested for Cy Jones’ murder, George Williams, was a member of the lodge.
Evidently, Williams and Blackwell had attended a meeting at the lodge on the Friday night before Cy Jones’ murder.
Some rather extraordinary rumors arose about the Knights of Gideon after Cy Jones’ death.
One was that the fraternal order’s lodge in Swansboro and its lodges elsewhere in eastern N.C. were actually part of— to quote the Wilmington Star News— “a new negro secret order that aims at the Ku Klux Klan.“
In some parts of the country, blacks indeed had been organizing to defend themselves against KKK violence.
However, no evidence indicates that the Knights of Gideon lodge in Swansboro was one of those groups. Nevertheless, that rumor spurred white fears and anxiety in many eastern North Carolina communities in the weeks after the murder of Cy Jones.
“The body… will never be found”
By all accounts, the white mob visited the Dove family’s home on Sunday evening, the night after Cy Jones was attacked, and carried Baynor Blackwell away.
Later reports claimed that Blackwell had greeted the mob at the door with a gun and attempted to prevent the white men from searching the house.
For a time, local newspaper reports seemed confident that the white mob had lynched Blackwell.
On August 10, 1922, the Sun-Journal in New Bern reported that its sources in Swansboro “stated that the negro leader had been taken a short distance from his home and that his body had been riddled with bullets.”
Two days earlier, the Sun-Journal had “confirmed” Blackwell’s lynching, and had also said that white leaders in Swansboro had considered him “an agitator among the negroes of that section.”
On August 12, the Sun-Journal’s headline read: “Blackwell’s Body Thrown into the Sound.”
The sub-title to that article read: “Evidence of Killing Has All Been Removed. Reported on Good Authority That Body of Negro Lodge Leader Will Never Be Found.”
The newspaper’s sources indicated that the white mob weighed down his body with a rock and threw it into Bogue Sound.
While several newspaper reports referred to Blackwell’s lynching as a fact, official accounts soon insisted that the white mob had only beaten him and driven him out of town.
Within a week of Cy Jones’ death, the county sheriff’s office had taken that position on Blackwell’s disappearance.
On the other hand, a different story has endured in the local African American community. In that story, Blackwell disappeared into a mysteriously fog-banked stretch of woods next to St. Thomas.
Whether his body rested on the bottom of Bogue Sound or he vanished in the mist, all the available sources agree on one thing: Baynor Blackwell was never seen in Swansboro again.
“The county is seething…”
Another thing is also clear: the events of August 5 and 6, 1922, sent shockwaves of fear and hysteria through white Swansboro.
Three days after Cy Jones’ assault, the Sun-Journal reported:
“News of a general negro uprising in Onslow County was prevalent Monday and today. Last night a number of white men, well armed, were thrown out as guards about Swansboro with instructions to stop everyone entering the village. Reports state that the county is seething with excitement. Travel after dark has been… abandoned….”
Another report indicated white patrols invaded local black homes searching for and confiscating firearms.
Several years ago, when SHA volunteers interviewed some of the town’s oldest citizens, a white woman named Margie Condor recalled that night.
“I remember the night it happened,” Mrs. Condor recollected. “The news came out that [blacks] were coming in town and take Swansboro over,” she said.
The white response was swift. “[White] people were coming from the Coast Guard station with guns and swords, and [white] people around town would get their guns out,” she recounted.
“Uncle Dan gave my father a gun…,” she said. Fear gripped the white townspeople. “Oh yeah, we were scared,” she confessed.
Many of Mrs. Condor’s neighbors abandoned their homes for the night. Some took shelter with other white families in houses that they thought could be more easily defended than their own homes.
One local man loaded his wife and family on his fishing boat and took refuge on one of the islands in the White Oak River.
“And then,” Mrs. Condor recalled, “they said… they weren’t going to allow any more [blacks] to come in town at all.”
A Sundown Town is Born
And so, sometime in or soon after 1922, now-forgotten figures posted a sign near Swansboro’s town gate that read: “Nigger don’t let the sun set on you in this town.”
It was a sign born of fear, an ancient tribalism and souls rent and made fragile by what a society grounded in white supremacy makes us do to one another. Perhaps, too, in guilt and shame.
And that’s the way it was for a half century. Nobody I’ve talked to seems to remember when the sign in Swansboro came down. It was certainly still there in the 1940s.
If the sign wasn’t there in the 1950s (and it may have been), the warning remained alive in people’s memories and was heeded. That seems to have been true in the 1960s and even well into the 1970s, though nobody seems certain when things changed.
The silence about that part of the town’s history endured even longer. Fortunately, that has begun to change, thanks to the efforts of the two local historians that I mentioned earlier, Amelia Dees-Killette and Anthony James, and the efforts of Stephanie Bell-Rose and others.
Through their work, the events of 1922 and their aftermath are gradually being recognized more often in public as part of Swansboro’s history.
The SHA’s new museum, the Swansboro Area Heritage Center, now even includes a timeline of the town’s history that includes the events of 1922 and Swansboro’s status as a “sundown town.” And I know more good things are coming.
Despite those important efforts to recognize this tragic part of Swansboro’s history, I have to confess that I still found the story disquieting.
I had read about “sundown Towns” in history books, but I had never really thought about us having them here on the North Carolina coast.
But after learning about Swansboro, I wondered what else I did not know. Above all, I wondered where else on the coast people of color might also have been prohibited from staying after dark or kept from making a home or stopped from finding their way to the shore.
So I began to re-open old books. I re-visited historical accounts that I dimly remembered from looking at them when I was young. Whenever I was back home or traveling elsewhere on the coast, I talked with some of my oldest friends and acquaintances, too.
In some cases, I asked them questions that maybe I should have asked a long time ago.
In my next posts in this “Color of Water” series, I’ll let you know what I discovered about “sundown towns” and the rest of the North Carolina coast.
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Next up—The Color of Water, Part 3: Sundown Towns