On the day after the Klan blew up their church, the members of the Cool Springs Free Will Baptist Church in Ernul, N.C., gathered in the churchyard for worship. The date was April 10, 1966. It was Easter morning.
The tiny hamlet was located among the tobacco fields and swamplands of eastern North Carolina. Chris Johnson, who was 13 years old at the time, remembers the day well. A retired army sergeant who now resides in San Antonio, Texas, Mr. Johnson grew up in Ernul and his family has deep roots at Cool Springs. Generations of his family have worshiped there.
Mr. Johnson got in touch with me last summer after he read an article that I wrote years ago on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in eastern North Carolina. In that article, I had mentioned the church bombing.
I was glad to hear from him. I knew that the Ku Klux Klan had bombed the church, but little else. I knew none of the details. No other historian or journalist had ever told the story either, and I had never met anyone from Ernul that could tell me more about that night in 1966.
In today’s post, I’d like share some of what I have learned from Mr. Johnson. I will rely mostly on his memory to tell the story, but I have done some background research that I will share here, too. I found the most important background material at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript Archives & Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta.
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When we talked on the phone, Chris Johnson told me that you could hear the sound of the bomb going off for miles on that Holy Saturday night in 1966. An AP report agreed with him: it said people seven miles away heard the explosion. For the families that lived near the church, the blast was deafening and shook their homes.
Mr. Johnson does not remember how he and his mother, father and four brothers reacted to the explosion that night. Loving parents perform miracles for their children and perhaps his mother and father managed to conceal what had happened until the next day. Perhaps his mother even managed to soothe him and his brothers back to sleep.
But while his children slept, Mr. Johnson’s father went out into the night to see what happened. His father, Felbert “Teen” Johnson, was a modest man, he told me, and one of high principles. “A hard man, but a good man,” he said.
Teen Johnson was a lay carpenter and laborer and jack-of-all trades. Mr. Johnson told me that he had left school after the third grade and had gone to work to help provide for his family.
Mr. Johnson remembered his father as a perfectionist in all he did to make a living, whether it was building boats, doing carpentry and masonry work or planting trees and cutting timber for logging companies. He also helped his wife to raise their children to be the best they could be. He taught them, his son told me, “to be respectful of people.”
That night his father could only have expected the worse when he heard the explosion. Because of Ku Klux Klan terrorism, he had been sleeping with a shotgun and rifle next to him for some time.
They were trying times. Mr. Johnson recalled nights when his father made the six of them sleep together in one room of the house because he was worried that the Klan might attack their home.
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Cool Springs was just an old country church, he told me. It was a plain white wooden frame building: one big room, the altar and choir loft upfront, pews reaching to the front door, stain glass windows.
Mr. Johnson described the Rev. R. E. Worrell, the church’s long-time pastor, as a slight, gray-haired man with a mustache. He lived in Belhaven, a town 50 miles distant, but he drove down to Ernul for worship services. He was an exhorter of the old school, the kind that people sometimes call a “fire and brimstone preacher.”
His congregation was typical of that part of eastern North Carolina in those days. According to Mr. Johnson, the church’s members included tenant farmers and field workers, maids and nannies and washerwomen, lumber mill workers, school bus drivers, teachers, nurses and oyster shuckers.
Mr. Johnson has a thousand memories of Cool Springs when he was a child. He remembers the old-fashioned dinners on the grounds, and he recalls his grandmother telling Bible stories in the back of the church, where she taught the children’s Sunday school class.
He had grown up in the church. Rev. Worrell had baptized him in a local river. He had gone to weddings, funerals and homecomings there. The church’s members had all felt God’s love there. Cool Springs was the bedrock of their lives.
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On that night before Easter in 1966, Teen Johnson arrived at the church and found it in ruins. “Blown to bits pretty much,” Mr. Johnson told me: piles of planks everywhere, shards of pews scattered here and yon, the front wall of the church demolished.
He could not have been too surprised. Only five months earlier, Klansmen had bombed one of the congregation’s sister churches, St. Joseph’s Free Will Baptist. “Saint Joe’s,” as it was known, was in Vanceboro, a small town six miles north of Ernul.
There had been other bombings, too. The previous year, Klansmen that lived a few miles from his community had set off three bombs in New Bern, the county seat, 15 miles south of Ernul.
Two of the bombs exploded outside of a civil rights meeting at St. Peter A.M.E. Zion Church. The other damaged a funeral home owned by a local NAACP leader.
According to internal government files that I found at the State Archives Annex in Raleigh, N.C. when I was writing my book Along Freedom Road, law enforcement leaders also suspected that Klansmen from that vicinity were responsible for at least two other attacks that same year elsewhere in eastern North Carolina.
The first was the bombing of Georgetown High School, a highly respected African American school in Jacksonville, N.C., on the school’s graduation day in 1965. If the bombs had ignited later in the day, hundreds of people could have been killed or wounded.
The second was an attempt to burn down Freedom House, a center for civil rights activists in the town of Plymouth, 50 miles north of Ernul. That occurred on August 28, 1965. At the same time, Klansmen had also sprayed the building with bullets.
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A 13-year-old boy might not have known about some of those incidents, but Mr. Johnson’s mother and father certainly did. There were many others, too, and some of them even closer to home.
In the fall of 1965, when the racial integration of the local public schools began, Klansmen went on a rampage. They shot into homes, blew up mailboxes, burned crosses in yards and torched barns, sheds and other outbuildings.
When I spoke with Mr. Johnson, he recalled the Klan burning a cross in a field just down the road from his home. It was a strange feeling, he told me: his family had often picked crops for the white farmer who gave the Klan permission to burn the cross in his field.
As he got older and began going to school with white children, Mr. Johnson got the impression that most of his white schoolmates had some family connection to the Ku Klux Klan. “Almost everybody I went to school with who was white was Klan or their parents were or their grandparents were,” he recalled. And he added, “We fought every day.”
School desegregation was often the source of the Klan’s ire. During the 1965-66 school year, small numbers of local black students began to enroll at previously all-white schools for the first time.
In response, local Klansmen targeted virtually every black family that sent a child to a previously all-white school. They also targeted black teachers that agreed to teach at previously all-white schools and white teachers that agreed to teach at previously all-black schools.
The Klan did not stop there. In Vanceboro, Klansmen shot into the home of a 15-year-old black girl because she rode a school bus with white children. On another occasion, Klansmen threatened a special needs child, a white boy, for playing with black friends.
Like other African American children in the area, Mr. Johnson learned young never to leave home alone.
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I grew up in Craven County, N.C., which is where Ernul is. I was five years old and living 30 miles to the south of Ernul when the Klan blew up the Cool Springs FWB Church.
If somebody had blown up my family’s church, I am pretty sure that my father and mother would have expected a prompt investigation of the incident. I think they would have held high hopes for justice.
When Chris Johnson’s father stood in the charred remains of the Cool Springs FWB Church, he could not have had that feeling. He had to take for granted that he and the other members of the church would have to rely on their faith and one another for help, but not the police or the courts.
Neither local, state or federal law enforcement agencies ever arrested Ku Klux Klansmen for any of the many acts of vandalism, arson and assault in the Ernul-Vanceboro area.
To the south, in New Bern, authorities did arrest the three Klansmen that set off the bombs there in 1965. Their names were Raymond Mills, Laurie Fillingame and Edward Fillingame. They all lived in Vanceboro and one was the “Exalted Cyclops” of one of the local KKK branches.
Their fate hardly instilled hope in the justice system if you were African American, however: when the three men pled guilty, a state superior court judge merely sentenced them to probation. They served no jail time for what amounted to attempted murder.
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This is a brief historical aside that I hope provides a fuller sense of the justice system in eastern North Carolina at that time:
In contrast to the probationary sentence for the three Klan bombers, a state judge treated a group of African American teenagers very differently three years later when they attempted to burn down a Ku Klux Klan building in another part of eastern North Carolina.
In the spring of 1968, four youths in Benson, N.C., lost their tempers when they saw a KKK parade celebrating the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Outraged at what they saw, they attempted to burn down the Klan’s local meeting hall. They were not successful. They only charred the bottom of the building’s front door.
None of the boys had any prior offenses. Nonetheless, a state court judge sentenced each of them to 12 years of hard labor.
To learn more about the incident, I recommend an excellent article by one of my former Duke students, Crystal Sanders, in the August 2013 issue of The Journal of Southern History. Crystal is now a professor at Penn State University.
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Now to return to the bombing of the Cool Springs FWB Church in Ernul, N.C.:
Late in 1965, an incident just north of Ernul, on the outskirts of Vanceboro, drove home even more forcibly local law enforcement’s sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan and failure to protect the African American community.
The incident unfolded beginning around 4 AM on September 28, 1965. At that time, an unknown white person or persons fired shots into an African American family’s home.
A large group of the family’s neighbors quickly gathered to find out what had happened and to protect the family from further danger if necessary. Some came armed with shotguns, knives and sticks.
According to an incident report in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Papers at Emory University, state troopers showed little interest in the white assault on the black family’s home.
However, the troopers arrested 22 of the African Americans who had gathered there to protect the family. They included at least one woman and two children.
According to the SCLC report, which was made by an African American minister who was an SCLC leader in New Bern, authorities released the two children but charged the 20 adults with “malicious rioting,” unlawful assembly and “intent to intimidate the community.”
No Klansmen were ever charged with similar crimes in Craven County or anywhere else that I know of in eastern North Carolina.
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I asked Mr. Johnson if he knew why the Klan had targeted the Cool Springs FWB Church. He was not sure, but he told me that “those white people were taught to hate black people and considered us as inferior.” They seemed to have a special resentment of the church and its members.
He suspected that the Klansmen also sought to intimidate African American community members in general by targeting one of the places that was most dear to them.
The world was changing. By 1966, African Americans in New Bern had been staging lunch counter sit-ins, economic boycotts and other civil rights protests for more than five years.
The county’s schools were beginning to desegregate as well. Even in Vanceboro, with its two-block downtown, civil rights protests had begun.
The previous fall, for instance, 250 local blacks had held a civil rights meeting at St. Peter’s, a FWB church on Hwy. 43 just north of Vanceboro. At that gathering, they had organized a boycott of the town’s businesses with three goals: fair employment practices, the hiring of a black policeman and voter registration reforms.
These were signs of a new age in that land of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, tobacco and Jim Crow.
“They wanted to destroy what we were attempting to accomplish,” Mr. Johnson told me, referring to the Klansmen that bombed his family’s church. “They wanted to do something to destroy our reality.”
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Chris Johnson can only imagine what thoughts went through his father’s mind that night when he saw the still smoking embers of the dynamite blast at the Cool Springs FWB Church.
He might not know his father’s thoughts, but he does know what his father and the rest of the church’s congregation did when they woke up the next morning: it was, after all, Easter Day, a time for new beginnings and a time for hope. They put on their Sunday best and headed to church.
In the coming weeks, Mr. Johnson’s father and another member of the congregation, Dennis Moore, would lead the church’s re-building effort. They did not look for outside help. They used their own hands and the people gave out of their own pockets.
But that Easter morning, standing in the churchyard, young Chris Johnson and his family and the rest of the worshipers gathered, young and old, and put their weariness of men’s wickedness aside. They lifted their voices in song and prayer, rejoicing in the Resurrection and praying for souls lost in darkness, that they might yet find a path into the light.