A Delicate Matter
By Isaac Groves/Times-News
March 31, 2007 - 10:39PM
More to this Story
Wyatt Outlaw’s hanging, it has been written, is the second-most recognized event in Alamance County history, but won’t be commemorated on a state marker placed where he died. His murder led to the Kirk-Holden War, which led to the arrest of more than 100 local men and torture at the hands of a state militia. There were also other murders and attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, like the killing of state Sen. J.W. “Chicken” Stephens in Caswell County. It also led to the first impeachment of a U.S. governor, William W. Holden. At the end of it all, Holden was gone, the men who killed Outlaw were free and it was a lot harder to tell who really won the Civil War.
The State Highway Historical Marker Program will place a plaque at the top of a pole, probably on Elm Street in front of the Graham Historical Museum. The spot is not far from where Outlaw was hanged from the elm tree for which the street is named. Outlaw’s name, however, will not be on that marker. It will say:
Racial violence in Caswell
& Alamance counties in
1870 led to martial law,
under Col. Geo. W. Kirk,
impeachment & removal
of Gov. W.W. Holden.
That wording came from the Graham Historical Society, said Mayor Jerry Peterman, who is an active and enthusiastic promoter of his hometown’s history. But Peterman is not embarrassed to be an even bigger promoter of Graham’s present and future. “It was a real delicate thing,” Peterman said. “It could have caused racial tensions and that’s something we wanted to avoid. “Graham is a nice little town.”
Outlaw was a 50-year-old freed slave, and probably the son of a prominent white man. He was also Union veteran, Graham town councilman, Unionist and Republican political leader, cabinet maker, mechanic, church leader, business owner, bartender and constable. There were stories that he fired on a group of Klansmen who were riding unarmed through Graham at night in a show of force. And they came back a few days later for revenge, but historians say there is little proof of that. Politics, they say, was the real reason for his killing. The Klan hanged Outlaw from the limb of an elm tree pointing toward the county courthouse on Feb. 26, 1870.
The marker does not do justice to the story, said Scott Reynolds Nelson, history professor of the College of William & Mary. He said the Kirk-Holden War represents the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Redemption. Reconstruction was when northern Unionists, often called carpetbaggers, southern white Unionists and freed black Republicans formed an up-and-coming political force. Redemption was when the well-off white families that ran things in the south before the Civil War got back their control.
“This isn’t racial violence, it’s a terrorist group that killed its political opponents,” Nelson said. “That’s not racial violence if the Klan kills Stephens in Caswell and Outlaw in Alamance, that’s not racial violence, that’s political violence. “That to me seems like it’s just papering over what happened.”
Outlaw’s murder may be the second-most famous historic event in Alamance County, but outside Alamance County, and sometimes within Alamance County, it’s not known. Eric Richardson heard of Outlaw, though, as a kid in a public school in Pittsylvania County, Va., just north of the state line. It was not a flattering story, but then there is not much flattering about Reconstruction for anybody. “I could spend years talking about the Civil War and because I have a southern accent I can get away with it,” Richardson said. “But if you talk about Reconstruction, it doesn’t matter what your accent is.” Richardson was doing research for a column in the Times-News about Outlaw’s murder, and kept running into blank stares, even at the library. Richardson, a graduate student of history at UNC-Greensboro, now lives on Bass Mountain. A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, he and his group thought the historic event in Alamance County should be better known, especially since Outlaw was a veteran. He also thought after 140 years, southerners of all colors should be ready to talk about Reconstruction.
Richardson made a proposal to the state Highway Historical Marker Program. The program places all those plaques at the tops of poles along state roads usually near historic downtowns. There are 26 in Alamance County already and 1,500 around the state. At the Caswell County Courthouse, there is a marker dedicated to the Kirk-Holden War and the murder of Sen. J.W. Stephens, a white, Republican legislator also killed by the Klan. The state committee that places these markers voted Richardson’s idea down last spring. The committee is made up of 10 history professors. Mike Hill runs those twice-a-year meetings and keeps the minutes. Wording is often difficult, as the committee only gets 20 or 30 words to explain a historic event.
“The committee did not want to commemorate the graphic details of a man’s death,” Hill said. "In the end the responsibility here is come up with something that informs the public but is acceptable to all parties and that the community would welcome.” The Times-News tried to contact several members of the committee, but only former chairman Melton McLaurin would comment. McLaurin said he did not remember many details of those meetings, but stood up for the decision. “The committee broaches uncomfortable subjects all the time,” McLaurin said. “The idea that everybody would say this is such a horrible thing that we’re not going to talk about it is ridiculous.” Richardson got the support of the Graham Historical Society, and got the version that doesn’t mention Outlaw approved in December. “Mr. Richardson came to the society and asked for a way to word the plaque that would work with what we’re trying to do in Graham,” Peterman said.
The marker should be placed in May.
Purportedly, the following men from Caswell County were arrested by Col. Kirk after the murder in Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina, of John Walter (Chicken) Stephens. Whether anyone collected the $500 reward offered by North Carolina Governor William W. Holden with respect to the arrest of any of the following is not known.
1. Blackwell, John B. (possibly John Bracken Blackwell; dismissed by Judge Brooks)
2. Bowe, William M.
3. Fowler, Joseph R.
4. Graves, Barzillai
5. Griffith, Jesse C. (Caswell County Sheriff)
6. Graves, William G. (arrested by mistake and released by Judge Brooks)
7. Hill, Samuel P.
8. Jones, Yancey
9. Kerr, John Hosea
10. Lea, John Green (no evidence; discharged by Judge Brooks)
11. Lea, Nathaniel (probably Nathaniel Preston Lea; dismissed by Judge Brooks)
12. Long, Jacob A.
13. Mitchell, A. A.
14. Mitchell, James Thomas (bound over for trial)
15. Neal, J. M.
16. Richmond, Dr. Stephen Tribue (bound over for trial)
17. Roan, Felix R. (bound over for trial)
18. Roan, Nathaniel K.
19. Roan, Robert Liston
20. Totten, L. M. (discharged by Judge Brooks)
21. Wiley, Franklin A. (bound over for trial)
22. Williamson, Peter H.
22. Womack, Thomas J.
21. Yancey, Dr. Albert Gallatin
Not Thought from Caswell County (and probably from Alamance County)
Boyd, James E. (Alamance County)
Moore, Adolphous (Alamance County)
Scott, James S.
Williamson, James C.
The Wilmington Journal (Wilmington, North Carolina), 26 August 1870.
"Caught The Wrong Chicken."--On Thursday last, we learn from the Greensboro' Patriot, Capt. Davies, in charge of the train going West on the North Carolina Railroad, stopped at Graham Station (not a regular stopping place) at the urgent request of a U.S. officer, to allow him to get off, when Lt. Col. Bergen, of Kirk's troops, entered the car and entered into conversation with Kirk, who was on board. After waiting as long as possible, Capt. Davies informed Bergen that his time was out and he must move on. Bergen ordered some of his men to obstruct the track; they not being quick enough, the train moved on and Capt. Davies walked into another car. Bergen pulled the bell rope, but the Capt. hearing the bell, ordered the train to "go ahead," and the valiant Col. was carried to Company Shops. He made wonderful threats, but Davies in no mild manner let him know he had "caught the wrong chicken." By what authority does Holden's ragamuffins stop the U.S. Mail?