Mill workers forced their way into the city jail to kill a black man, Russell High, firing a bullet at him, instead striking one of their own in the stomach — on this day, 95 years ago, in downtown Winston-Salem.
High’s crime was threefold: Wrong place. Wrong time. Wrong race.
The subsequent loot-and-shoot frenzy, carried out mostly by a white mob, has come to be known as the Winston-Salem Race Riot. It happened Nov. 17, 1918, on a Sunday. By the next morning, four people had been shot dead, several were nursing gunshot wounds, National Guardsmen patrolled downtown, and a tank stood across Town Hall.
Information about the Winston-Salem Race Riot in this article comes mostly from Fam Brownlee, a historian who works in the North Carolina Room of the Forsyth County Public Library.
He has researched for many years why the mob tried to kill High, who they were, and what happened that horrible weekend. His research is based on death records, newspaper clippings, an oral history project at Winston-Salem State University, a UNC Chapel Hill master’s thesis, and interviews he conducted years ago with George Black, a brick maker who lived in Winston-Salem in 1918.
That year, the Reynolds Building, which now stands on the northeastern corner of Fourth and Main streets, had not been built. Its site was occupied by Town Hall, a five-story building. From its entrance, according to Brownlee, a person saw streetcars, smelled the scent of butcher’s meat wafting from the basement of Town Hall and heard the sound of a horse-and-buggy clopping along.
Race riots had occurred in other parts of the U.S. It had been only 20 years since the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. It was not surprising to hear about a lynching. Against this cultural backdrop, Winston-Salem was 5 years old, an economic powerhouse following the fortunes of textiles and tobacco. The 1920 Census shows that about 45,000 people lived here.
Town Hall was home to the police department, fire department and the armory, among other offices.
Also in Town Hall was the city jail.
On this day 95 years ago, High was locked in one of the cells. Outside, facing Town Hall, a crowd began to swell by the afternoon. The number grew from a few hundred to possibly 3,000 by evening, according to Brownlee, a mix of curious onlookers and a core group of mill workers.
A shooting and a rape
In Brownlee’s estimation, many of the mill workers made a living at the Inverness Mill, which operated not far from what is now the intersection of Indiana Avenue and North Liberty Street. Mill workers put in 60-hour weeks, he said, and got paid at noon on Saturdays. They lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the mill.
Cora and Jim Childress lived in the Inverness Mill neighborhood.
On Nov. 16, Saturday evening, they took a walk down the road that is now Indiana Avenue around 7 p.m., according to Brownlee, toward a place known then as Pulliams Store, on 25th and North Liberty streets.
Before they got there, a black man with a gun stopped them. (Brownlee notes that witnesses also said they saw a white man in blackface washing himself off, though it is not clear whether he was the attacker.)
The man forced the couple to walk down the railroad tracks. At about 7:15, the man shot Jim Childress and left him lying there. He then forced Cora Childress down the tracks a bit further. At around 7:40, he raped her.
That night, neighbors, black and white, tried to find the attacker.
Sheriff Flynt, while trying to stop three “negros,” two men and a woman, was shot in the face and hand.
The next morning, people read about the attacks in the Winston-Salem Journal.
Police were looking for a suspicious black man.
Around noon, they had a suspect: Russell High. Chief J.A. Thomas had arrested him on a concealed weapon charge.
What happened next may have been the primary cause for the pandemonium that befell the city that night. Rather than take Cora Childress downtown to identify whether High was her attacker, Thomas took High up to the Inverness Mill neighborhood and, with neighbors watching, had her come out on her porch.
“Since there were several neighbors present in the yard, Thomas asked Cora not to say anything in front of them,” Brownlee wrote in a blog for the library’s N.C. Room.
“After a few minutes, he asked if she had looked at High sufficiently, to which she replied with a nod.
“Inside the house, she told the chief that she was unable to identify High as her abductor.
“Thomas took High back to the city jail, but the damage had already been done. Hysterical neighbors took Cora’s nod as confirmation that High was the guilty party, and rumors began to spread,” Brownlee wrote.
By sunset, as High remained locked in the downtown jail, a large crowd had gathered outside Town Hall. There may have been as many as 3,000, according to Brownlee.
City dignitaries — among them Mayor Ralph W. Gorrell, attorney William M. Hendren, and the Rev. Henry A. Brown of First Baptist Church — were trying to get them to go home.
But the crowd was having none of it.
“You’re dealing with people who had practically zero education and were working 60 hours a week. They’re not people who were used to doing too much thinking,” Brownlee said in an interview.
‘We’re going to have him!’
Members of the local militia, known as the Home Guard, stood guard inside Town Hall, bayonets fixed, with orders not to shoot. Policemen and firefighters also stood guard outside. The crowd clamored to speak directly with Cora Childress, who had been brought down to Town Hall for a second ID.
When she didn’t come out, the mob rushed in, looking for High.
The keeper of the jail key, Luther Brown, refused to turn the keys over, despite the chaos brewing in the cell block.
“We are the Inverness Cotton Mills crowd, and we’ve come after the nigger! We’re going to have him!’” Brownlee wrote, citing court testimony given later by Brown against some of the mob members.
Someone tried to shoot High but instead shot one of his own in the stomach. That triggered the Home Guard to push everyone back outside Town Hall, where the heated standoff continued.
Cora Childress came out.
She tried to tell the mob that High was not the attacker, that his gun was not “shiny” like the one her attacker had.
At around 6 p.m., according to Brownlee, the Home Guard had two choices: Shoot bullets at the crowd or spray them with fire hoses. They chose the latter, which set off the crowd even more.
“Shoot them all!” shouted Jack Cromer, an employee of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., who was part of the mob.
Gunfire broke out — about five shots.
In the evening’s first flurry of gunfire, a volunteer fireman, Robert Young, was struck and died. Cromer, convicted of murdering Young, was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison.
A teenage girl, Rachel Levy, peering out a window, was struck and died. Police could never determine who pulled the trigger.
A downpour dispersed many around the same time. But a core group looted downtown stores, in search of weapons. The windows of Town Hall were shattered. By 8 p.m., the mob headed east on Third and Fourth streets toward black neighborhoods.
“There was a riot, all right, but it was a ‘white riot’ powered by wannabe lynchers and teenaged boys out for some excitement. A few people got killed, but some accounts talk about hundreds of deaths, almost certainly prompted by the wild rumors that were flying around town on Sunday night,” Brownlee wrote in a blog that can be found at the N.C. Room link through the library’s website.
On Fifth and Linden streets, a black mob stopped a car being driven by Charles White, a utility worker, who was white. He died of a gunshot wound.
“According to a statement by one of the looters, Jacob Jackson, White started to drive on but a man called ‘Horse’ stepped in front of the car and another man, Will Davis, jumped on the running board. Jackson said that he then saw Davis thrust a dark colored pistol between the stays of the car top and fire,” Brownlee wrote.
Davis was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair, though, according to Brownlee, it is unclear what happened because his name does not appear on the master list of those who were executed.
The evening’s fourth fatality happened around Union Depot, a train station near the corner of Third and Chestnut streets, close to where Krankies Coffee stands now.
The mob was “firing wildly in the air and taking pot shots at any black person who showed his face on the other side of the railroad tracks. One of those, George Johnson, a laborer, was hit and killed. He is the only known black victim of the riot,” Brownlee wrote in his blog.
Johnson’s killer was never found.
As the mayhem continued, about 250 National Guardsmen were being called in. Police from Mount Airy and Greensboro, too. The Guardsmen arrived early Monday morning; the police arrived Sunday night.
Several looters were charged and convicted.
Jim Childress recovered.
He and Cora Childress moved back to Mount Airy, according to Brownlee.
Their attacker was never found.
Within 11 years, the Reynolds Building would replace Town Hall.
As Brownlee revisited that Sunday, he talked about the courage of the Home Guard, policemen and firefighters — facing fire without returning it in order to protect the curious onlookers. Brownlee also gave his assessment of Chief J.A. Thomas.
“Much of what happened is the police chief’s fault,” he said, referring to his decision to parade High in the Inverness Mill neighborhood.