Being black means sometimes you pick up a book to read and end up on a journey of a potential family tragedy.
A little backstory and context: I’ve been making my way through an amazing book called “The Man From The Train” which was co-authored by my former classmate and friend Rachel McCarthy James along with her father Bill James. The book is a true crime non-fiction recounting of an unsolved series of ax murders that took place across the country, but mostly in the south and Midwest, around the turn of the 20th century. If you know me and my penchant for horror movies and all things creepy then you know this is right up my alley. The two have put in a meticulous research and have written a captivating investigation into all of the crimes and one of the overarching themes is how many people were falsely accused of the crimes which they show were probably largely committed by one man.
One of these murders took place in North Carolina, Friday the 13th of July in 1906. Exactly 112 years ago this past weekend. It was a terrible event in which four members of the Lyerly family were killed in their sleep. As shocking as that was what came next is the part that really threw me because the immediate and main suspect was their neighbor, a sharecropper, a black man, named: Jack Dillingham.
I’m not sure I would say my last name is rare but it’s not exactly common either. Whenever you see another Dillingham even on social media there’s always a kind of vague side-eye “are you kin to me?” thing that happens and reading it there and then was exactly the same and in this case, even more jarring. While much of my family history on the Dillingham side remains in the dark, I do know a bit. We took the name from the family that owned us which is why I know the family has southern ties. My own grandfather was born in Arkansas but did eventually meet my grandmother there in North Carolina. I’m trying to track down where my great grandfather may have been born, and why my grandfather was in North Carolina at the time of finding grandma. Had he been there serving at a base after returning from the war or was he there visiting family perhaps? For obvious reasons it can be difficult to track down a lot of this. Being black and in the south means there’s a good chance that many records just don’t exist. And likely never did. History lives only in the stories of family members you can find and connect with.
Though the story now had me of attention than at any other point, I knew it was likely to only get worse. I was right. Jack was arrested and charged with the murders along with two other men, Nease and John Gillespie. There was no evidence except for an overheard argument between Jack and the family. An eleven year old boy was forced into a confession stating that he heard one of the men admitting to the murders. That was enough for most of the papers and the authorities. On the evening of the indictment a crowd formed around the jail. Eventually the three men were forcibly taken from custody. They were paraded through a crowd estimated at 2,000 to a field with an oak tree. Ropes were strung. Jack Dillingham, who one Account lists as being just 16, after professing his innocence, was the first to go up. Followed by the other two. All were riddled with bullets from the cheering crowd. They were left to hang well into the next day. Their ears were cut off and taken for souvenirs. As well as their fingers. And their toes. The case was considered solved, and north Carolina closed another dark chapter of their own, and this country’s, history.
I’ve been sitting with all this for days. Looking up articles from the time, reading the accounts, scouring online records. I’ll keep on. I’d like to know if Jack was part of me but at this point I’m not sure blood would matter. I feel he already is.
As July 4th approached and eventually came, I had wanted to write something about America but I couldn’t seem to find the words. It can be difficult to talk about a country that for the vast majority of its history has not only not cared about you, but at times been actively hostile. A country that had no problem placing a price on your body at auction, yet has been incapable of valuing your life in any real sense, ever. And still it’s why I get so upset when people tell me that because of my criticism of certain events, I don’t love my country. Even if Jack isn’t mine I still live and sit with the murder and exploitation of my ancestors. Dillingham is not the name we came here with and at times even saying it to myself has hurt. Because I know where and what it came from. And I’m not sure that’s something people who aren’t born in that could ever understand. But with all that I still find myself standing for this country. It’s easy to love something that’s all good, all the time. Its much more difficult to love something that you’re willing to acknowledge has been broken. That’s failed. That’s let you and countless others down and still has so far to go in making changes that could make things better.
If in the debates of our day you find yourself shouting about “the law” I hope you remember that the laws were never there to protect Jack. Or Nease. Or John. Or all the other names lost to fire and bullets and dark nights in open fields. They couldn’t because they weren’t meant to. And in a lot of ways I see that still happening. To the most vulnerable. To the ones who need it the most.
I ask that you send a thought or prayer up for Jack today or tonight. He’s the one seated far left in the above picture. Along with Nease on the bottom right, and his son John behind him. It would mean a lot to me and to their memory. The least I can do is protect that now.
“And in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree,
There’s a hundred hearts soar free,
Pumping blood to the roots of evil to keep it young…”