UNC folklorist Glenn Hinson and students provided research that informed the re-enactment this summer of a 1921 Warren County court trial where 16 Black men were unfairly accused after being threatened by a white mob.
Carolina senior Sydni Janell Walker of Greensboro likes to tell people that her initials — SJW — stand for “social justice warrior.”
Walker is pursuing a double major in human development and family studies in the School of Education and in public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences. In fall 2019, she signed up for a class that helped to fuel that passion, “Southern Legacies: The Descendants Project,” taught by associate professor of anthropology and American studies Glenn Hinson.
In the class, students researched stories of the living descendants of Alfred Williams and Plummer Bullock, two Black men who were lynched by a white mob on Jan. 24, 1921, in Warren County following a series of incidents precipitated by an argument in a Norlina store.
“That history in Warren County was completely unknown to me. My family has been in the South my entire life,” Walker said. “As we were uncovering these stories, it was surreal to me. I didn’t understand how prevalent lynchings were.”
In fall 2020, Walker served as a student mentor for another of Hinson’s classes, “By Persons Unknown: Race and Reckoning in North Carolina.” That First Year Seminar documents the story that unfolded before the lynchings happened. A white mob threatened Black residents in the community of Norlina. Those Black residents then armed themselves to protect their community. Eighteen of those threatened were later arrested and jailed for “inciting to riot.” Bullock and Williams were then taken from the jail and lynched.
Walker would go on to serve as a mentor again — this time for an iteration of the “Descendants Project” in spring 2021.
This summer, undergraduate research by Walker and fellow students, under the mentorship of Hinson, informed a community-led re-enactment of the trial of the “Norlina 16,” 100 years later, in the Warren County courthouse that is still standing today. (Warren County is a rural county in the northern Piedmont, a little over an hour from Chapel Hill.)
Walker credits Hinson with creating a safe space for students to discuss these painful and difficult topics. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in trauma therapy.
“Understanding how trauma is transferred through generations and how people can reclaim that story is important,” she said. “It can be uprooting. But I want to explore the potential for healing that can occur through trauma therapy and its use in various settings, one being schools.”
‘A narrative of deep injustice’
Hinson calls the story of the Norlina 16 “a narrative of deep injustice.”
“It’s a story that has never been told; it’s always in the shadow of the lynchings,” said Hinson, who first became interested in telling these stories after the release of a 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative that documented lynchings in America.
Hinson received a Humanities for the Public Good Critical Issues Award and support from the Institute of African American Research to work with community members on a public re-enactment project around the 1921 trial. The production, Seeking Justice, was held on June 12 in the courthouse. It told the story of the Norlina 16 through the eyes of two narrators and one of the men on trial, Jerome Hunter, who was accused of “secret assault” and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Multiple community partners, along with local playwright Thomas Park, brought the play to fruition. No professional actors were involved in telling the story. Descendants of the families were in the audience.
Jereann King Johnson, a community activist, script writer and head of the county’s 1921 Project, served as a narrator for the production. She first met Hinson several years ago.
“I thought what Glenn was doing as an anthropologist was just brilliant — teaching students how to excavate a historical event and discover new facts. We were in sync with that,” she said. “As students found out more information, and the anniversary approached, it seemed like an appropriate time to pull all of these pieces together.”
“Although the students were not present at the re-enactment, their presence was very much felt in telling the fuller story,” Johnson added.
NAACP posters were also displayed throughout the courthouse that day, informed by student research. For instance, one of the posters focused on jail carts or cages — rolling metal boxes that men assigned to chain gangs would have lived in while they traveled from place to place on work crews.
Hinson said experiencing the re-enactment took his breath away.
“To hear those names uttered but now with honor instead of disdain was incredibly moving,” he said. “Descendants in the audience were openly crying. It was powerful.”
‘For justice to rise and freedom to reign’
A chorus of voices utters the final line of the play: “For justice to rise and freedom to reign.”
A discussion with the audience was held after the production. Hinson shared that Hunter was released from prison before his sentence was up in 1928. He married in Warren County and then moved to New York, where he lived until his death.
For Hinson and Johnson, the closing lines of the play are not an ending, but a beginning — a window into the future.
“The injustices people witnessed during the play are injustices that still prevail today,” Hinson said. “The purpose was to bring awareness, but also to affect change.”
Hinson will continue working on the project in spring 2022 with the help of an Institute for the Arts and Humanities Race, Memory and Reckoning Initiative Fellowship.
He’ll teach “The Descendants Project” again this fall and will be working with students through the spring of 2022 to train high school students in Warren County how to do oral history interviews.
“We’ll bring together students, scholars, activists and more to do a series of public conversations around the legacy of sharecropping, the Great Migration, etc. and doing that through the lens of 1921 in Warren County,” he added.
Hinson hopes they can do the re-enactment again next spring or summer.
For Johnson, it’s an opportunity to continue exploring how that period has shaped Warren County today.
“It’s an invitation to reflect back but to look ahead. Where are we today? How do we ensure justice and equality moving forward? What do we want our community to be?” she said.
“Having that academic partnership, that connection, pushes you to think in new ways. It’s very empowering and strengthening.”
Read a story in The Warren Record about the re-enactment.
By Kim Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences