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The community engagement work of Glenn Hinson, an associate professor of anthropology and American studies, and UNC-Chapel Hill students continues to expand our knowledge of racial violence and its legacy in Warren County and elsewhere in North Carolina. Hinson, a folklorist, recently discussed the latest developments in the ongoing “Descendants Project,” following Warren County’s Soil Collection Ceremony.

Glenn Hinson stands with others outside at the Soil Collection Ceremony in Warren County.
Glenn Hinson (second from left) with UNC student Twumasi Duah-Mensah and Williams Family descendants at the Soil Collection Ceremony. (photo by Jereann King Johnson)

Q: Can you give us a brief synopsis of what happened in Warren County in January 1921?

A: On Jan. 23, 1921, a white mob surrounded the Warren County Jail, broke inside and seized two of the Black men jailed there — 45-year-old Alfred Williams and 19-year-old Plummer Bullock. Those two were among 18 Black men arrested the previous night for defending their neighborhood from another white mob in the nearby town of Norlina. That armed mob was enraged that Bullock and Williams had “dared” to argue earlier that week about unfair treatment over a 10-cent purchase of apples at a white-owned store. A gunfight ensued, and a white posse captured and jailed the 18 Black men. Later the next evening, a mob stormed the jail, removed Williams and Bullock and drove them out of town, where they shot them and left their bullet-ridden bodies by the side of the road.

Jars of soil with the names Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams on them sit on a table.
Two jars of soil collected for Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams will go to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and two more will be in the future Warren County Historical Museum. (photo by Gary Band/Henderson Dispatch)

Q: On May 11, a “Soil Collection Ceremony” was held at the Old Warren County Jail to honor the lives of Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams. What will happen to the soil collected?

A: Since the actual site of the lynching remains uncertain, the soil for the ceremony was gathered at the Old Warren County Jail, where Alfred Williams and Plummer Bullock were jailed immediately before their murders. The soil was placed in four labeled jars provided by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), with two jars for each man. Two of those jars will travel to EJI’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where they will join hundreds of other soil-filled jars gathered from lynching sites across the South. The second set will eventually land in the planned Warren County Historical Museum, which will reside —appropriately — in the old jail building.

Q: You have been working for years to research the stories of Bullock’s and Williams’ living descendants. Who were some of the descendants who attended this recent ceremony?

A: “The Descendants Project” has helped to retell the stories of a number of racial terror lynchings across North Carolina; Warren County has been one of the counties with which we’ve worked most closely. Over the years, we’ve located and interviewed scores of descendants, not only of the two men who were lynched, but also of the other 16 (whom we now call the “Norlina 16”) who were unjustly imprisoned. At this ceremony, a number of those descendants were able to attend, with one family — Michael and Nicole Taylor, and their daughter, Misata —traveling from the Bronx, New York, and a host of others — including Tamara Leonard, the Rev. Dr. Maceo Freeman and Reane Simonson — journeying from Richmond, Virginia. The Taylors — the family from the Bronx —first learned of their kinship connection to Alfred Williams from UNC students in the fall 2023 “Descendants Project” class.

Descendants Michael and Misata Taylor stand in front of soil collection jars.
Descendants Michael and Misata Taylor traveled from New York for the Soil Collection Ceremony. (photo by Luci Weldon/Warren Record)

Q: How has students’ research continued to inform this work?

A: Students have learned that simply telling a set of strategically erased stories doesn’t instantly change the “authorized” public narrative. They’ve also learned that building trust in communities takes time. When we collaborate with communities, we do so by committing to work for the long term. In Warren County, students began by doing foundational research and conducting oral histories of descendants, coming to understand the region’s hidden histories of racial terror, and then offering their discoveries to the community. From there, they’ve helped to formally change the death certificates of the two lynched men to acknowledge the actual cause of death (in collaboration with the local NAACP chapter) and to provide the stories that fueled two community-based reenactments of the trial of the Norlina 16. (Read College of Arts and Sciences stories about those community re-enactments here and here.) They’ve also connected and brought together far-flung members of descendant families, worked with high school students to understand their county’s racial history, and produced a series of public workshops addressing the county’s legacy of racial injustice and potential futures of reckoning and liberation. Our engagement with the Soil Collection Ceremony is simply one more step in this journey.

Q: What’s next for “The Descendants Project” in this journey of healing and repair?

A: We’re a long way from talking about “healing.” First, we’ve got to talk about simple acknowledgment, inviting awareness of the legacies of racial trauma and then taking reparative actions to address those legacies. The journey, understandably, promises to be long. “The Descendants Project’s” role will ultimately be charted by the communities with which we partner, with us following their guidance rather than taking the lead. In Warren County, we will continue to elicit descendant stories and uncover hidden histories, with an eye toward contributing to the Black-led Historical Museum that will one day be housed in the old jail. We will also investigate stories of racial violence that we’ve now heard that have never before been documented and work toward obtaining posthumous pardons for the Norlina 16.

In addition to pursuing this same process in other counties, we’re also working with a coalition of Community Remembrance Coalitions from across the state to convene a 2025 gathering that will address North Carolina’s history of racial terror, speak to community memorialization efforts and share ideas for achieving a more equitable — and historically honest — future.

Interview by Kim Spurr, College of Arts and Sciences



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