History is a tricky business. It is hard enough for any historian to get things right in the first place. But when someone else has gotten something wrong into print beforehand, excising that wrongness is the work of the devil.

For instance, as a schoolboy, I was taught that George Washington had wooden false teeth and that he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac or the Rappahannock or some other river. That came from some of his early biographers…Parson Weems comes to mind…who rather than doing actual research just repeated old wives tales.

Of course, Washington did not wear wooden false teeth…like most everyone else of his day who could afford it, he wore false teeth made from lead, brass wires, steel springs and human and cow teeth as well as elephant and walrus ivory.

WashingtonTeeth

The silver dollar business is even worse, because the silver dollar did not exist when Washington supposedly threw it across whatever river. The coin of the realm in those days throughout the Americas was the Spanish doubloon. And no one, not Walter Johnson or Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan, could have thrown any sort of coin across any of the suggested rivers at the points indicated in the stories.

WahingtonDollar

That being said, returning from a three day weekend on Tuesday I found an e-mail in my inbox complaining that the sender had just read in a local magazine that the O’Hanlon Building is our city’s oldest “skyscraper”. The sender knew that that was not true and even knew which building actually was the oldest “skyscraper”.

WachoviaC1911

The seven story Wachovia Bank & Trust building, left, was erected in 1911, the first “skyscraper” in the town of Winston.

OHanlonC1911

The O’Hanlon corner, Fourth & Liberty, around 1911. This building burned in 1913, and E.W. O’Hanlon then built Winston-Salem’s second “skyscraper” in 1915. Wachovia Bank & Trust then added floors to their building to reclaim the “city’s tallest” designation.

I took a look at the offending magazine page, only to find an even more appalling misapprehension of history just below it.

BadStuff

Did the 1918 event actually occur? Well, sort of.

1. It was not even close to being a race riot. It was a foiled lynching attempt.

2. The “federal” troops were National Guardsmen, and they arrived after the event was over.

3. There was never any 3,000 person “mob”. The “mob” amounted to a few dozen crazed people, most of them teenaged boys. The rest were curious bystanders who, as soon as the first shots were fired, wisely headed home.

4. The KKK was in no way involved. In fact, there was virtually no serious KKK activity in Forsyth County until the latter part of the 20th century, when an unfortunate conjunction of wannabe KKK, American Nazis and Greensboro based Communist Worker Party members came together to produce a bloodbath at the Morningside Homes in Greensboro.

5. “Historians” do not estimate that seven people died. Of the known dead, one white person, Charles White, was killed by a black man who was executed for the crime. Two other white people were killed by gunfire from the white “mob”. It was never determined who fired the shot that killed twelve year old Rachel Levi. But the man who fired the shot that killed volunteer fireman Robert Young was later sentenced to die for his crime, eventually having his sentence reduced to life in prison.

A number of other members of the “mob” were convicted under the relatively new “lynch law” and sentenced to varying prison terms.

6. The event did not last for two days. It unfolded, slowly at first, over a period of eight to ten hours on Sunday, November 17, 1918. By 2:00 AM on Monday the 18th, it was over.

7. The rumored “hundreds” of deaths were just that, rumors. My favorite “rumor” is that “hundreds” of dead black people were stuffed into boxcars in the rail yard to hide them from the light of day. What the rumorers overlook is that those boxcars were going somewhere.

Imagine if two days later someone opened one of those boxcars in Amarillo and found dozens of bodies inside. Then imagine that that would not have produced front page headlines in every newspaper in the land. Pure silliness.

I have been dealing with this event for many years now. Time permitting, sometime in the next couple of days I will post the real story. Stay tuned.

M1918FordTank

A M1918 Ford tank was parked on the Forsyth County courthouse lawn for two days in November 1918. This model weighed three tons and sported a single .50 caliber machine gun and was manned by a crew of two. It had two Ford engines, one to go forward and one to go backward. Only 15 were built. None of them ever saw combat, except in Winston-Salem.

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