Anyone who thinks that history is easy need go no further than a remarkable series of books published in the late 19th century: Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

Not long after the war ended, “The Century” magazine began publishing essays about the war by commanding officers on both sides. Some sharp-eyed editor noticed that these gentlemen disagreed about nearly everything, especially when they were writing about the same battle.

So a monumental project began…the gathering of battle descriptions from as many commanders as possible on a battle by battle basis. The result is a wonderful lesson on human nature and perception.

If you are reading three essays on a particular battle, you are reading about three different battles. If there are seven witnesses, then there are seven battles, and so on. As any good detective can tell you, the same goes for crime…having one eyewitness is fine, even if the witness is dead wrong, but having two or more is not.

Everyone is entitled to their own point of view. But no one is entitled to their own facts. Just ask the normally reliable “60 Minutes”, which recently presented a segment on the Benghazi consulate episode which was wholly made up.

Winston-Salem has at least its share of historical myths. R.J. Reynolds alone generated enough to fill several books. But perhaps no event in our local history has more mythology connected with it than the events of November 16-17, 1918. We have several copies of a UNC masters thesis that pretty much gets it right, but apparently the only ones who have read it are me and the bookworms.

People commonly refer to the event as a “race riot”, which it was not. 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, November 17. Those rumors were thoroughly checked by the local newspapers. All were unfounded.

I once asked the famous brick maker George Black about that night.. Usually, he was an eyewitness to everything, with an incredibly detailed memory. But this time he failed me.

“Lord, I can’t tell you a thing,” he said. “Somebody said there was shooting down at the square. So I locked the door and turned off the lights…ain’t nobody home at the Black residence, so don’t come knocking.” We both laughed.

The event was divided into two parts, the precipitating event on Saturday and the riot on Sunday. I’ve decided to break it into two parts, starting with Saturday’s events. Stay tuned for part two coming soon.

The map below tells most of the story. As always, click to enlarge, and read it right to left.


A few additional observations:

1. There were many wild rumors about the Saturday night event. The perpetrator broke into the Childress’s home and killed Mrs. Childress’s baby. Or he snatched her baby from her arms on the railroad tracks and bashed its brains out. And so it goes.

The truth is that the Childress’s youngest child was eleven years old at the time and that none of their children were involved in the Saturday events at all. And of course, everything played out along the Norfolk & Western railway tracks, not in anyone’s home.

2. Both newspapers, the pollce and many citizens speculated that the “white boy” encountered by Chief Thomas and Sheriff Flynt near the Mengel Box Company was the actual perpetrator of all the crimes. It was not uncommon at the time for white criminals to do their crimes in “blackface”. Unfortunately, the boy could not be found later for questioning.

3. The three people who ran from Chief Thomas and Sheriff Flynt, including the one who wounded the sheriff, were never found. In fact, no one was ever arrested for any of the crimes that occurred that Saturday night.

4. It is likely that Cora Childress was the victim of a rape, or, at least, an attempted rape that night. But she never made that claim directly. The only evidence is this timid Victorian interrogation, witnessed by a Journal reporter:

Chief Thomas: “Were you offered any violence?”

Cora Childress: “Yes.”

Chief Thomas: “Did he accomplish his purpose?”

Cora Childress: “Yes.”

Chief Thomas decided that that meant that Cora had been raped, but she never made such a claim directly.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming maybe tomorrow.