A note before we begin Part 2:

At eleven AM on November 11, 1918, the armistice that ended what would become known as World War I took effect. But it would be some time before US troops returned to American soil. Winston-Salem, like most cities, had its own local militia, known as the Forsyth Rifles (eventually Co G, 120th Infantry, NC National Guard). The Rifles were a well trained, well disciplined unit, designed to handle just such events as occurred in Winston-Salem on November 17, 1918.

Unfortunately, since the regular Army was  engaged elsewhere, the Forsyth Rifles, as a part of the NC National Guard, had been dispatched in 1916 to New Mexico to help deter raids across the border by Pancho Villa. When that National Guard unit came home in 1917, they were immediately redeployed to South Carolina to train for an  infantry role in Europe. They were still in Europe in November, 1918 as a part of an engineering regiment, so the only available local militia was a unit known as the Home Guard, made up of much older and much younger and less experienced men than the Rifles.

As you will see, the Home Guard performed well, even heroically, on the night of November 17, 1918, but it is difficult to deny that had the Rifles themselves been present, things would have turned out much better.


Members of the Forsyth Rifles in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. Captain Jesse. C. Bessent, who commanded the Home Guard during the November 1918 event, is at the right in the front row. Bessent eventually retired with the rank of colonel. Bessent was an insurance agent. The NC Room has his 1907 copy of the Sanborn Insurance maps.


On Sunday morning, November 17, 1918, the Winston-Salem Journal reported the assault on Jim and Cora Childress the night before along the railroad tracks near Inverness Mill and that despite an intense search by local residents, white and black, and the police, no one had been arrested for the crimes.

Around noon, a young black man, Russell High, who it turned out had just stepped off an incoming train, was arrested at the corner of Fourth and Depot Streets and charged with carrying a concealed weapon. Chief Thomas took High to the Childress home on Inverness Row and had Cora Childress come out onto the porch to see if she could identify High as her abductor.

Since there were several neighbors present in the yard, Thomas asked Cora not to say anything in front of them. After a few minutes, he asked if she had looked at High sufficiently, to which she replied with a nod. Inside the house, she told the chief that she was unable to identify High as her abductor.

Thomas took High back to the city jail, but the damage had already been done. Hysterical neighbors took Cora’s nod as confirmation that High was the guilty party, and rumors began to spread. In mid-afternoon a group of men, mostly from the Inverness area, began congregating near the city jail. By four o’clock, the number had grown to 100-200. As word spread, curious citizens began gathering to see what would happen. By six o’clock the number of people in the jail area may have been as high as three thousand.

By then, Chief Thomas had determined that High had recently come to Winston-Salem from Durham, that he had a good reputation and that he was in no way connected with the crimes committed on Saturday night.

A number of prominent citizens, including Mayor Ralph W. Gorrell; attorney William M. Hendren; the Reverend Doctor Henry A. Brown, pastor of 1st Baptist Church, and others spoke to the crowd, pleading with them to go home and let justice take its course.

Meanwhile, Chief Thomas had had Cora Childress brought to the jail for a second attempt at identification. Concurrently, the Home Guard had been placed inside the Town Hall, with fixed bayonets but under orders not to fire.

Unfortunately, the public viewing on Inverness Row had already interfered with the logical process, and Judge Lynch was in the mob in the person of one Frank Hester, who was “whooping and shouting”. “Bring out the woman!” the mob cried.

A little before six o’clock, when Cora did not appear, the mob surged into the building. One source reported their number as 500, which is preposterous, because nowhere near 500 people could have fit into that part of the building. One older Home Guardsman was pushed down the steps, wrenching his back. Inside, pandemonium reigned.

Since it was still the day shift, Luther Brown was in charge of the jail keys. The mob demanded that he give them up. Instead, he produced a gun and refused. The first of many acts of heroism.

The mob managed to break into the tiny cell block and confront High, who was “greatly excited”, as one might imagine. He denied the charge and begged to be taken from the mob to a place of safety.

Brown later testified that A.R. Castevens seemed to be the leader of the mob, which was shouting “We are the Inverness Cotton Mills crowd, and we’ve come after the nigger! We’re going to have him!”

At that point, someone fired a shot at High, but hit, instead, another mob member, Jack Rumple, in the stomach. That allowed the Home Guard to push the mob out of the building, where they established a perimeter at the intersection of Fourth and Main Streets.

Cora Childress was brought out to address the crowd. She told them that she was unable to identify High as her assailant, and that his gun was not “shiny” like the one she had seen on Saturday night. But by this time, there was no reason left. Someone fired a shot at the light at the entrance to the Town Hall.

By then, the fire department had joined the police and Home Guard. Captain Bessent later stated that he was left with only two choices, “…fire into the crowd or turn the hose on them.” At about six o’clock, he chose the second option.

The mob reacted angrily to the hosing and one of them, who was standing in the middle of Main Street, shouted “kill them all” and fired four or five rounds at the firemen. Robert Young, a former city policeman who was volunteering with the fire department while awaiting induction into the military, fell dead on the spot. At a preliminary hearing, several witnesses identified the man who had fired the shots as Ernest “Jack” Cromer, an employee of the R,J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Cromer was bound over to the next session of Superior Court.

Henry H. Martin later testified that he and E.T. Mickey had been asked by fire chief Nissen to help the firemen manage the hose. After a few minutes, Mickey had to leave and was replaced by police chief Thomas. Moments before the shooting began, Chief Thomas was summoned to his office and was replaced by Robert Young, who was shot dead a few seconds later.


At this point, general firing of guns broke out. Lillie Levi, a Russian Jew, operated a clothing store at 405 North Main Street in a retail space built into the ground level of the Town Hall. Her daughter, Rachel, who had just celebrated her 13th birthday, poked her head out to see what was going on. She was struck by a stray round and killed.

Robert P. Rawley, a Home Guardsman, was hit in the arm. He had his wound dressed and was told to go home, but he refused and stepped back into the line. Several other officers and Home Guardsmen were hit by gunfire but also refused to step down.

At around the same time, an intense rain storm hit the city, and most of the law abiding curious fled for home, leaving a few dozen hardcore would-be lynchers at the scene. Members of the mob scattered, breaking into several nearby hardware and sporting goods stores to steal guns and ammunition. At one store, they were greeted by the owner, who leveled a pistol at them and said “Boys, you will probably get me, but the first one through the door is a dead man.” The mob moved on.


Much of the shooting from then on was done by teenaged boys, many of them still in short pants. And most of the shooting was done into the air. Many of the windows in the Town Hall were shattered by gunfire or rocks and bricks. And the hard core crowd surged eastward along Fourth Street, toward the nearest black neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, in those neighborhoods, the word had spread about the doings at the Town Hall. Most black citizens emulated George Black…locked their doors and turned out the lights. But a few decided to capitalize on the situation and some looting broke out in scattered areas.

At that point, Mayor Gorrell contacted the mayors of Greensboro and Mt. Airy and governor Bickett in Raleigh, asking for help. The Home Guards from Mt. Airy and Greensboro, along with 8-10 Greensboro police officers, were immediately dispatched by train for Winston-Salem. Governor Bickett ordered federalized National Guardsmen from Camp Green, near Charlotte, and Camp Polk, near Raleigh, to the Twin City.

Sometime around eight o’clock, a group of armed black looters stopped a car near the intersection of Fifth and Linden Streets. The driver, Charles White, a lineman for the Southern Public Utilities Company (forerunner of Duke Power) said “Nothing doing boys, let me by. I’m an electric light man.”

According to a statement by one of the looters, Jacob Jackson, White started to drive on but a man called “Horse” stepped in front of the car and another man, Will Davis, jumped on the running board. Jackson said that he then saw Davis thrust a dark colored pistol between the stays of the car top and fire. At the same time, several other shots were fired.

White then drove away, stopping at the Hutchins drugstore on Liberty Street near Fourth, where first aid was administered. White died the next morning.

By the time White was shot, the white mob had settled in around the Union Depot, the main train station at the corner of Third and Chestnut Streets, firing wildly in the air and taking pot shots at any black person who showed his face on the other side of the railroad tracks. One of those, George Johnson, a laborer, was hit and killed. He is the only known black victim of the riot.

The newspapers mentioned two other black victims, a man and a woman. But a careful reading of death certificates issued at the time reveals that no other black people died that night or in any subsequent days from anything other than natural causes. The newspaper headline originally claimed that five people had been killed. The actual total was four.

The first reinforcements, from Mt. Airy and Greensboro, arrived sometime between eight and nine o’clock. By ten o’clock, Captain Bessent had deployed them along Depot Street in a “no-cross” line that applied to both white and black citizens. By midnight, only scattered gunshots could be heard anywhere in the area.

At around four AM, the detachment of guardsmen from Camp Green, about 75 men under the command of Major G. B. Wilcox, arrived. It was thought best that they avoid the depot area, so they went to the railroad siding near the Methodist Children’s Home, from whence they were marched double time up Summit Street and along Fourth Street to the armory in the Town Hall. As soon as they were settled in, they relieved the local Home Guard, who were by then near exhaustion.

Two hours later, the detachment from Camp Polk, 18 officers and 250 men, with two machine guns, two automatic rifles and one M1918 Ford tank, arrived at the depot. They were marched the two blocks to the courthouse, which would become their home and headquarters. The tank was parked on the northeast corner of the square, opposite the Town Hall.

In the hours before dawn, all persons abroad were stopped and searched for weapons. A few arrests were made, but the riot was already over. The local chapter of the American Red Cross brought the troops blankets, apples, cigars and tickets good for a hot drink at any downtown drugstore, and showed them where the local YMCA was located.


The headline included among the deaths a man and a woman said to have been killed, but did not include the death of Charles White, who did not die until the next day. It turned out that the man and woman had not been killed, so the headline was incorrect; only four people were killed on Sunday night. Nevertheless, the headline and stories were picked up and published in newspapers across the nation.

Once the sun was up on Monday the 18th, the local police, freed from more urgent duties, began rounding up and arresting those responsible for the previous day’s depredations. Over the next few weeks, virtually all of them would be tried and punished in the local courts, most receiving 7-11 months on the chain gang.

On Tuesday, the 19th, most of the troops returned to their bases, leaving about 100 behind just in case. Those were gone within a few days.

Ernest “Jack” Cromer was arrested and charged with the murder of Robert Young. The trial began before newly elected judge T.D. Bryson in Forsyth County Superior Court with jury selection from a special venire of 75 prospects on Wednesday, January 8, 1919. The key witness for the prosecution, Sandy R. East, a clerk at James S. Moser’s grocery store on North Liberty Street, testified that he knew Ernest Cromer, that he was standing a few feet away when Cromer, who was planted in the middle of Main Street, just north of the firemen, yelled “Kill them all!” and began firing a pistol. He said that Cromer got off five shots, all aimed at the firemen, and that Cromer was the only one firing at that moment. The defense threw everything they had into his cross examination, but could not shake him. Because some of their questions were designed to impugn East’s character, the prosecution then put on several character witnesses to try to repair that damage.

Police Chief James Thomas had tracked down all five bullets. One had hit the Town Hall building, leaving a scar in the granite. Another was found embedded in a wooden post at the corner of the building. Another had gone through the hat of one of the Home Guards, then broken the window of a store across Fourth Street. The fourth had struck another Home Guard in the arm. And the fifth had killed Robert Young. Thomas had plotted the trajectories of the bullets, all of which converged on the spot where Sandy East said Ernest Cromer was standing. That evidence was buttressed by several of the firemen and Home Guards who had seen muzzle flashes coming from the same spot. All of them confirmed that those were the only shots fired before Young was mortally wounded.

The defense called a half dozen witnesses, including Cromer’s father, father-in-law and best friend. The two older men claimed that the shots came from a different direction entirely. The friend said he saw Cromer ride off on his motorcycle before the shooting began. The others told conflicting stories which were also in conflict with all other evidence, eyewitness and physical.

Judge Bryson’s late Saturday afternoon charge to the jury consumed at least an hour. Just a few minutes after retiring to the jury room, the jurors sent out a message that they would be done within ten minutes. Judge Bryson told the bailiff to caution them that they should weigh the evidence carefully before rendering a verdict, but within another few minutes, the jury was again seated in the jury box. It was, after all, a Saturday night. In the end, the prosecution lawyers, Solicitor S. Porter Graves and Fred M. Parrish, were unable to convince the jurors that Cromer was the killer. The jury found him “not guilty”. No one was ever convicted for killing Robert Young.

Three black men were charged in the murder of Charles White. Jacob Jackson and a white man who came forward much later after White’s employer had posted a $500 reward, were the prime witnesses. Jim Scales was found “not guilty”. Will Jones was sentenced to seven years in the state penitentiary. Will Davis was found guilty of first degree murder, and on January 17, 1919, sentenced to die in the electric chair on March 11, 1919. In April, the state Supreme Court denied the automatic appeal and set a new execution date, August 8. But Davis’s lawyer,  J.B. Craver, made a direct appeal to Governor Bickett for commutation. In September, the governor made a statement, pointing out that it was uncertain which of the several shots fired had killed White, and that the two primary witnesses, one black, one white, were not reliable people. He commuted Will Davis’s death sentence to thirty years in prison. An appeal for a pardon was filed in 1922 by Will Davis’s sister, but was apparently refused. No further information has surfaced regarding him.

The police were never able to determine who was responsible for the deaths of Rachel Levi and George Johnson.

But to many, the most important prosecutions were of those who broke into the Town Hall intent on lynching a prisoner. In 1893, the North Carolina legislature became one of the first to pass an “anti-lynching” law. It had been invoked only once before, during the administration of governor Robert Glenn, Winston-Salem’s only governor, to punish perpetrators of a successful lynching.

Under this law, anyone accused could not be tried in the county in which the offense had occurred. So those arrested in this case were to be put on trial in Dobson, the seat of Surry County. The trial was held in February of 1919. Twenty men were charged. The result:

Andy Gilliam, not guilty.

Will Walton, judgment suspended.

None Myers, nol pros.

Clarence (sometimes misidentified in the newspapers as Lawrence) Caldwell, Jack Rumple, $150 fine, plus costs. Both men were from Statesville, but had been working in Winston-Salem for some time. Rumple was the man who had been wounded when someone fired a shot inside the jail. Both claimed that they merely followed the crowd into the jail out of curiosity. They both pleaded guilty to breaking into the jail, paid their fines and were released.

George Douthit, Pleas Cline, Winn Carter, Walter Kiser, Grover Kiser, J.E. Savage, 14 months on the roads.

Frank Hester, 16 months on the roads.

John Brandon, two years, $500 fine, plus costs.

Arthur Manly, three years, $500 fine, plus costs.

J.L. Mabe, Carl Fields, four years, $500 fine, plus costs.

Pierce Hammonds, Ira Whitaker, A.R. Castevens, Cris Chapple, six years, $500 fine, plus costs.

Some of these later had their sentences commuted or were even pardoned, but most served their full time. It was the first time in the South that a serious attempt had been made to punish so many members of a lynch mob.

After the National Guard troops arrived on Monday morning, Russell High was sent under heavy guard by train to Raleigh and lodged in Central Prison for his protection. On Friday, November 30, through his lawyer, he pleaded guilty to the charge of carrying a concealed weapon in the Twin City, paid a $50 fine and was released in Raleigh, never to return to Winston-Salem.

In the aftermath, much praise was heaped upon the local police and the Home Guard for standing their ground and refusing to allow the mob to have its way. And grateful thanks were extended to the Mt. Airy, Greensboro and National Guard folks for helping out in an emergency.

But Captain Bessent published an open letter to the citizens of Winston-Salem, pointing out that the gathering of the merely curious, pressing in as it did on all sides, prevented the police and the Home Guard from taking more effective measures against the mob. He suggested that the next time something like this happened, they should go home and stay there.


Above we named mostly the bad guys in this event. I would now like to try to name the good guys. Unfortunately, we do not know all the names of our own Home Guard, or even how many of them there were. Maybe someone can rectify that down the road. For the moment, we can name six:

Frank O’Brien, who wrenched his back when pushed by mob members down the steps of the Town Hall.

Ray Rawley, who was shot in the arm and returned to the line after receiving first aid.

Gray Trulove, who was shot in the foot but also returned to the line.

Lieutenant Charles Morrall a customs agent in the Federal Building.

Lieutenant Ham Horton, a dentist, who was peppered in the face by a shotgun blast but also remained in the line. And yes, he was the ancestor of our late, great state senator Ham Horton.

Jesse Bessent, who commanded the Home Guard throughout this trying ordeal.

We do have a list of the officers and non-commissioned officers of the Home Guard from earlier that summer:

Captain Jesse C. Bessent
1st Lieutenant Julian A. Stith
2nd Lieutenant H.V. Horton
1st Sergeant C.F. Morrall
Supply Sergeant R.R. Kinney
Mess Sergeant Lewis E. Ellis
2nd Sergeant W.D. Hicks
3rd Sergeant C.W. Clodfelter
4th Sergeant E. Maulden
5th Sergeant W.A. Holder
Corporal Talmadge Davis
Corporal T.S. Kiser


We can do a bit better with our local police force, because their names were listed in the 1918 city directory:

City jail turnkeys: Luther Brown, E.D. Rothrock

Patrolmen: E.C. Young, S.L. Swaim, R.L. Blackburn, J.L. Matthews, H.C. Whiteheart, C.A. Pratt, T.R. Hendrix, P.W. Dalton, E.E. Wooten, J.R. Bryant, A.C. Wall, J.W. Mabe, T.J. Reavis, J.D. George, R.L. Hatcher, B.J. Lea, B.R. Reich, C.W. Holder

Plain clothesmen: T.A. Earley, R.W. Bryan

2nd Sergeant: J.T. Thompson

1st Sergeant: J.J. Cofer

Chief: J.A. Thomas

Luther Brown probably saved Russel High’s life

Turnkey Luther Brown was the biggest hero of the day, even though he was not a very big man, standing 5′ 9 ” and weighing only 140 pounds. It was almost unheard of in lynch law days for a mere turnkey to defy an armed mob. But when they demanded his keys, Brown stepped into an adjacent office, borrowed a pistol, pointed it at the mob and said “No”. Brown also provided key testimony that led to the convictions of many of the jailbreakers.

Officer Elsie E. Wooten was shot in the jaw and sent to the hospital.

1st Sergeant Jesse Cofer, also a fire department member, and Detective Robert Bryant were both shot in the hand. Both remained in the line.

Officer R.N. Adams was shot and wounded, yet stayed his post. Officer Adams was directing traffic at the corner of Main and Fourth when the mob surged into the jail. He later testified that while trying to force the mob out, he saw and heard Ernest Cromer scream “Go over the top and get him and kill him.”


For the moment, the Mt. Airy boys will have to remain anonymous. But thanks to the Greensboro Daily News, we know who came to help from that quarter. We are not given the names of the 8-10 Greensboro policemen, but here is the full roster of the Greensboro Home Guard on that night:

Privates: S.E. Shuping, Percy Brewer, J.H. Kennan, P.A. Hayes, O.P. McArthur, Wm. C.A. Hammel, J.S. Betts, C.H. McKnight, Nescue Lewis, R.S. Petty, Mack Floyd, W.L. Palmer, John L. Crawford, L.K. Thompson, E.C. Love, N.R. Ham, R.L. Blaylock, W.L. Brewer, R.P. Bullard, S.W. Bagley, M.L. Bush, M.M. Boyles, J.E. Cartland, J.J. Smith, W.H. York, W.B. Vought, W.S. Ross, John L. Thacker, E.W. Pearce, B.W. Marsh, J.E. Albright, Howard Gardner, W. Ernest Boyles, L.M. King, W.M. Ridenhour, C.G. Harrison, J.T. Rieves, H.S. Alderman, K.F. Winstead, W.N. Iseley, F.M. Hood, F.M. Grantham, R.C. Strudwick, F.N. Milloway, S.J. Stern, G.W. Foushee, J.G. Foushee, R.E. Pearce.

2nd lieutenant: H.R. Bush

1st lieutenant: Eli Oettinger

Captain: L.J. Brandt

Some of these guys showed up at the armory without proper arms. The Odell Hardware store was opened on Sunday night to provide them with appropriate weapons.


In 1910, James and Cora Childress were living with their three daughters in Mount Airy, NC, where James was employed as a driller at the Mount Airy Granite Quarry. Around 1914-15, they moved to the Inverness Mill area, just outside the Winston-Salem city limits.

When James arrived at City memorial Hospital on the evening of November 16, 1918, he was listed in critical condition. But he survived his injuries.

After his recovery, the Childresses moved back to Mount Airy, where James found work as a janitor in a textile mill. James died sometime in the 1920s. Cora died on September 29, 1931. At the time, she was living in the household of one of her daughters, who herself had become a widow.


For part 1 of this story, go here: https://northcarolinaroom.wordpress.com/2013/11/09/the-great-1918-race-riot-part-one-2/

For a followup showing pictures of some of the many heroes, go here: https://northcarolinaroom.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/names-and-faces-of-heroes-1918-riot/