Wyatt Outlaw’s great-great grandson – who, at 77, appears to be one of the last remaining relatives of Graham’s first black city commissioner and constable – says he supports a proposal to rename the Sesquicentennial Park in Court Square as Wyatt Outlaw Park.
Graham’s city council members have agreed to consider a request to rename the “garden park” in downtown Graham at their next meeting on February 9, in response to a proposal that Alamance County NAACP president and Graham resident Barrett Brown submitted last week.
Outlaw’s great-great grandson, Samuel Merritt, a retired epidemiologist who worked for the state Department of Health and Human Services and lives in Raleigh, said this week he thinks it’s a “great idea” to rename the park for his great-great grandfather.
Outlaw grew up in the Union Ridge community in northwestern Alamance County and served in the 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Cavalry during the Civil War. He returned home in April 1866 and rose to prominence in the local Union League and Republican Party, based on a history of the county that Drs. Bill Vincent, then-director of the Alamance County Historical Museum, and Carole Troxler, then a history professor at Elon University, wrote for the 150th anniversary of the county’s founding in 1999. During the four years between his return home from the Civil War and his murder by the White Brotherhood in 1870, Outlaw rose to prominence within the local Republican Party and the Union League, which was established during Reconstruction to recruit blacks to the Republican party, Vincent and Troxler wrote in their history book, Shuttle & Plow: A History of Alamance County, North Carolina.
“I think it’s something that would definitely be endearing to family members,” Merritt said Tuesday in an interview with The Alamance News. “Our ranks have sort of thinned out, but I certainly am happy that would be happening.”
Merritt descended from the youngest of Outlaw’s three sons, William “Oscar” Outlaw, he said Tuesday. Other than him and his three grown daughters – and possibly one cousin near Baltimore – Merritt said he doesn’t think there are any remaining descendants of Wyatt Outlaw.
Merritt credits local historian Walter Boyd – a retired patent attorney and an amateur actor who has written and performed in community theater productions, including a play about Wyatt Outlaw that ran at the Paramount Theater in Burlington in 2015 and 2016 – with much of what he knows about his great-great grandfather.
Boyd initially learned about Outlaw through stories his grandmother told him as a child, and later from poring over thousands of pages of historic documents archived in Raleigh, he explained Tuesday. Several years ago, while helping out with a play about Outlaw that ran at the Paramount Theater in Burlington, Merritt came to meet him, and they’ve been friends ever since, Boyd said.
Growing up, Merritt picked up bits and pieces about his great-great grandfather’s life and murder through stories that his grandmother, Nancy Outlaw Williams, and his mother, Lucy Williams Merritt, passed down, he told the newspaper Tuesday. “I guess, for reasons of hurt, it was never fully discussed,” Merritt explained. Accounts from the state historic archives helped to fill in some pieces of the genealogical puzzle, he said, but his side of the family had migrated to the Henderson area by the time he was born, leaving a 70-mile and 73-year gap between great-great grandfather’s murder in downtown Graham in February 1870.
“A lot has been omitted [from the history books],” Merritt elaborated. “I never had a thorough education as to everything that happened during those years; I’ve had a more personal education. My mother, grandmother, we had small conversations, but nothing in depth.”
Merritt’s education about Wyatt Outlaw has deepened in recent years, mainly through people like Boyd, whom he calls a “wellspring of information,” and other local historians, he said this week. In fact, Merritt deferred many of the newspaper’s questions about his great-great grandfather’s civic involvement in the early days of Graham to Boyd. Boyd said much of what he unearthed about Outlaw, mostly from thousands of pages of testimony given during the 1871 impeachment trial of N.C. Governor William W. Holden, will be incorporated into a book he’s writing about the history of Burlington and Elon.
“Quite a bit has come about to enlighten me about what happened during that turbulent period,” said Merritt. “History is what it is – some folks treat it like a buffet, choose the things they like and leave the things they don’t. I feel almost as though I’ve been adopted [by Boyd and others in Alamance County] because so much of that family history was not available to me growing up. I never had the luxury of knowing the historical facts regarding my family member.”
Merritt grew up in Henderson and says he had never even visited Alamance County until the last 15 or 20 years. He said he hasn’t followed the news about the “racial justice” protests that have been held in Graham since last summer and wouldn’t offer his opinion about proposals that have been made to remove or relocate the Confederate monument that stands at the northeast entrance to Alamance County’s Historic Court House.
Merritt, however, is less reserved when it comes to whether Outlaw deserves a tribute. “That warms my heart,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve seen the park, and that’s a nice gesture. He had quite a significant footprint on North Carolina’s history during that turbulent period. I’m not the newest kid on the block or the youngest kid in the congregation – I would like something done that honors him. I’m that long-lost relative that lives in Raleigh and would like something done appropriately to commemorate him.”