Bursting onto the scene this week in the last few minutes of a Graham city council meeting was an idea proposed by NAACP president Barrett Brown that the council should change the name of Sesquicentennial Park, across from the Historic Court House.
Instead, the park should be re-named, Brown urged, in memory of Wyatt Outlaw, the black Republican constable who was lynched in 1870, during part of the white, Southern Democratic resistance against Reconstruction following the Civil War.
And, to our surprise, mayor Jerry Peterman blithely agreed to schedule the topic for discussion on next month’s city council meeting agenda.
No research required. No context – either for the existing park or for Wyatt Outlaw.
There are a number of issues of substantive concern. Let’s start with those involving the existing park, which was dedicated in 1999 as a part of festivities celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of Alamance County.
Alamance County was carved from Orange County in 1849, with Graham established as the county seat, a bow to William Graham, then the governor of North Carolina who was from Hillsborough, the county seat – then and now – of Orange County.
Residents gave money for the Sesquicentennial Park, many buying commemorative bricks that line the park to this day.
Additionally, if we recall correctly, the county commissioners also made a significant contribution of county tax dollars – somehow we think we remember the figure to be $50,000 – for the establishment of the Sesquicentennial Park.
[Editor’s Note: a subsequent preliminary search through county commissioner minutes does not confirm the publisher’s recollection, although collections from cookbook sales, history books, the commemorative bricks, and other events apparently raised about that much.]
The Sesquicentennial Park was supposed to be a long-lasting tribute, or memorial, to what became a yearlong celebration of the county’s founding and the first 150 years of its history.
According to the proclamation adopted unanimously by the county’s commissioners for instance, that “garden-park,” as it was described, “will now and forever more be known as “Sesquicentennial Park.”
Yet apparently, 21 years later, all of this tribute and celebration of the county’s 150-year-old history would be simply wiped away by a simple proposal to rename the park.
Procedurally, we’re not even sure it’s within the city council’s power or authority to rename the park. As we say, we recall that the designation was a joint one – between the city and the county. Both joint funding and a joint designation, as best we recall – to say nothing of the many donations made by private citizens for support of the endeavor.
Graham’s own sesquicentennial occurred two years later, in 2001, in recognizing the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding in 1851, designated and carved from nothing in the geographic center of Alamance County.
Now, we’ve stated before, but let us repeat: we have nothing against establishing some form of memorial or tribute to recognize Wyatt Outlaw.
His murder is a stark reminder of a dark period in the nation’s, and the county’s, history.
According to records from the day, he was dragged from his home on North Main Street (about where the First Baptist Church is located today) and taken somewhere downtown where he was hung on Saturday night, February 26, 1870.
The exact location of the hanging is not known. It is generally described as “near” or “close to” the courthouse, or “in Court Square.” Contrary to much of the rhetoric, including Brown’s written description to the city council, there is not conclusive evidence that Outlaw was hanged either at the location of the park, or – as others have asserted – at the site of the current Confederate monument on the north side of the courthouse across from the park.
Photographs of the time period bring into question whether there were any trees sufficiently large enough near the courthouse to have sustained a lynching.
But the exact site is not as significant as the tragic, and historically significant event itself. Outlaw’s murder, along with another murder (of a white Republican) in adjacent Caswell County, prompted a crackdown on the two counties, and a declaration of martial law, by the Republican governor, W.W. Holden.
The alleged excesses of the response to the murders served to provide fodder for the ascendant Democratic Party in the state, which when it gained a stronger position in the General Assembly, successfully sought to impeach Holden and remove him from office, and which they succeeded at doing.
At any rate, and as noted, we think it appropriate to consider some form of memorial to remember Outlaw. The city could petition to the state to erect an historical marker somewhere in downtown – either near his home (about which there is greater certainty of location) or elsewhere in the downtown area.
If so, it would require some historians to come to a consensus on how to describe the events in a description succinct enough to fit on the typical historical marker.
Alternatively, the city could come up with its own historical marker, which (at least in other cities) are often not as constrained in word counts or size.
Here’s a very preliminary suggestion, made five years ago, by Elon University history professor emeritus Carole Troxler, who is also the co-author of a book, published in 1999, on the county’s history. It is a bit long for most markers, but it provides some example of what might be included:
“Reconstruction-era Civil Rights leader WYATT OUTLAW (1820-1870) was a northern Alamance County tobacco farmer and furniture maker of African and European ancestry. His legal status before the Civil War was imprecise. Using the surname of his nominal owner, he joined the U.S. Colored Troops as a cavalryman in 1863 and served in Virginia and Texas until April 1866, when he settled in Graham as a cabinetmaker. Two African American churches and a school were organized in his home and cabinet shop, about three-tenths of a mile north of the courthouse. A delegate to the 1866 N.C. Freedman’s Convention, he organized the Union League in Alamance County and was a Republican Party leader and a Graham town commissioner when he was hanged near the courthouse in the night of 26 February 1870. Governor William Holden, responding to Outlaw’s murder and similar violence, sent state militia to quell insurrection in Alamance and Caswell counties. Eighteen local men, allegedly ku klux, were indicted in late 1871 for Outlaw’s murder. The charges were dropped in March 1874, under a state indemnity law.”
Troxler noted that the term “ku klux” was the term used at the time; other historians have been unable to agree on the affiliations, if any, of the mob that lynched Outlaw although they were certainly sympathetic to the klan’s overall objectives and anti-Reconstruction policies of the time.
There could be some monument, marker, plaque, or other tribute erected. But in any case, honoring Outlaw does not need to require dishonoring, or scrubbing, the Sesquicentennial Park.