Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching and Reckoning in the New South (review)
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Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching and Reckoning in the New South. By Claude A. Clegg III. (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 224. $80.00 cloth; $27.00 paper)

In the epilogue to his book, Professor Clegg describes a recent visit to his home town of Salisbury, North Carolina. His purpose is to conjure up a spectral image of the racial violence that had occurred in Salisbury. There sits the same jail from which prisoners were abducted to be lynched. There grows the same tree from which victims were hung and riddled with bullets. Alas, he is unsuccessful. The modern-day view does not yield to the historical one. Fortunately, for those who may never visit Salisbury, Professor Clegg has provided an excellent historical account of the history of racial violence in this place. Sadly, it is a place much like many other counties in the American South for which similar stories could be told.

Clegg's story begins with an overview of the history of southern lynching. He then proceeds to document a series of lynchings that took place in Rowan County in the early twentieth century. We learn [End Page 263] of the murders of Harrison Gillespie and James Gillespie in June 1902. They were children, thirteen and eleven years of age, respectively. The brothers were taken from the Salisbury jail by a mob before the benefit of a trial. In 1906, two more members of the Gillespie family, Nease and John, were lynched, along with Jack Dillingham. John Gillespie was sixteen. Like the earlier lynching, these three men were taken by a mob that stormed the jail in Salisbury. For these and other lynching incidents Glegg draws from archival material to explain in detail the circumstances that led up to the killings, the abductions and executions themselves, and their consequences in the community and beyond.

An important consequence, and one that serves as a focal point for Clegg's story, is the inconvenience that these mob murders represented for two North Carolina governors, Charles B. Aycock and Robert B. Glenn. Both men had championed white supremacy and the fear of "negro domination" during their campaigns. Yet, both also hoped for stability and tranquility during their terms in office to help project the image of a "New South." Aycock's tenure was inconvenienced by the lynching of the two Gillespie boys. Glenn's term was inconvenienced by the lynching of the other Gillespies and Dillingham. To readers who are familiar with the sad history of southern mob violence, the lengths to which these two governors went to prevent or investigate the Salisbury lynchings may be surprising. Readers who are less acquainted might find the governors' actions woefully inadequate. On the one hand, both governors assigned investigators to the incidents, with the hope of identifying specific mob members. Glenn mobilized the "Rowan Rifles" to protect the Salisbury jail after the two Gillespies and Dillingham were indicted for murder. Following their lynching, Glenn sent the National Guard to Salisbury to prevent further violence. When rumors circulated that a resurrected mob was forming, the Guard positioned Gatlin guns at the jailhouse. George Hall, a lower class outsider with a history of criminality was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. On the other hand, the lynchings did occur, and Hall was the only mob member to face justice. [End Page 264]

As an historian, Clegg is a storyteller—and a fine one. The scholarship that produced Troubled Ground is thorough and impressive. The narrative is clear and engaging. As a story teller, Clegg does not attempt to identify qualities of the Rowan County lynchings that might be generalizable to mob violence elsewhere, nor should he. Still, as a sociologist, I disagree with Clegg's apparent dismissal of the potential for others to make generalizations from different types of evidence, as reflected in the following sentence: "Based on the available data and the constellation of variables behind each lynching, any assertions maintaining indisputable linkages existed between economic conditions, geography, rural life, and lynchings are tenuous at best and unfounded in at least some instances" (p. 35). The study of...