There is no record of how Wyatt Outlaw reacted when Klansmen broke into his home on Feb. 26, 1870, the night he was lynched in front of the Alamance County courthouse. Court records describe how his attackers beat and hanged him, but don’t mention if he fought back.
His mother, Jemima Phillips, did. She later described being awakened that night by masked white men who smashed open the door of the Graham home she shared with her widowed son and three grandchildren.
They burst into her bedroom with torches, swords and pistols. One shouted, “where is Wyatt?” as he yanked the blanket off her. Others yelled, “Cut her head off!” and “Blow her brains out!” in an attempt to frighten her into telling them where to find her son.
The trial at which she testified was not that of the 18 former Confederates indicted for her son’s murder (between 50 and 100 are believed to have taken part). All charges against those men were dropped before their cases reached court.
Instead, Phillips testified in defense of William W. Holden, the North Carolina governor, who ordered the arrest of Wyatt Outlaw’s murderers. For arresting Klansmen, Holden was impeached. Soon, the county’s Black citizens would lose almost every right they’d gained since Sherman rolled through North Carolina after his Atlanta bonfire.
Holden’s impeachment trial was held in Raleigh 10 months later. In Graham on the night of Feb. 26, all Jemima Phillips knew was that these armed white men in robes and masks were looking for her son.
Her son, who had risen to a position of authority that she, a former slave, never dreamed possible when he was born, and who had fought against the Confederate government that wrote slavery into its constitution. Her son, who had defied terrorists seeking to revive that heritage of brutal white supremacy, and whose efforts as a political organizer threatened the economic interests of the rich white men who owned the county’s tobacco farms and railroad yards.
Not finding their prey, the Klansmen stormed back out into the hall. From another room, Phillips heard her youngest grandson screaming, “Daddy, oh, Daddy!”
Running to the source of the sound, the 73-year-old woman found Klansmen piled on top of her 50-year-old son, whom they’d overwhelmed as he was pulling on his pants. In the Raleigh courtroom, she said, “I got a stick and laid away as hard as I could.” Three men threw her down and stomped on her. “I arose three times, and they knocked me down, and then I hollered for murder, and they went off with him.”
She limped outside and saw her son, wearing only his underwear bottoms, being force-marched down Graham’s North Main Street by the torch-bearing mob. That was the last time she saw him alive.
There was nothing she could do. There were far more Klansmen in the street than the 20 or so she was lucky to have survived attacking, and it was no good yelling for Graham’s five constables. Her son was one of those constables, and the others had fled. All she could do was get the children away from this.
Over the course of America’s violent history, some men killed by mobs knelt and begged rather than struggled. This writer would like to think that Wyatt Outlaw resisted, that he struck out before being overwhelmed. It would have been in his nature to fight.
He was a Union veteran who fought Confederates in Virginia and Texas and fired on masked former Confederates in 1869 when he and other constables drove off a marauding party of Klansmen out to terrorize Graham’s Black citizens. This was cited by his killers as a justification for his murder, even though he was a police officer lawfully firing his weapon at terrorists.
(Some later claimed that another constable fired on the Klansmen, but that may have been an unsuccessful ploy by Holden’s defense team on the theory that, if Outlaw never fired on white men, the governor was more justified in ordering Outlaw’s killers arrested.)
Outlaw’s home was at 224 N. Main St. (the site of the present-day First Baptist Church of Graham), about 350 yards from the county courthouse. While his mother protected his children, Outlaw was dragged about 340 of those yards, kicked and beaten every step of the way.
Before he was hanged from the tree that stood where the county’s Confederate monument was erected 44 years later, one former Confederate drew a knife and slashed Outlaw’s mouth. This was a symbolic gesture; one of his killers would later say he was punished for being “mouthy.”
Also symbolic was the limb they chose to hang him from. It pointed towards the courthouse, the municipal authority that had allowed a Black man to shoot at Confederate veterans.
Like many Black southerners, Wyatt Outlaw was also a child of the Confederacy, born to a Black woman raped by her white owner. “Raped” doesn’t necessarily mean physically forced (although many Black women were), but that there is no consent when you’re owned.
Wyatt’s father was Chesley Farrar Faucett, one of the wealthiest men in the county. At some point, Farrar gave or sold Wyatt to another white family named Outlaw. The 1860 census lists Nancy Outlaw, by then a widow, as owning a 40-year-old slave of mixed ancestry, who was described as a “mechanic,” a general term for a craftsman. The 1870 census included Wyatt Outlaw by name, but rather than recording service as a constable and council member, simply listed him as a 50-year-old “mulatto cabinet maker.”
Currently, the most information on Wyatt Outlaw’s life can be found Carole Watterson Troxler’s “To look more closely at the man”: Wyatt Outlaw, Nexus of National, Local and Personal History, in North Carolina Historical Review Vol. 77, No. 4 (October 2000).
By 1863, Outlaw had either been freed or escaped, for he ended up in Union-held coastal North Carolina, where he joined the Second Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (the forerunners of the famous Buffalo Soldiers) and fought in several engagements in Virginia in 1864, then was sent to Texas, where he was mustered out in February of 1866.
He is documented as having returned to Alamance County by April of that year, when he opened a woodworking business in his home on Graham’s North Main Street, where he made coffins for paupers (charging the county $4 each) and repaired wagons. His shop also sold liquor, which made it a gathering place for both Black and white tradesmen.
In September 1866, Outlaw attended the Raleigh convention of the Equal Rights League, where he was elected to the convention’s board. The board coordinated statewide committees of “colored people” (“colored” could mean Native American as well as Black or biracial), who reported “cruelties and outrages” to both the organization and the press. In Raleigh, Outlaw met former-provisional Gov. William W. Holden, one of the few white politicians to attend.
After attending the convention, Outlaw organized the Alamance County Loyal Republican League, a political organization of Black and white working men. At Holden’s 1870 trial, the governor’s support of the league was cited as evidence for his impeachment.
In July 1867, Outlaw accepted a commission in the Union League from Holden, who was attempting to unite scattered Republican forces in North Carolina and push back against the Democrats who resisted Reconstruction and opposed Black suffrage.
(Some contemporary Republicans like to cite their party’s history of Abolitionism and support for the Civil Rights Act, and the Democratic Party’s identification with White Supremacy from the 19th century until the late 1960s while ignoring the post-’60s seismic shifts that tilted Republicans towards the South and conservatism, and Democrats in the opposite social and geographic directions.)
In 1869, newly elected Gov. Holden appointed Outlaw as a town commissioner in Graham. In response to Klan attacks on the town, the commission organized an armed night patrol. One of its three Black members was Outlaw.
Witnesses at later (and unsuccessful) attempts at prosecuting the Klan described Outlaw as “mouthy.” One Klansman testified, “Outlaw was hung because he was a politician” who “had been a leader of the Negroes.”
The attacks on the town were inspired by Joshua Turner, who denounced “Graham radicals” in his Raleigh newspaper, The Weekly Sentinel, and luridly described alleged Black-on-white crimes. The head of the Klan in North Carolina, Turner, was also director of the North Carolina Railroad Company, which feared alliances between Black and white railway workers.
Turner’s rhetoric united Alamance County planters with railroad owners and managers, who also needed Black labor but refused to treat those laborers fairly, despite attempts by the Freedman’s Bureau to enforce the use of equitable contracts. Former slaveowners expected Blacks to work 10 hours a day year-round, every day but Sunday, and to be “paid” in corn and wheat.
Although true labor unions were scarce and largely unsuccessful before the 1880s, Wyatt Outlaw can be seen not only as a Unionist, in the political terms that defined the Civil War, but also a union organizer in the modern sense—and was another reason why he was killed.
But there was also his association with what the word “Union” still meant for most people in 1870s North Carolina. As I’ve written, the Tarheel state was an often-unwilling member of the Confederacy.
Early in the war, support for the Union was less strong in Alamance than in neighboring Guilford and Randolph Counties, where Quaker influence created resistance to the draft even before the Richmond government sent troops to drag Tarheels as young as 15 and as old as 50 off to the killing fields of Gettysburg.
But once the age of conscription was lowered, some young white men in Alamance fled to the coast and enlisted in the Union army, on the theory that, if military service were unavoidable, at least the Yankees would treat them better.
While pro-Union sentiment grew stronger in the southern and central-western parts of Alamance County, it remained a minority position in the northern part. That’s where, in the first decade after the war, the Ku Klux Klan was most active.
The Confederate monument that currently stands on the site of Wyatt Outlaw’s murder is one of many erected across North Carolina in the first decades of the 20th century. The movement to do so was led by Henry London and his wife Bettie Jackson London, President of North Carolina’s United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Although he preferred being addressed as “Major,” Henry London never held that rank in the Confederate army. He had avoided most of the war by being a student at Chapel Hill, but was drafted after graduation, and served for six months as a private before Lee’s surrender.
After the war, London championed white supremacy in his newspaper, The Chatham Record, and campaigned for the 1900 Amendment to the North Carolina Constitution, which required voters to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test if they were not descended from men registered before 1867 (meaning white men).
The April 2, 1900, issue of the Greensboro Telegraph printed a speech in which London said:
“Remember that the amendment will diminish the Negro vote by about 80,000. And this means that the votes of 80,000 white men, which are now killed by negro voters, will then count to swell the majority for white supremacy.”
Fourteen years later, London gave the dedication speech for Alamance County’s Confederate Monument. The Master of Ceremonies who introduced him, and also spoke, was Jacob Long.
In 1868, when the Ku Klux Klan was introduced into Alamance from Guilford County, Long was named “Chief of Camp Number One.” He then expanded that initial Klan “camp” into 10, inducting many of the county’s leading citizens, as well as some from Chatham. He was not only the founder but the sole and undisputed leader of the Klan in Alamance County, where his major objective was to remove armed Blacks (meaning constables) from the streets of Graham.
Like Henry London, Jacob Long opposed educating Black people, ordering his men to burn down a schoolhouse “to put a stop to the n***** school” (quoted in Shuttle and Plow: a history of Alamance County, North Carolina, by Carole W. Troxler, William M. Vincent, p. 327).
In late 1870, Long was arrested and indicted for being an accessory to the murder of Wyatt Outlaw. On Dec. 21, 1871, after Gov. Holden was driven impeached and exiled from North Carolina, all charges against Long were dismissed.
Long’s Master of Ceremonies speech at the 1914 ceremony dedicating Alamance County’s Confederate memorial included the following paragraph:
“It is well for us now and then to turn aside from the duties of everyday life, and together celebrate some great event in which we all have a common interest; to recall the achievements of the great and good of our own race and blood, and speak some word or perform some act, or direct some memorial which will keep fresh in our memories services, sacrifices, and events that ought not to be forgotten.”
The statue he was dedicating— a generic depiction of a Confederate soldier identical to others mass-produced by the McNeel Marble Company of Marietta, Georgia, and sold throughout the South—still stands. The home of the man lynched on that spot, by the masked minions of the Klan leader who gave that speech, does not.
There is currently no monument to Wyatt Outlaw anywhere in the county where he was born, served and murdered.
I’d like to thank Mike Scott, whose extensive citations for his June 12, 2020, Medium article “The Confederate Monument standing where the Klan killed Wyatt Outlaw,” proved invaluable. Scott’s article is subtitled “An open letter regarding Alamance County, North Carolina’s Confederate monument” and is addressed “Dear Commissioners of Alamance County.”
I recently asked Scott if he ever received a response from those commissioners. He replied, “I’ve had extended and disappointing discussions with Commission Chair Amy Galey, to whom I’m related.”