What does a community do when some of its most prominent citizens commit an act of evil or covered one up? That question got under my skin as I investigated the lynching in 1921 of a 16-year old …
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What does a community do when some of its most prominent citizens commit an act of evil or covered one up? That question got under my skin as I investigated the lynching in 1921 of a 16-year old Chatham boy named Eugene Daniel.
You can see it on YouTube by searching “A Mass of Murderers” and my name, or through this link: https://youtu.be/2D_T6rv7nHI
But you probably won’t. Most people want to forget about stuff like that, just like in 1921.
What’s the point? What can be done about it, now? Why are you stirring up trouble?
Because I have a playground sense of justice, as Guy Clark would say. Eugene deserves that people be held accountable, even if it takes 100 years.
Because maybe you should know that things around here haven’t been all “Mayberry,” like you thought it was, at least not for Black folk, so you should stop wishing for it to come back.
Because Eugene visited me in a dream and asked me to tell his story.
I was inspired to look into Eugene’s murder when the confederate-loving White people around here complained that we were erasing their history by taking down their statue at the courthouse. I wanted to do my part to preserve their history.
OK, that’s a little harsh, but I felt like Jack Nicholson screaming at Tom Cruise in the film “A Few Good Men.”
“You can’t handle the truth!,” I wanted to shout.
It seems that’s what my parents and teachers thought when I was a kid. We were fed a steady diet of sepia-toned myths and tales of Southern honor in our coastal Virginia town that made us believe the blood of noble people flowed through our veins. I was special.
Turns out I could handle the truth, not only because it’s more interesting, but also because it’s more relevant to navigating my own life. I’m a wiser, more compassionate person for learning history through the lenses of multiple angles, and finding out that our legends wrestled with hypocrisy — just like me.
It takes work to not be a racist jerk, given my childhood, but playground fairness demands that I do it. Same rules for everyone, no exceptions. It shouldn’t matter where you come from, or who’s your daddy, or your shade of skin when it comes to justice, buying seed for your farm or getting a job in town.
For the record, my people are not without sin. My ancestors enslaved at least two people before the Civil War, and probably did unspeakable things during the Jim Crow era.
See that? I said unspeakable. Why is it impolite to speak about these things?
It’s easy for me to say that the good people of Chatham in 1921 should have reported or shamed the prominent people who participated in the lynching, but would I have risked my livelihood and my family’s safety to call them out? If law enforcement wouldn’t investigate, who would I complain to?
That’s always the conundrum, isn’t it? Speaking up or getting along — it was a harder choice in 1921. Telling the story of Eugene Daniel, or advocating for removal of a confederate statue, was an easy call for me because there was no risk. I’m White and self-employed. If I were Black, living in 1921 Chatham, I probably would have made a different choice. (Or even White, for that matter.)
That’s something to think about when you say, “No one’s complaining except you.” Ask yourself WHY a person might not complain before dismissing their concern outright.
But back to the video: the other reason you probably won’t watch is that life is hard as it is, and you just need funny cat videos, your child’s artwork, or a good Disney movie just to get to the next day.
I’m not critical of you. This stuff isn’t for everyone.
But when you’re ready, I hope you’ll watch.
Before moving to Chatham County 20 years ago, Mark Barroso was an award-winning, investigative television journalist in Tampa, Florida. He went on to produce numerous stories for NBC, ABC, CBS and Dan Rather Reports as a freelancer. Barroso also been active in local politics, advocating for planned growth and concessions from developers. He has also volunteered for CORA, Communities In Schools, Chatham For All, and the Haw River Assembly. Barroso is a founding board member for the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill and serves on the Chatham County Board of Elections.