EUGENE DANIEL: FINDING OUT

‘My mother or father never spoke of his death’

Posted 9/23/21

Every family has a member they don’t talk about or talk about only in hushed tones because of the shame it might bring to the family name.

In my family, it was me, a notorious — for that time …

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EUGENE DANIEL: FINDING OUT

‘My mother or father never spoke of his death’

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Posted

Every family has a member they don’t talk about or talk about only in hushed tones because of the shame it might bring to the family name.

In my family, it was me, a notorious — for that time period — juvenile delinquent.

When Sheila Thompson found out about her family’s scrupulously unacknowledged relative, she was sitting in a classroom at Horton High School in Pittsboro and a teacher was talking about her uncle, Eugene Daniel.

It quickly became apparent why no one in the family — indeed, no one in Chatham County — talked about Eugene. The silence regarding him had nothing to do with any shame his life might bring to the family: it had everything to do with the disgraceful spotlight his death would shine onto the county and some of its former leading citizens.

You see, Eugene Daniel, baby brother of Sheila Thompson’s grandmother, was lynched in Chatham County 100 years ago this week. His death is recognized unofficially — I don’t reckon anybody was scdupulous about keeping count — as the last lynching in the county.

Thompson had never heard a word about Uncle Eugene, who was 16 when a mob pulled him out of the county jail and lynched him. It was serendipity that she heard of him at all.

“One day during my high school days, the teacher was absent and the class was told to return to our respective homerooms. It just so happened that my homeroom (teacher) was the history teacher,” she recounted when we corresponded via email.

“That day, they were talking about my Uncle Eugene. Before that day, I’d never heard of a lynching in Chatham County … I can remember feeling sad.”

So sad, in fact, that she never mentioned it to her parents when she got home.

“I wondered if there was some type of stigma felt by the family,” she said, “since all of my grandparents’ 10 children left Chatham County except my dad.”

Didn’t her parents or grandparents, her aunts or uncles, I asked, ever say anything about Eugene, ever mournfully lament, in the privacy of their homes with the shades drawn when they returned for holidays or funerals, “It was a damned shame what they did to that child”?

Nope.

“My mother or father never spoke of his death,” she said.

This was, she said, back in the days when fellow students drove school buses, and her bus driver was a classmate. “Since the teacher told us where the site of the lynching was, we went off-route a little and drove past the site,” she told me.

In 1921, there was no Instagram, no Facebook, no Tiktok, no Twitter. What there was, however, was the Chatham Record, forerunner to today’s Chatham News + Record. That is where award-winning journalist Mark Barroso got much of the information used in his fascinating documentary, “A Mass of Murderers.”

Barroso reports on what apparently is the lone contemporary account of the evil event. He begins:

“(B)uried beneath stories of a new railroad, a squirrel eating hickory nuts, the arrest of a bootlegger and a plea for the colored folks to go to church, is a small story on the lynching of Eugene Daniel.”

The newspaper’s remarkably unskeptical account, under the headline “Lynched Sunday,” begins: “Last Friday night, Sept. 16, Eugene Daniels, colored, entered the home of Walter Stone in New Hope Township and attempted a criminal assault upon his daughter, Miss Gertrude Stone…The young lady gave the alarm and a hunt for her assailant was begun.”

Bloodhounds, “secured from Raeford,” led the law to Eugene’s home, where he was arrested. These were, we learn later in the documentary, the same bloodhounds that had earlier led police to another Black man who was arrested for a homicide but was later found to be innocent after. Sheriff G.W. Blair, sensing a lynching was fixing to take pace, spirited the man to the jail in Raleigh.

Eugene never got the chance to be found innocent. Around 2 a.m. Sunday, according to the newspaper’s account, a mob stormed the jail. “He was taken from there by an angry set of men, carried five miles east of town and there swung up with an auto tire chain and his body filled with bullets.”

The newspaper didn’t exult in the murder, but neither did it denounce it with any degree of righteous indignation. It certainly didn’t call for the murderers to be held accountable, and no one ever was.

Like the story itself, the spot where the lynching occurred, on property owned by the alleged victim’s granddaddy, has been buried — or, more likely, submerged when Jordan Lake was created.

I’ve got a feeling that if that lake hadn’t submerged that cursed land, the silent tears of that poor, terrified child’s family members would have — if they’d been allowed to grieve without fear of reprisal.

They no doubt knew, in 1921, that to grieve too loudly or too publicly could result in similar violence being visited upon them.

No, best to never speak of a murdered child, a murdered son, a brutalized brother. One hundred years later, Sheila Thompson speaks of Eugene Daniel, and of the ceremony on Saturday which recognized his murder.

“The commemoration brings up some of the truths concerning his death,” she said, while acknowledging that “all of his story will never be told. I believe forgiveness is, for all those who have experienced this type of trauma, the way to healing. No amount of anger will undo history. We can’t change it. We can only pray for a better world.”

It’s not hard to imagine that Eugene Daniel, in the moments 100 years ago before his 16-year-old body was hoisted onto a tree limb with an auto tire chain and filled with bullets, was thinking the same thing: praying for a better world.

Barry Saunders is a columnist who’s written for numerous newspapers, include the News & Observer of Raleigh.

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