When Black Lives Matter activists in Alamance County, North Carolina, look back on the 39 protests and marches they held in 2020, two stand out as the most significant.
The first one, on July 11, got people into the game. More than 700 people marched from Burlington to the courthouse and town square in nearby Graham, singing and chanting and holding signs demanding an end to police violence and the removal of the Confederate monument that sits in front of the courthouse.
The second, on Halloween, also ended at the monument. But it wasn’t supposed to. Led by the Rev. Gregory Drumwright, the all-ages “I Am Change Legacy March to the Polls” was focused on building electoral power. Two hundred marchers headed to the polls that day, where they would cheer on their neighbors and cast their own ballots on the last day of the state’s early-voting period.
Dreama Caldwell, who was running for county commissioner, waited to greet marchers near the polling place across the street from the sheriff’s office. The polls closed at 3 p.m., the last chance for unregistered voters to register and cast their ballots. Caldwell checked her phone as the minutes ticked by. Refreshing her Facebook feed, she saw photos of bright-faced children and Black Lives Matter signs giving way to reports of tear gas, pepper spray, and arrests. Fearful, she walked one block to the jail, where arrested protesters, including Caldwell’s campaign manager, were being booked. She saw K-9 units, an armored truck, and officers in tactical gear.
What she learned there soon became national news: protesters—including children, elderly people, and a disabled woman—had been pepper-fogged without warning by Graham and Alamance law enforcement, who had subsequently arrested more than 20 people. (The police, it should be noted, draw a legal distinction between “pepper-fogging” and “pepper-spraying,” though both can cause temporary blindness, extreme discomfort, and sensations of burning in the lungs and eyes.)
Days later, Caldwell lost a hard-fought race to become Alamance County’s first Black female commissioner. Caldwell, who is 43, has lived all her life in Alamance. She knows its history—both the version celebrated by county leadership, and the hidden story of Black struggle, which activists and organizers have been learning and sharing march by march, meeting by meeting. It’s been a long and tiring fight.
“Everybody always asks me about things wearing and tearing on me, but I don’t know anything else,” said Caldwell.
Though protesters had been arrested at other marches and demonstrations over the summer, no one expected pepper-fogging and arrests at a daytime, family-oriented protest. In fact, many were relieved to see that counter-protesters were not in their usual spots near the monument, but were instead all the way across the traffic circle, on the east side of the town square. Clashes with these neo-Confederates, whom many Black Lives Matter protesters know by name, are what commonly lead to police involvement.
Why, then, were the marchers met with so much force?
I’ve asked myself that question repeatedly, both as a writer researching education and politics in Alamance County and as a mother. My 6-year-old daughter accompanied me to the Halloween march, and her horrified screams—“Mommy, why is this happening?”—still ring in my mind. My daughter has been to more than a few marches, but never one where she’d been injured, or even made to feel afraid.
I’d brought her because I wanted her to see that nothing could stop the exercise of what my mother calls “our sacred right to vote.” Of course, I know that this isn’t always true. As a volunteer, I called voters for months, learning about and discussing the barriers that keep people from safely voting, especially during a pandemic and an economic crisis. From racial disparities in rejected mail-in ballots, to persistent state-level gerrymandering and continued attempts to impose strict voter ID laws, the perception and creation of voting barriers have clearly had a chilling effect on minority voters. But using violence or the threat of violence to discourage voting—wasn’t that a thing of the past?
October 31 proved otherwise. The Graham police released a statement claiming that organizers “failed to establish viable communication” with the department in planning the event, and that pepper fog was deployed after marchers caused traffic and safety hazards. But to many, the police’s commands and use of force were what created the confusion and chaos.
Even a photographer for the Alamance News, a conservative local paper with a pro-law enforcement stance, was arrested. He claimed that he was attempting to leave the roadway when he was detained and charged with obstructing an officer and resisting arrest. In an editorial, the paper’s editor and publisher, Tom Boney, placed some blame on the police for poor communication, suggesting that they “invest in a simple bullhorn—or maybe they could have borrowed one from the demonstrators who always seem to have plenty.”
County and city leadership have long been hostile to the demands of Black Lives Matter and other antiracist movements. A 1978 town ordinance instituted an onerous process for obtaining a permit for any “group demonstration” or “picket line,” with final say given to the town’s chief of police. This summer, Graham’s mayor and its police department went further, suspending the issuance of any new protest permits. Only after activists filed multiple civil-rights lawsuits and a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking its enforcement did Graham’s town council finally repeal the ordinance. At public meetings, Alamance County commissioners—all Republicans—have refused to consider a relocation of the main square’s Confederate statue, or even to say the words, “Black Lives Matter.”
But Halloween’s daytime crackdown—which violently suppressed a get-out-the-vote effort—was a marked escalation, and one that in many ways represented the return of an Alamance County tradition.
Rev. Drumwright, who planned and led both major marches in Graham, grew up in Alamance County. As a boy, he used to ride in his mother’s car past Graham’s Confederate monument, but it meant little to him. White supremacy, though he did not call it that at the time, was the air he breathed, the water he swam in. It was why he learned little about Black history in school, and nothing about the fraught, violent history surrounding the monument. It was why he was punished more harshly than his white peers and why, despite his selection to read an essay in a nationally televised IBM commercial in kindergarten, he wasn’t evaluated for gifted classes. It was why, after being invited to join an elite local boys’ choir, he was introduced to his fellow singers by their director as “a little black boy,” before they even learned his name.
Now 41 years old, Drumwright lives in Greensboro, where he serves as pastor of a large youth-focused church and directs a social-justice organization called Justice 4 the Next Generation (J4TNG). He was inspired to take action in his home community by a feeling of “Black insanity,” which he describes as a host of emotions—anger, bitterness, sorrow—“that leave you weary as a consequence of oppression.”
He’d spent the first half of 2020 traveling to Black Lives Matter protests and marches across the country with J4TNG, and was invited to begin planning marches and demonstrations by a group of community leaders.
He asked the group if there was some history they could connect to, a story they could tell about a local victim of police brutality or white supremacy. It was the first time he heard the story of Graham’s first Black town commissioner, a 19th-century political activist, voting rights educator, and carpenter named Wyatt Outlaw.
As Drumwright listened to the broad outlines of Outlaw’s life, a vision of a march began to take shape in his mind. They’d start in Burlington and march one and a half miles to the courthouse square in Graham, so protesters would pass Outlaw’s old address on North Main Street, now a church. They’d describe how he lived—working for equal justice, voting rights, and education—and how he died, at the hands of some of the same people who later erected the Confederate monument. They’d teach people about the note pinned to the body Klansmen left hanging for all to see: “Beware ye guilty, both white and black.”
“When we marched, millennial Black men were profusely crying or else holding back tears, because his spirit met us in the march,” Drumwright said. “The same route down Main Street to that court square. I know his legacy was shining through us in that moment.”
The son of Jemima Phillips, a Black woman, and Chesley Faucette, a wealthy merchant and slaveowner, Wyatt Outlaw’s status as a mixed-race Black man meant that neither his birth nor marriage were recorded. It’s unclear whether he was born free or enslaved, or whether his surname, Outlaw, was chosen or applied by white slaveowners. Even his first name, Wyatt, is sometimes spelled “White” in contemporaneous records, a possible reference to his light skin.
Though a slaveowner, Faucette opposed the war and was a prominent member of the Alamance Red Strings, a Unionist group that favored peace. They were not alone in the region. Significant abolitionist and pacifist Quaker communities opposed both slavery and secession. Alamance County voted overwhelmingly against secession in March 1861, and many white men resisted conscription even after the state joined the Confederacy in April. More than 100 Black men from Alamance, including Outlaw, joined and fought for the Union Army.
Outlaw had learned the trades of carpentry and metalwork as a young man, and after the war opened a woodworking and carriage-making shop near the Graham railroad depot. He housed his mother and family in the shop and operated its back room as an unregulated tavern, drawing railroad workers, both Black and white. He was prosperous, respected by the community, and politically active. He served as a delegate to a state freedmen’s convention in 1866 and founded the Alamance chapter of the Loyal Republican League.
“Loyal Leaguers” were egalitarian and focused on education and voting rights. Under Outlaw’s leadership, the local group founded an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and a school, and encouraged voting. They also drew the ire of Josiah Turner, publisher of the conservative Weekly Sentinel, who railed against “radical” Republicans and called for a “white man’s government” in North Carolina.
“Outlaw captures so much of what happened during Reconstruction,” said Scott Reynolds Nelson, a professor of history at the University of Georgia and author of Iron Confederacies, which examines Klan violence during Reconstruction through the history of Southern railroads. Nelson began studying Outlaw in the late 1990s as a PhD student focused on 19th-century labor movements, including Black political leadership, at UNC-Chapel Hill. He soon realized that the difficulty of piecing together the facts of Wyatt Outlaw’s life was matched only by Outlaw’s importance to the broader story of North Carolina’s Reconstruction period.
Outlaw was appointed as Graham town commissioner and constable by North Carolina’s governor, William Holden, in 1868—the same year the Ku Klux Klan became active in Alamance County. Allies of the Klan, like Turner and other conservative Democrats, sought to intimidate Black voters and businesspeople, to discourage alliances between Black and white workers, and to suppress the Republican vote. Their arsenal was expansive: political speeches and fearmongering, poorly-sourced articles that focused on alleged Black-on-white crime, and, increasingly, night raids aimed at terrorizing the community. In his job as constable, Outlaw patrolled the streets against those raids.
On the night of Feb. 26, 1870, Klan members broke into Outlaw’s house on Main Street, dragged him from his bed in front of his mother and children, and marched him to the town square, where they hanged him from a tree and slashed his mouth—a brutal disfigurement intended to punish his outspokenness and warn others against political activism.
Though Outlaw’s name was added to Alamance County’s law-enforcement memorial wall in 2019, there is no other memorial, monument, or public marker recognizing his life. His story, of emerging Black political leadership and economic power pitted against white supremacists who sought to violently suppress the Black vote, is a history that resonates today—yet it’s hardly taught or known.
I used to teach high-school English in Alamance County, and I’d never heard of Outlaw until about a year ago, when I began researching education in the county. Had our school’s American History teacher and I been better informed, we might have taken our classes on field trips to Graham. We could have read excerpts of the impeachment trial of North Carolina Governor William Holden—who was ultimately removed from office for his aggressive actions to suppress the Klan in Alamance and surrounding counties—which includes testimony about Outlaw’s life and death. Or we could have assigned Albion Winegar Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand and Bricks Without Straw, two Reconstruction-era novels that include characters partially inspired by Outlaw.
We didn’t do any of that with our students, and we were not alone. American History textbooks don’t mention Outlaw, nor does the North Carolina history curriculum. Of the more than two dozen Alamance natives I’ve interviewed in the past six months, only one learned about Outlaw in public school.
Since the July 11 march, “Wyatt’s name has stayed in my mouth,” said Drumwright. It isn’t lost on him that he’d heard Outlaw’s story in a church, and he doesn’t think it’s an accident that it took him that long to hear it. “That history has been held back,” he said. “It’s not just because he was Black. It’s also because his capturers and his killers were white.”
Caldwell, the county commissioner candidate, who grew up in Burlington and now lives just a half-mile away from the courthouse in Graham, also passed through the Alamance-Burlington public-school system without learning about Outlaw’s life and death or other fraught moments in the county’s history. She was “outraged and upset” when she finally learned about the county’s history of racist violence, including the 1969 race riot in Burlington that ended with the killing by authorities of Leon Mebane, an unarmed 15-year-old.
Caldwell finds it ironic that people who don’t want to see the Confederate statue removed point to its historical significance, given that it was erected in 1914, long after the Civil War ended. Jacob Long, the founder of the Alamance Ku Klux Klan and the group’s leader when Outlaw was killed, spoke at the dedication of the monument.
To statue defenders, “all history doesn’t matter,” Caldwell argues. “Just that one part of history.”
Caldwell has put some thought into how the community might honor its whole history. She’d like the Board of Commissioners and Graham city officials to invite the public to speak about their experiences at meetings. She believes that the Graham Police Department, established in 1851, should honestly address and take ownership of its role in the town’s history. That ownership would include honoring figures like Outlaw, as well as acknowledging the decisions and mistakes that led to the use of force against peaceful protesters.
So far, city and county leaders and police have declined to make amends. Graham Police Chief Kristy Cole told Caldwell at a debriefing meeting that her officers’ actions—including pepper-fogging and arresting protesters—were warranted. She said that neo-Confederate counter-protesters on the other side of the square were moved away from the protest before the pepper-fogging, not as a courtesy, but to “keep them out of the way.”
At the Nov. 16 county commissioners’ meeting, a handful of activists were allowed to enter the meeting near its end, just prior to the public-comment period. Several speakers had reserved time to address the board about police use of force at the Halloween march.
Before they could speak, the commissioners—having already devoted much of the meeting to presentations and discussion around the potential construction of a Chick-fil-A distribution center—abruptly adjourned the proceedings. When some in attendance asked if public comment would be allowed at the next meeting, police quickly moved in again, and three protesters were arrested.
Three days later, Drumwright was charged with two additional offenses, both felonies, stemming from the Oct. 31 march: assault with physical injury on a law-enforcement officer, and obstructing justice.
“When have you ever heard of police taking 20 days to charge a Black man with assault on a police officer?” he asked at a press conference on November 22.
The small crowd laughed and shook their heads at the ridiculousness of the question, but by then Drumwright’s life had already started to change. His home address had been published by the Graham Police Department in a press release. He’d seen drones flying over his house. He and other members of the movement felt sure they were being followed.
Michael Graves, a past president of the local NAACP chapter, had organized a private meeting between local pastors and law enforcement and criticized Drumwright in interviews. Comments Drumwright made at an organizing meeting about an upcoming boycott and march—“At this point, it’s either a march or a riot. We’re at war”—had been leaked to the Alamance News. The paper’s Facebook post, which included a three-and-a-half-minute audio recording, garnered more than 400 comments, many of them threatening. Drumwright had received an increasing number of what he called “hate communications threatening my safety.”
By the time of the Jan. 6 insurrection, when hundreds of pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, Drumwright was feeling the return of Black insanity. He was still waiting for his court date, and the district attorney had filed a motion to ban him from county-owned property. That motion was dismissed in a closed hearing, but the felony charges loomed. Meanwhile, at a December Christmas tree-lighting event, the mayor gave Police Chief Kristy Cole a ceremonial key to the city.
“Everywhere I go with peaceful protesters, I’m met with militia police presence,” Drumwright said over Zoom. “Black folks can’t get four steps up the steps of the Capitol. How did we witness police open the gates to them? How were there not hundreds of handcuffs adorned at the waistline like there always are when Black folks get into the street and shout, ‘Black Lives Matter’?”
He shook his head: “We left our get-out-the-vote protest in a paddy wagon.”
If you can’t tell the history of North Carolina’s Reconstruction Era without Wyatt Outlaw, you also can’t tell the story of today’s activists without reflecting on Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was a period when change was in sight. The Civil War was over, and in North Carolina, Black businessmen and political leaders were gaining power. They were educating themselves and their communities. They were voting. And in Alamance in particular, said Nelson, the history professor, “Former enslavers [were] appalled and incredibly angry that a Black man [was on] night patrol to stop marauders.”
Outlaw’s work as a Republican organizer and as town commissioner and constable leading night patrols is a case study in bravery, and this is part of why people today are drawn to his story. But his actions also represent a belief in democracy and government structures. He fought for the Union, and returned from the war as a 46-year-old man. His Loyal League meetings were run according to Enlightenment traditions and principles, and new members, called Pioneers, pledged their support for “a free press, elective judges, [and] equal justice to all men.” When other African-Americans in Graham suggested taking up arms against the Klan, Outlaw put his faith in state laws and the power of law enforcement to protect the citizenry.
After Outlaw’s lynching, William Holden, the Republican governor of North Carolina, declared Alamance to be in a state of insurrection. Holden suspended the writ of habeas corpus against suspected Klan members and sent troops into Alamance, led by Colonel George Washington Kirk, in March 1870. The fight between the Klan and government forces became known as the “Kirk-Holden war.”
Speaking at events around the state, Josiah Turner spread false rumors of government whippings and hangings of Klansmen, and conservative newspapers blamed “all the murders, whippings and barn-burnings” on Loyal Leaguers. That November, Democrats swept the election; the next year, Holden was impeached and removed from office. Convicted Klan members’ sentences were overturned, and none faced justice.
The connections to today’s political struggles, nationally as well as in Alamance, are striking. Right-wing media and politicians spreading distrust in the election process? Check. Voting-rights efforts met by violence? Vilification and threats against successful Black civil-rights leaders? Insurrection by violent white supremacists? Check, check, check.
But another connection that stretches across time, from Reconstruction to today, is an enduring belief in education, voting rights, and our democratic system of government. Kristofer Loy, one of the founders of the Occupy Graham movement that emerged in response to the insurrection, always carries an American flag to protests and is known for making speeches about the Constitution. Maurice Wells, another Occupy Graham member and cofounder of People for Change, has participated in almost every protest and vigil since July 11 and talks down aggressive, unmasked neo-Confederates who sometimes approach his group. After the Halloween march that ended in arrests and injury, Drumwright led another, larger Election Day march that accompanied voters to polling places in Graham.
These connections are why antiracist protesters and organizers in Alamance are determined to educate the community about its suppressed history. Forward Motion Alamance makes and distributes history comics, like their ten-panel “Who Was Wyatt Outlaw?” pamphlet. Beth Lavinder Williams holds her “Google Wyatt Outlaw” sign most days at vigils in Graham and Saxapahaw, and members of Leon Mebane’s family hold signs that read, “Ask me about Leon Mebane.” Local playwright Sylvester Allen, Jr. will perform Spirit of Wyatt Outlaw: Final Peace, his one-act play about Outlaw’s final moments, in an open-air theater in Saxapahaw on Feb. 26, the 151st anniversary of Outlaw’s death. Loy, a history buff, has spoken about Outlaw’s life to antiracist groups in other parts of the county, and even the Alamance News recently published an interview with Outlaw’s great-great grandson.
“We’re honoring Outlaw’s legacy and the legacy of what our founding fathers were striving for, even though they obviously fell short, in making a more perfect union,” said Carey Kirk Griffin, one of the leaders of Occupy Graham. “It’s bigger than us—it’s about injustice in government and institutionalized racism, and also about the link between what happened Jan. 6 and what has happened in Alamance County. The mobilization of white supremacists, a movement that has grown out of fear? That’s the same thing that happened to Wyatt Outlaw.”
Since the insurrection at the Capitol, Griffin and others have stood vigil every night outside Sesquicentennial Park, a small park on the northwest side of the town square. They stand here every night from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., just as people are getting off work and driving home.
Many locals believe the park to be where Outlaw was hanged, and they want to see him memorialized here. Though the city has so far refused to rename the park—“you don’t erase one part of history to create another,” city council member Melody Wiggins said in a recent meeting—the activists’ unofficial renaming may be the one that sticks. “It will always be Wyatt Outlaw Park to me,” Maurice Wells said matter-of-factly, during the same meeting.
Sometimes the group is small and quiet, and sometimes it swells to around fifty people, as it did on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, two nights before the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Against a clear, cobalt-blue sky, yellow holiday lights lined the tops of buildings along Main Street.
People held signs with quotes from Dr. King and John Lewis. Participants dropped off bags of groceries that Occupy Graham would later deliver to needy families and the food lockers it has installed in Graham and Burlington. Speakers took turns during a candlelight vigil. Avery Harvey, an activist who was once homeless and who regularly feeds people in his community, thanked everyone for their donations to the food pantry. Caldwell cautioned people to respond to hatefulness, as King did, with love. Drumwright said that last year was just a warm-up for this year, and that change was coming to Alamance.
Near the end of the hour-long vigil, Drumwright asked people to remind him of the chant from the previous other night—how did it go?
“The people! Have a right! To protest!” someone started.
He put the megaphone to his lips, and a chant began, more joyful than defiant. People danced and clapped. Drivers slowed, honked, raised fists, and looked not in the direction of the Confederate monument, but toward the park, where change was, in fact, already underway.
Read a Q&A with the reporter, Belle Boggs.
Scroll through The Assembly‘s visual project for this piece, comparing the events of 1870 and 2020 side by side.
Belle Boggs is an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University, where she also directs the MFA program in creative writing. Her stories and essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Orion, the Paris Review, Harper’s, Ecotone, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.