Memorial for Mr. Edward Roach
Acknowledgement of a crime 100 years later
On Monday, Personians gathered in the Somerset community on Old Durham Rd. to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the lynching of Edward Roach, a Black man from Reidsville who was brutally murdered by a white mob on July 7, 1920.
Mr. Roach’s murder is Person County’s only recorded mob lynching of a Black person during the first half of the 20th century when such murders were commonplace throughout the South. There is no way to know definitively whether this was Person County’s sole lynching. And further, there is no way of truly knowing the details surrounding Mr. Roach’s murder, considering the story was not reported in Person County newspapers at the time and the assailants were not prosecuted. The story only remained alive through deathbed confessions and whispered tales passed down through the generations of the Black Somerset residents.
But the horrific act was reported extensively outside of Person County at the time with news reports being printed throughout North Carolina and in Virginia. This was due partly to the large profile of Mr. Roach’s boss, Durham construction tycoon Nello Teer.
From the information that has been gained, researched, and compiled by local historians over the last couple of decades, it is understood that Mr. Roach was an employee of Nello Teer’s construction company and was the supervisor of the all Black “road-gang” that was building Highway 501/Durham Rd.
On the day of July 7, Mr. Roach fell ill and was advised to take the rest of the day off and get some rest. So he got on the local train and headed into Roxboro where the crew had been housed while they were building the road.
Around the same time, supposedly a young white girl in the Timberlake area let out a scream. When others came to see what had happened, she claimed that she had been attacked by a dark-skinned Black man. But the men who came to her rescue had seen no such man.
Instead of questioning the story, they concluded that the man must have hopped one of the trains heading into Roxboro to avoid getting caught. Details here get cloudy but what is known is that when Mr. Roach, who is said to have been light skinned, stepped off his train, he was apprehended and accused of being the white girl’s attacker. The person who apprehended Mr. Roach is known to oral history to have been a respected Person County doctor. And it is even said that he bound Mr. Roach’s hands with medical tape before taking him to the courthouse.
At some point later in the day, a mob of roughly 200 white farmers stormed the jail demanding to have Mr. Roach released into their custody. It is rumored that they either threatened to burn down the building or simply overpowered those in charge. Either way, during Nello Teer’s pursuit of justice, the sheriff’s deputy who was present at the scene claimed not to have recognized any of the 200 local men who snatched Mr. Roach.
After taking hold of Mr. Roach the mob brought him to the place of his death. They chose the community of Somerset, also known back then as Pick’s Siding, which at the time was a community full of Black farming families and Black sharecroppers.
The rioters hanged Mr. Roach near a small wooden church where the Black Somerset residents worshipped. There were several large trees around the church at that time.
The perpetrators are said to have made an event of it, blocking the road on both ends with their cars to prevent law enforcement from interfering and celebrating by shooting bullets into the sky. The vile celebrations were as potentially dangerous as the actual murder as two bullets were lodged into the Oakley family farmhouse, located at the bottom of the hill across the street from the church. They were recovered many years later during a renovation. The house can no longer be seen from the street due to the buildings and the forestation that now reside in the area. But at the time in 1920, the revelries could be seen from the second-floor balcony of the home.
The Oakley family patriarch is said to have taken a shotgun and ridden up to the top of the hill with a Black tenant farmer, a Mr. Ragland, in order to ensure the mob did not make its way down the hill where there were several Black farming families.
As the mob prepared to kill Mr. Roach, they realized, apparently, that no one had any rope. So, they grabbed a chain and used it to hang him. His death certificate reads “hanged by chain” as his cause of death. His dead hanging body was also riddled with bullets and left on the tree until the following day when the coroner presumably recovered it. Some stories say the coroner sent the body back to Reidsville. Others say Mr. Roach's mother had to come to Person County to retrieve it out of a shallow grave.
The tree was chopped down by residents of the community in the days following the hanging. Out-of-town newspapers claimed it was removed roots and all, and burned behind the church. But local legend has it that the trunk was not removed at the time. For decades a large stomp sat a few yards off the roadside just in front of the church's front steps. Most locals consider that to have been the tree that their foreparents chopped down. The stomp was unceremoniously removed several years ago, before the events of Mr. Roach’s murder had started to be publicly acknowledged. Thus, the actual the location cannot be verified.
Nello Teer made his way to Person County several days later to seek to have the perpetrators arrested. He was unsuccessful. But he made the story widely known outside of Person County with the hopes of pressuring law enforcement to act. He again was unsuccessful, with Personians at the time demanding that he apologize to them.
The group that carried out the attack branded themselves the “Person County Mob” and would go on to make other threats of violence over the course of the next few years. The local paper, which published no stories about Mr. Roach’s murder, published the threats, which were written in letter-to-the-editor style. The Roxboro Ku Klux Klan was said to have claimed no involvement with the Person County Mob or the killing of Mr. Roach at the time—a claim that is both interesting and irrelevant.
The lynching shook the Black Somerset community so much that for decades newcomers to the community were welcomed with a briefing of the event—of course in hushed tones.
Civil rights pioneer and former head of the Roxboro NAACP, Lindsay Peace, was a teenager in the community at the time of the lynching. He is said to have known the names of some of the perpetrators. But he never felt the security to publicly broach the subject prior to his death in 1994.
Now 100 years after the fact, tears are being shed openly for Mr. Roach, and more importantly, recognition of his ordeal has been made. Unfortunately, that recognition has come at a time when we are realizing that we are not as far removed from that strange-fruit era as we had been pretending over the last half-century.
Nevertheless, the recognition has come. It has finally come.