The Equal Justice Initiative’s astonishing report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” released this month asks Americans to take off our blinders. The report highlights the erasure of thousands of community-sanctioned murders from both our landscape and our collective memory and notes that many lynchings, sometimes with thousands of witnesses, have been both ignored and buried. It reveals how little we know of our own history.
Weeks from now that report will turn into a number—4,000—that will rattle around in our heads. But behind that number are many lives, many stories. One of those stories is that of Dick Wofford, a young black man accused of raping a white woman named Elizabeth Henderson in the rural mountain town of Columbus, North Carolina. At Wofford’s trial an all-white jury found him not guilty. It’s likely that folks in the courtroom could hardly believe their ears.
The sheriff released Wofford and told him to “cut dirt.” If not, he said, he’d likely be lynched. Wofford ran toward Landrum, South Carolina, and witnesses claimed to have seen him walking along the train tracks toward a friend’s house. Hours later, witnesses also claimed, a posse was seen headed in the same direction.
The next morning the Spartanburg Herald reported that a black boy found Dick Wofford hanging from a tree about a half-mile outside of Landrum.
I first encountered Dick Wofford while researching my book on America’s history with lynching. At that time, he didn’t even have a name. He was listed under the category of “Unknown Offenses” in Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s 1895 “Red Record.” Wedged in between two other lynched people it reads: Nov. 23, unknown, Landrum, S.C. Another victim. An unknown. A statistic.
From two short newspaper articles and meager records I found in historical and genealogical societies throughout the counties surrounding Columbus, I learned that Dick Wofford was likely the adopted son of a Spartanburg couple, and that he had traveled to Columbus looking for work in a local saw mill. His accuser, Elizabeth Henderson, was born on Nov. 10, 1877, on a farm about four miles south of Columbus proper. Curiously, she married a man named Taylor Sims just weeks after she accused Wofford of raping her.
There’s no record of witness testimony, so we can only imagine why jurors came to the decision they did. Maybe he was innocent and the jurors believed him. Wofford and Henderson could have been in a consensual relationship and maybe things ended badly. Maybe she cried wolf out of anger or to protect herself, given that she was about to be married. That the two were in a relationship isn’t a stretch—nor was it uncommon, as Ida B. Wells-Barnett pointed out. But answers aren’t forthcoming.
I traveled to Columbus and talked to community leaders and elders, black and white, and quickly learned that no one had ever heard the story. One elder in the black community told me he’d never heard anything about it and besides why was I bringing this stuff back. “But I’ve got stories, I’ve got stories,” he said, before abruptly ending the phone call. A secretary at the visitor’s center took a deep breath when I told her. A woman in the Clerk of Courts office shook her head and suggested I talk to the folks at the historical society. “If anyone would know about this, they would.”
But they didn’t. After sharing the story with a docent at the historical society’s museum, who also had never heard about the lynching, I was given the name of a local woman named Bee Tompkins—the granddaughter of Dick Wofford’s accuser.
Bee was 93 and battling cancer, but was vivacious, smart and incisive. She knew a lot about Elizabeth Henderson, but like everyone else I talked to in Columbus or Polk County, she had never heard the story of Dick Wofford’s lynching.
Bee told me that Elizabeth had twins in 1901, one of whom died of shaken baby syndrome. “Now, I’m a genealogist,” she said, “and you take the bad with the good, but I think this Taylor Sims, he’s my grandfather, he might have been involved with this lynching, and, who knows, he might have been involved with this baby’s death.”
Stories about Sims and his reputation were passed down in her family. She assumes that this is what contributed to Elizabeth divorcing him in 1903. After that she struck out on her own, working in the appalling conditions of South Carolina textile mills and later selling moonshine on the sly just to keep her family afloat.
Bee has a passion for genealogy, for knowing where she comes from. And she’s an infinitely kind and humane person. And she is the offspring of someone wrapped up in such violence.
The story, she said, makes her sad but also desirous of some sort of reconciliation with it. “I’m just glad,” she lamented, “that Dick Wofford had time, if even a little, to live with that ‘not guilty’ verdict. At least he had that.”
Before I left, Bee told me she’d show my research to the one person from the Sims side who might know something about what happened. I was eager to hear the results. But, then, months later Bee wrote to tell me that the woman had died before she could talk with her about it. So, perhaps, the truth has been buried too.
The fact that I was able to learn so much about Elizabeth Henderson and her descendants is a reminder of one outcome of the lynching epidemic’s reign of terror—that white lives matter and black lives do not. We’ll likely never know the whole story, what went on between those two people, whether Dick Wofford was truly innocent, whether he loved his life or prayed to Jesus.
Elizabeth Henderson died of cancer in 1922 and was buried next to Green Creek First Baptist Church, about 10 miles east of Columbus. No one knows what happened to Dick Wofford’s body. But his life and death were remembered in other ways, as a number, a name and as a horrific memory and reminder for that black boy who found him hanging—that was his burden and that is our American history laid bare.
Jack Shuler is the author of "The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose." He holds the John and Christine Warner Chair at Denison University, where he is an associate professor teaching American literature and Black Studies. Shuler’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Truth Out, Journal of Southern History, and Southern Studies, among others. He lives in Ohio.