A large Mason jar filled with soil from a site in Mecklenburg County is part of an exhibit at a new memorial and museum in Montgomery, Ala., that are dedicated to remembering the thousands of African-American victims of racial terror between 1877 and 1950.
Spelled out in white letters on the jar are the name of a black tenant farmer and the date on which he was lynched: “Willie McDaniel, Charlotte, North Carolina, June 29, 1929.”
But there’s no jar of soil from the site of Mecklenburg’s first documented lynching.
That came in 1913, when Joe McNeely, a 19-year-old African-American laborer, was dragged from his second-floor bed at Good Samaritan Hospital and shot to death by a white mob on the street below. (Lynching is defined as killing someone without a legal trial, not solely by hanging.)
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Bank of America Stadium now sits on the site where Charlotte’s black hospital used to be. And to get soil from where McNeely was shot up, a Charlotte historian says, you’d have to take a shovel to the stadium’s 20-yard line on the downtown side.
“I overlaid a historical map over a current map” to locate where the front steps of the hospital would have been, said Michael Moore, a Charlotte historian who has compiled information about the McNeely and McDaniel lynchings for the Levine Museum of the New South.
“JOE M’NEELY IS SHOT BY A MOB,” read the headline atop the front page story in the Charlotte Daily Observer on Aug. 26, 1913.
“What will in all probability prove to be the first lynching in the history of Mecklenburg County,” the story began, “occurred at 2:15 this morning when a mob of 35 men stormed the Good Samaritan Hospital and took therefrom the negro Joe McNeely, who last week shot Policeman Wilson. The crowd threw him in the street in front of the door and riddled him with bullets.”
McNeely, who had been taken to the hospital in chains after a reported gunfight with a Charlotte police officer, died at police headquarters a few hours after the masked members of the mob “hurled their leaden missiles” into him, as the article put it.
By gunning down McNeely, historian Moore said, his murderers were sending a violent message designed to enforce white supremacy in the Jim Crow South.
“Lynching was about racial terror,” Moore said. “It was intended as a statement that African-Americans were inferior to whites and they needed to stay in their place.”
Moore and Willie Griffin, staff historian at the Levine Museum, recently led a group of about 50 local people — teachers, clergy, activists, and students — to Montgomery. There they visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its nearby Legacy Museum, both of which opened in April in the city that was the first capital of the Confederacy and is home to the first church ever pastored by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
A pathway in the memorial features more than 800 six-foot corten steel monuments that hang from the ceiling. Each is engraved with the name of a county in the United States where African-Americans were lynched. The one for Mecklenburg County lists the names of McNeely and McDaniel as well as the dates on which they were killed.
The museum, which tells the story of racial terror “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” features a display of Mason jars filled with soil from more than 300 lynching sites — including the one honoring the memory of McDaniel, who was hanged, cut down , dragged away and left for dead on farmland just northeast of Charlotte in Newell.
The memorial and museum were built by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights and legal services group that’s also based in Montgomery. It has documented about 4,000 lynchings in the South and 300 more in other states.
EJI says it opened the memorial to educate visitors “about how two centuries of enslavement of black people evolved into decades of terror and violence following the collapse of Reconstruction.”
EJI is also hoping that communities will build on what the memorial represents and, it says, “confront the past with courage, and to begin a hopeful future in which truth leads to repair, restoration and reconciliation.”
So starting next year, EJI’s “Community Remembrance Project” plans to start distributing replicas of the monuments to counties that would be willing to display them publicly. The Project is also offering to fund and install markers at or near lynching sites that would tell the story of victims like McNeely and McDaniel.
During its visit to Montgomery, the Charlotte group met with Project officials on what Charlotte-Mecklenburg needs to do to prepare to receive the markers and the replica of the monument.
For now, said Evan Milligan, a team member on the Project, “we encourage people to do the ongoing educational work.”
A high-profile way to do that could include collecting soil at or near Bank of America Stadium to recall McNeely’s killing in 1913.
‘Connecting the dots’
Historian Griffin of Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South said it was ironic that this discovery of the historic connection between the Panthers’ stadium and a disturbing episode in Charlotte’s past comes at a time when some NFL players “have become the face of the social justice movement in the country, especially as it relates to police/black community relations and mass incarcerations.”
Colin Kaepernick, a former quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, became a brave hero to some and an unpatriotic villain to others by choosing to kneel on one knee rather than stand during the national anthem as a way to protest racial injustice in the United States. Many players have followed his example, igniting a controversy that included a condemnation of the protests by President Donald Trump.
The Panthers, under the new ownership of David Tepper, recently signed safety Eric Reid. He was the second player after Kaepernick to take a knee, as the protests are now called. A picture on Reid’s Twitter page features a photo of him and Kaepernick, both wearing black T-shirts that read “I Know My Rights.”
In its various exhibits, the museum and memorial in Montgomery cast mass incarceration, capital punishment and police shootings of African-Americans in recent years as modern-day versions of lynching.
“The museum ... does a good job of connecting those dots,” said historian Moore of Charlotte.
By the 20th century, lynching was an established tool of terror in the states of the Old Confederacy, including the Carolinas.
“The high point of lynching in the South was right around 1900 when the intense Jim Crow segregation went into place,” said Tom Hanchett, a community historian in Charlotte who worked for years at the Levine Museum of the New South. “It was part of a pattern of racial control.”
A decade later saw the dedication of a majority of the Confederate statues that have become so controversial today, said Griffin. “Silent Sam,” the statue of the Confederate soldier recently brought down in Chapel Hill, was erected in 1913 — the same year McNeely was gunned down in Charlotte.
Though McNeely’s case appears to be the first documented case of lynching in Mecklenburg County, there were probably many here that were never recorded.
“It would be surprising to me if (McNeely’s case) was the first lynching in Mecklenburg County,” said Dan Morrill, consulting director for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. “As a means of social control, there were earlier examples. Slavery was basically all about control.”
Hanchett seconded Moore’s calculation that the lynching happened on grounds now inside the stadium.
“It used to be Mint Street was straight where the stadium is,” he said. “Hill Street ran through the the stadium. And the hospital was one house in from Mint.”
Hanchett said the new focus on where this first documented local lynching took place is a reminder that “this history is all around us. It’s not something we can just get away from. It happened here. ... And history shapes who we are right here right now.”