Learning about Eugene Hairston

Learning about Eugene Hairston

October 17, 2023
Category: Perspectives
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Jar of soil collected from the site where Eugene Hairston was lynched in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1887

Eugene Hairston. His name is important. HE was important. He was a young man approximately 17 years old in 1887 according to the 1880 census.  20 years old according to some newspaper reports. Mr. Hairston had a mother, step-father, 3 sisters, and a brother. He is also the only known/named individual lynched in Guilford County, North Carolina.

According to reports, a 17-year old white woman, Mahala C. Sapp, reported that Mr. Hairston attempted to sexually assault her near a railroad track in Colfax, NC while she was walking home from her grandmother’s house on August 23, 1887.  He was arrested in Colfax and taken first to Kernersville, NC before then being transferred by train to the jail in Greensboro.  The transfer was made reportedly for his safety after officers became aware that a mob of white men wanted to lynch Mr. Hairston.  However, the mob found him in Greensboro during the middle of the night.  After the jailer refused to release him, they broke him out of the jail using sledgehammers and crowbars.  They took him to a nearby farm owned by a Mr. Jackson, hanged him, and riddled his body with buckshot and bullets. Mr. Hairston’s remains were retrieved and taken to their home in Kernersville later in the day. No one was ever identified and held responsible for his murder.

I have lived in Greensboro almost all of my life.  I’ve lived near Colfax since 1997.  I only heard of Eugene Hairston recently when I learned about (and recently attended) a memorial service led by the Guilford County Community Remembrance Project in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative.  At this ceremony, Mr. Hairston was eulogized, and a memorial vessel was filled with soil collected from the approximate site of his lynching.  Some of the soil will be exhibited at EJI’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and as well as possibly at the Greensboro History Museum and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro.

The ceremony was both beautiful and painful. Along with learning about Mr. Hairston, those in attendance learned about the efforts happening in the country – and particularly in the South – to acknowledge our history of enslavement and lynching and to educate ourselves and others of its ongoing impact.

Why am I speaking of the horrific death of Mr. Hairston here? Because I feel called to invite other people – and particularly other white people – to take the opportunity to learn about and explore our history.  Contrary to the views of those who would ban these types of discussions and education, I believe it is critical to be aware and informed.  It can be done in ways that are not confrontational – as a white person sitting in a very diverse audience of memorial attendees, I was not made to feel guilty about what happened in 1887.  Rather, I felt grateful that both Black and white people took the time and grace to share with us what happened and how it affected them. I felt grateful that others spoke of the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative, our area universities, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, and North Carolina for Community and Justice (NCCJ) to provide opportunities for people of all walks of life to learn about our history.

I will be traveling to Montgomery and Selma later this week as part of a “pilgrimage” of diverse people from the Greensboro area to learn about the continued impact of our nation’s oppression of Black people – from enslavement to reconstruction and convict leasing to Jim Crow laws and lynching to current day mass incarceration.  I am going voluntarily and with a readiness to learn and awareness that I will be uncomfortable at times.  But that is what learning requires – getting uncomfortable so that we can stretch into new knowledge. I am grateful to be led by people who are similarly called to provide learning opportunities to others.

In my work, this is what I strive to do – provide opportunities for people to grow their knowledge and their mindsets so that they can do the work they are called to do in their lives to create a more equitable, inclusive world.  However big or small, we all have the potential to make others feel more welcome, valued, and included.  We often just don’t know how or where to start. We also don’t always understand why it is important.

I invite you to share and learn along with me.  What do you want to learn about? What are you nervous about learning about? I welcome the conversation.

Jennifer Martineau, NCCJ Board Chair 2023-24, President and Founder of Leap & Inspire Global LLC