History major examines Reconstruction-era crime in Piedmont

By Luanne Williams

During a summer marked by a pandemic and a series of social-justice protests, Wingate senior Gracie McCallister pored over newspapers reading about crime, riots and rising tensions between social groups in the North Carolina Piedmont. Although the themes seemed familiar and immediate – political polarization, fear stoked by media reports, racial unrest – McCallister’s focus was 150 years in the past.

Thanks to a Reeves Summer Research grant, she and history professor Dr. David Mitchell were taking a deep dive into the Reconstruction Era.

“As I combed through the scholarly literature, I discovered there are no full-length monographs specifically on Reconstruction in the Piedmont,” Mitchell writes. “Unlike the eastern part of the state (majority Black) and the mountains (almost exclusively White), the Piedmont was the most diverse racially and economically.”

Familiar with the societal woes in Alamance County described in Paul Escott’s Many Excellent People, Mitchell wanted to look at counties closer to home to see if they faced similar racial and economic conflicts. And he wanted McCallister to grow as a historian, figuring out the best ways to glean information from source documents and to do a bit of her own reconstruction, piecing together what life was like in the Piedmont during the five years following the Civil War.

Male college professor at desk with Zoom on laptop and text on screen.

Newspapers published in Charlotte and surrounding towns became a primary source as McCallister and Mitchell tried to get a picture of the daily life of residents struggling to recover from the war and find a new footing. Rather than focus on a predetermined topic, Mitchell challenged McCallister to first identify what issues were most pressing to residents of the time, then to come up with a couple of themes she was interested in and finally to zero in on one for which she had the most supporting facts.

“It’s important to let the evidence guide us,” he says.

A veteran of Mitchell’s Civil War and Reconstruction class, McCallister was already hooked as she began her background reading in May to learn what others had written about the time period. In June, she plowed into the newspapers, via online archives, making notes from articles, letters to the editor and advertisements. Among the themes she explored were gender issues, economic issues and emigration from North Carolina before settling on crime as her focus.

“I started seeing lots of instances in these newspapers of murder and theft,” McCallister says. “People would steal livestock or crops; there were stories about people burning farms, or burning a cotton gin. Some of it was crime by White people, some by Black; and others were instances of organized crime. Maybe a Black person committed the theft, but he was hired by a White person, and it would be planned out.” She found reports of attacks on travelers, fires set in government buildings and in structures belonging to the middle and upper class. In many cases, Blacks or poor Whites were held responsible.

In her paper she writes that “the constant description of crime occurring across the North Carolina Piedmont created a deep sense of fear and mistrust among the people living in that area during Reconstruction.”

Residents were advised to guard their smokehouses and to avoid selling weapons to African Americans, as armed ex-slaves were especially feared. In Wadesboro, the local newspaper tried to quell these fears when it urged Blacks “to continue to work the same as before you were free; to obey all orders which your master may give; to do all work freely and with a will – never complaining or refusing.”

McCallister examined how the constant reports of vagrancy and violent crimes encouraged the rise of White paramilitary organizations, including the Klan. She says that as Piedmont newspapers increasingly exaggerated crimes and selectively edited their reporting, the region became more susceptible to racially motivated violence.

“Crime reports that were shared regularly in papers or that sensationalized news cultivated a sense of fear and concern as people living in the North Carolina Piedmont region became fearful of attacks carried out by poor whites and blacks in their area,” she wrote in her paper. “Newspaper articles that described riots, organized crime, rampant theft, arson, black violence, and the dangers of vagrancy turned groups against one another, especially those of upper class whites against lower class whites and blacks.”

Gaining skills through struggle

McCallister and Mitchell found the research challenging, especially given the impacts of Covid-10, but they also found bright spots to focus on.

“We were going to travel to archives together, and be able to put our hands on physical things from 150 years ago,” Mitchell says. “That’s one of the attractions of a research project: the mentoring, being able to show a student some of the mechanisms of research. But during this period of Covid, a lot of things have stopped.

“But one of the things we’ve learned is to work with what we have, and that pragmatism is valuable. Gracie has engineered a way to look through this material online, searching out all that libraries and archives are offering digitally. Anybody can Google. The question is, How do you find the information that other people can’t find? The skills that Gracie is practicing now, being resourceful and resilient, this kind of a project will transcend to whatever type of career that she chooses.”

Female college student writes in a notebook next to open laptop.

Having served as Mitchell’s research assistant last year, McCallister said that skimming through newspapers to find information was familiar territory, but starting the process without a predetermined topic was a whole new ballgame.

“When I was working for Dr. Mitchell, I would have a list of keywords and plug in those words,” she says, “but starting from scratch, there is so much information to sift through. I am having to learn to read more closely and find the meaningful among the mundane. I’ve had to look at details and figure out how they are more telling of the big picture.”

As she researched, she would send her findings and her questions to Mitchell.

“We can’t sit face-to-face and do this, but we can be online together looking at materials and untangling what is going on,” Mitchell says. He increased the frequency of their online meetings during the summer to help reassure McCallister that she was headed in the right direction. But he made sure not to interfere with what he believes is a necessary struggle.

“That is really the purpose of the Reeves Grant, to be really hands-on, to mentor and show them the way to be successful and then let them go and do it,” he says. “Students chosen for this research are already the best of the best; they have the initiative and capability. The purpose of this is that they need to struggle. You want this to be difficult, so that they gain new skills. For someone like Gracie, regardless of their career path, it is of value to give someone an advanced project and tie one hand behind their back.”

For McCallister, who will graduate in May 2021 with a history major and minors in Spanish and international studies, that career path will first lead to the classroom, where she wants to share her passion for history with middle schoolers.

“I want to teach social studies so I can introduce history to children and help them see how they fit in and how it affects them,” says McCallister, who is from Unionville and hopes to teach locally through North Carolina’s residency program, during which she’ll continue as a Wingate student, taking education classes on her way to full licensure.

Find out more about studying history or education at Wingate, or check out McCallister and Mitchell’s research during a Nov. 10 Lyceum event.

Nov. 9, 2020

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