Most newspaper accounts of the Warren County, N.C., lynchings drew upon nationally distributed wire service reports that originated with the Raleigh News and Observer, North Carolina’s largest-circulation—and at the time virulently anti-Black—newspaper. While many papers printed the wire-service story verbatim, others edited it at will, changing its language, tone, and spin to fit that particular newspaper’s political stance. Hence, when reading these accounts, it’s important to remember that most of these journalists had no first-hand connection with the story, and were drawing on the same source—a North Carolina newspaper renowned for its fiercely anti-Black stance. Almost a century after the murders, celebrated African American historian Dr. Vann Newkirk probed archival records and interviewed community elders in Warren County to come up with a fuller story of the murders. A few years later, Dr. Glenn Hinson and undergraduates associated with the University of North Carolina’s “Descendants Project” extended Dr. Newkirk’s work, locating and interviewing descendants of the two lynching victims and a host of other community elders. These oral histories tell a very different story from that reported by white newspapers at the time, adding critical details that transform the narrative, while foregrounding the racism that shaped the newspapers’ reporting. The following account draws on all of these sources, relying most heavily on the research of Dr. Newkirk and the Descendants Project team.
On January 18, 1921, nineteen-year-old Plummer Bullock and a companion stopped by J.P. Williams' general store just outside of the Warren County town of Norlina. Near the small store’s counter were two barrels of apples, one filled with unblemished fruit, and the other with bruised produce. The young Bullock selected a bag of the premium apples, paid for them, and stepped out of the store, only to discover that the clerk—sixteen years old Brady Traylor—had substituted rotten apples for the ones he had chosen. Turning back into the store, Mr. Bullock confronted the clerk and demanded his money back. Traylor is said to have replied, "Not after they have been in your black hands will I take them back." An argument ensued, drawing other whites into the store, who angrily threatened Mr. Bullock and his companion (whom some say was his brother Matthew Bullock, and others claim was his 45-year-old cousin Alfred Williams). The two men instantly recognized the danger and retreated from the store. But the damage had been done—Plummer Bullock had dared to challenge white authority, and, in the eyes of the gathered white men, would have to pay for his impertinence.
At this point, different narrators tell very different stories about what happened next. Local whites claimed that they overheard Plummer Bullock and his brother Matthew say that they were going to exact revenge on Traylor, and that the brothers and a group of friends armed themselves and gathered at the Norlina Train Depot the following Saturday night to do just that. This was the story that made its way into the white-owned newspapers, and that went out on the wire services. African American residents of the town, though, told a very different story. They contended that Traylor and a group of other whites made plans to “shoot up” the African American neighborhood in Norlina, to “punish” Plummer Bullock and others for their “disrespect.” When word of this reached the neighborhood, a group of Black men armed themselves and set out to meet the expected white mob, with hopes of protecting their families and countering the imminent violence. The two groups met at the Train Depot.
A pitched gunfight ensued. The newspapers claimed that Brady Traylor, his older brother Raby, and a few other white men approached the depot and asked Matthew Bullock why they were there and why they were armed. At this point—the story goes—Jerome Hunter, one of the Black men, shot Raby Traylor, setting off an intense gunfight. Black community tellers say that the shooting began almost as soon as the two groups met, with the angry whites—surprised at seeing the group of armed Black men—quickly opening fire. By the time the shooting ended, five white men and three African Americans had been injured, two of them (Raby Traylor and Jerome Hunter) seriously enough to require hospitalization. White police officers quickly arrived at the scene, and promptly arrested the wounded African Americans. A quickly organized posse then made their way into the very neighborhood that the white mob had set out to terrorize, and arrested eleven other men, including Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams. All were taken to the jail in Warrenton, the nearby county seat.
The next morning, the Norlina justice of the peace (who also happened to be the owner of the overtly supremacist Norlina newspaper) charged all of the African American men with “rioting.” News of the gunfight—which whites were already calling a “race riot”—spread quickly throughout the county, leading many whites to call for the immediate execution of the “riot’s” leaders, and many African Americans to ready themselves to defend the jail from an expected white mob. A group of the latter armed themselves and gathered in the basement of the Oak Chapel Church, an AME sanctuary that was less than 120 yards from the jail. As they did so, a rowdy white mob began forming around the jailhouse.
Fearing another gunfight, the Warrenton mayor ordered the prominent local lawyer and Confederate sympathizer Tasker Polk (who was much in demand as a speaker at Confederate Memorial Day celebrations across the state) to mobilize the civilian “Home Guard” and protect the jail. Instead, Polk deployed his men to the Oak Chapel Church, where they threatened, disarmed, and dispersed those gathered there. When rumors of a second gathering of armed African Americans reached him, Polk ordered his men to another, more distant site in Warrenton, leaving the jail entirely unprotected. After leaving this second site, a small Black-owned café, Polk disbanded the guard, telling them that their work was done. One can’t help but wonder how many of those men—now no longer acting in any “official” capacity—made their way back to the growing mob at the jail.
Shortly after midnight, the mob burst into the jailhouse—guarded at this point by a lone Black jailer—and demanded the keys to the upstairs cells. After retrieving these at gunpoint, they drug Alfred Williams (a farmworker and father of seven) and Plummer Bullock down the stairs and into cars idling on the street outside. Other members of the mob quickly joined them as they drove out of town towards Norlina. A few miles away, they pulled to the side of the road, yanked Mr. Williams and Mr. Bullock from the cars, and shot both repeatedly, continuing shooting even after the bodies were lying lifeless on the ground. The jubilant mob then dispersed, driving into the night while leaving the bodies by the roadside.
When morning broke and news of the murders spread, hundreds of white bystanders drove, rode, or walked to view the mutilated bodies of Mr. Williams and Mr. Bullock. Among them were the members of a quickly assembled coroner’s jury, who promptly declared that the murders had been carried out “at the hands of unknown persons.” It wasn’t until well into the afternoon that the victims’ families were allowed to recover the bodies and carry them to the county’s lone Black-owned funeral home.
Meanwhile, fearing that more violence was inevitable, Warrenton’s mayor ordered that the men still held in the jail be transported under heavy guard to North Carolina’s Central Prison, sixty miles away in Raleigh. As this was happening, deputized whites in Norlina rounded up an additional five Black men suspected of participating in the “riot,” and carried these to the jail, from whence they too were driven to the Raleigh penitentiary. These fourteen men were soon joined by the two who had been injured in the gunfight, leaving sixteen Black men—ranging in age from 17 to 47—to be tried for “rioting, etc.” when the Superior Court met in Warrenton in late May. While awaiting their trial, these as-yet-untried men were forced by the state to work on chain-gang road-building crews or on state-owned prison farms. No members of the white mobs at the Norlina Train Depot and the Warrenton jail ever served any jail time.
In May 1921, the sixteen men returned under heavy guard to Warrenton, where they were collectively sentenced in a trial that lasted less than an hour and a half. One was charged with 8 years of hard labor, three with a year of chain-gang labor on state-supervised road crews, and four with six months of road-crew labor. Three others were commanded to move out of Warren County, and the remaining men were released for lack of evidence. By this point, the parents and siblings of Plummer Bullock had already left the state for the North, with the children of Alfred Williams following soon thereafter.