Note discovered at Kernersville cemetery helps reveal history of man believed to be buried in unmarked grave

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KERNERSVILLE, N.C. (WGHP) — A note was discovered at St. Paul Cemetery in Kernersville near a tombstone which tells an important story of someone who’s believed to be buried there in an unmarked grave.

We want to warn there is some sensitive content in this piece.

It’s how Eugene Hairston died that has left an ugly mark on Guilford County’s past.

“I came up one day during the summer, and there were flowers that were pretty…dead at that point. And a note attached to them that ‘this is in memory of Eugene Hairston.” Christine Gaugler, St. Paul Cemetery coordinator explained.

That’s how Gaugler discovered Eugene’s story.

That letter was left by members of the Guilford County Community Remembrance Project—a chapter under the Remembrance Project created by the Equal Justice Initiative.

“It’s a nationwide project. And they have built up a memorial in Alabama…about all the lynching that took place in the country,” Gaugler said.

Doctor Deborah Barnes is a lynching historian and one of the Guilford County Remembrance Project founders.

Their sole focus is Eugene’s story. That’s because it’s the only noted lynching in Guilford County. It does not mean he was the only person in the county who was lynched. It means his case was the only one that could be found on record.

So what is lynching?

“It has to be an accusation of a crime. And they have to be in some process of the justice system, either being arrested or in jail. And then there’s at least three people or a mob will come and remove them and do what they call popular justice,” Barnes explained.

The white mob that August evening in 1887 decided take justice into their own hands.

This after word had spread that 17-year-old Kernersville resident Eugene Harston allegedly sexually assaulted 17-year-old Mahala Sapp, a white woman.

“There was an accusation that she is raped. They bring him to the Greensboro jail, somewhere between 50 and 100 people, seems like that’s a big differential, show up in Greensboro, on horseback and muleback, and attack the jail,” Barnes said.

The mob broke down the jail door.

“He is taken and hanged. And then once he is hanged, his body is riddled with bullets so that when they come back the next day, they’ve actually hung a sign on his body. You can’t even read the sign because it’s so bullet ridden,” Barnes explained.

He was given time to pray before his killing. One media outlet says it was then when he admitted his guilt, while another reports Eugene said he was as innocent as an angel.

“His mom and his sister and his stepfather took him after he was hanged, and he was also shot and brought them back to Kernersville,” Gaugler said.

What puzzles those who actually know some of Eugene’s story is if he did it, then how?

“According to the census…it suggests that he’s disabled somehow,” Gaugler said.

Gaugler believes her research pointed her to a physical ailment.

The Remembrance Project has even gone as far as to connect with a living member of Eugene’s family, his niece, who lives in Kernersville. She had never heard of him.

There’s no physical proof that Eugene is buried in St. Paul Cemetery, but it’s likely because his family members are buried in St. Paul.

Historians said often times no stone is put up for victims of lynching’s in fear the mob would come back and dig them up.

“I hear so much talk about people being against the very idea of saying Black lives matter. But if you understood American history, you would understand why somebody has to articulate that. Why it’s important to say that because everything in history says they don’t matter,” Barnes said. “I don’t want to just talk about the past, just for the sake of the past, but we don’t understand what’s happening today because we don’t understand what happened before,” she said.

Barnes said often times, it’s a misconception that Black people did not attend lynching’s. That’s not the case.

Sometimes they would be reporters for their community. Other times they would create a mob of their own and intervene.

But why didn’t the Black mob intervene in Eugene’s case?

Find out more on that in our Forgotten Souls podcast.

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