GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Since learning about Eugene Hairston in 2018, the Guilford County Community Remembrance Project has tasked itself with finding him.
It’s taken years of research. Because of poor record keeping, inconsistent newspaper records and the fact that he was a Black man, it has been difficult to find information about Hairston and his family. His life and death were almost erased from Guilford County history. At 17, Hairston became the only known person to be lynched in Guilford County.
“Nobody’s archiving this kind of information so you literally can’t go and look it up,” said Dr. Deborah H. Barnes, a member of the GCCRP steering committee.
“Think of a jigsaw puzzle. We have very few pieces that we’ve been able to place, official records, newspaper articles, into that puzzle,” said Karen Skelton, another member of the GCCRP steering committee.
The research has been tedious, but newspapers, maps and records from the 1800s have begun to paint a picture leading this group closer to knowing the full story about Hairston and his family.
The group was able to find 44 articles from North Carolina to Montana about the lynching of Eugene Hairston, but they still wanted to know more about who he was before his tragic death. It’s been especially hard to find a black teenager in 1887. Before his death made newspapers, a single census document was the only other proof that Hairston existed.
“He had no time to create a record, nobody was going to create records about him. So it’s an amazing challenge to find somebody who is this close to having been lost in time,” Skelton said.
Using the census record, they were able to learn more about Hairston’s family.
“His mother Sophia Hairston, his older sister Betty and then his half-siblings Lucy, Minnie, Benjamin and stepfather Ben Palmer,” Skelton said, “They came primarily from Colfax, Kernersville, Deep River township and then came to Greensboro. This was taken in June of 1880 and he was listed as not attending school and he does not read or write.”
The census record also revealed something about Hairston that the news articles did not.
“In that census, it indicates that he has some disability. And we don’t know that disability, we don’t know if it’s physical, or mental,” Barnes said. “If he was mentally disabled, as they call it now, would he have been a likely candidate for sexual assault when he knows the rules of the culture? That seems suspicious to me,” Barnes said.
Another reason it’s been so hard to find information about Hairston is that after the initial publications of his lynching, there were no found follow-up stories that tell what happened after the fact.
“So many things in the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century literally burned to the ground and destroyed all the records that are in there,” Barnes said.
It’s often assumed that no one tried to help Hairston as he was being dragged out of the Greensboro jail by a white mob. But some of the newspaper articles GCCRP found talked about a group of 100 Black men that assembled to figure out a way to stop the lynching from happening.
GCCRP has not been able to find any additional information about this group, what happened to them, or why they were ultimately unable to stop the murder.
GCCRP even found living descendants of Hairston, who still live in his hometown of Kernersville, NC. They had not heard the story.
“I was particularly shocked that I think we found a great-great niece, she’d never heard of it,” Barnes said.
Their research is far from complete, but they’re hoping whatever they uncover can be used to teach this generation about what happened here.
“Specifically, the organization is designed to create an environment here in the city where we can bring the memorial for Eugene Hairston here,” Barnes said.
“The more pieces we can find no matter how small they are, they help to give us a bit of a better picture. It’s not accurate, it’s not going to be as truthful as it could be, but it will give us a better picture,” Skelton said.
Read part one of Guilford County Community Remembrance Project’s search for Eugene Hairston here.