On a wintry night in January 1921, a group of Black men in the small railroad town of Norlina set out to confront a white mob. The mob was planning to “shoot up” the local Black neighborhood over an argument that happened earlier in the week about a 10-cent purchase of apples. The Black men knew that in arming themselves and defending their families, they were putting their lives at risk. Yet they marched into the night, and soon met the advancing mob.
The gunfight that ensued saved their neighborhood, but also led to the arrests of 18 Black men, two of whom were pulled from the jail less than 24 hours later and lynched. The remaining men spent four months in the state penitentiary, forced to do ball-and-chain labor while awaiting their trial. “Seeking Justice” tells the story of these men’s return to Warren County to face a white judge and jury.
Taking place in the same courtroom in which the original trial occurred 101 years ago, the “Seeking Justice” reenactment chronicles the fate of these 16 men, who have come to be called the Norlina 16. At the same time, it recounts the story of the lynchings of Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams, and tells the narrative of Bullock’s brother Matthew (who was also in that gunfight), who fled to Canada and successfully fought a federal attempt to extradite him back to North Carolina.
Finally, the reenactment — which will take place Saturday, June 25, in the Superior Courtroom of the Warren County Courthouse, 109 S. Main St., Warrenton, at 11 a.m. — offers the first-person stories of some of the women whose husbands, sons, brothers and lovers were ripped from their families by the lynch mob and the court.
The players in “Seeking Justice” are all community members, most of whom first learned of this history during last year’s reenactment.
The core script — which draws heavily on notes from the 1921 Superior Court proceedings — was written by local Black playwright Thomas Park. The first-person narratives, new to this year’s production, were created by five local women who worked with UNC playwright Jacqueline Lawton to imagine the emotional experiences of four female family members caught up in this violence. The fifth testimony takes the perspective of the Black jailer who was on duty when the jail was attacked; its writer was North Carolina’s first Black woman jailer, who worked in that same Warrenton jailhouse many decades later.
Research by UNC’s Descendants Project provided a foundation for both the courtroom drama and the women’s testimonies.
“This production gives the audience an opportunity to experience the time in which these tragedies occurred,” said Jereann King Johnson, founder of Warren County’s 1921 Project. “It also gives them insight into the impact that these lynchings and arrests had on these men’s families and communities, and forces them to recognize how those impacts continue to shape our lives today.”
“Hopefully,” adds Dr. Cosmos George, the president of the Warren County branch of the NAACP, “this presentation of ‘Seeking Justice II’ will start an honest conversation about racism and racial terror that leads to understanding, healing and reconciliation.”
“Seeking Justice” is a collaborative project of The 1921 Project, the Warren County Branch of the NAACP, the Warren County African American Historical Collective, UNC’s Descendants Project, and UNC’s Humanities for the Public Good Initiative.
This event is free and open to the public.