“For justice to rise and freedom to reign.”
Those were the closing words of the chorus in Saturday’s presentation of “Seeking Justice,” a production made possible through the work of the 1921 Project and its partner organizations.
While the production challenged viewers to confront the past, it, and the discussion that followed, encouraged the audience to unite in order to build a better future together.
Many organizations and individuals partnered to make “Seeking Justice” possible, including the University of North Carolina Humanities for the Public Good Initiative, Warren Artists Market, Warren County Arts Council, Warren County History Collective and the Warren County NAACP branch and its SPARK (Seeking Justice and Reconciling Kinship) committee, with support from the North Carolina Arts Council.
Thomas Park of Warren Artist Market developed the script based upon research from the UNC Descendants Project, an ongoing study of lynchings in North Carolina by UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Glenn Hinston and his students. Their work includes identifying and interviewing descendants of two Warren County lynching victims, Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams.
The production centers around a 1921 confrontation over “bad apples” that triggered events that led to a gunfight at the train depot in Norlina and the arrest of 18 Black men. Another Black man, Matthew Bullock, escaped. However, Plummer Bullock and Alfred Williams were ultimately taken from the jail in Warrenton by a White mob, driven out of town and shot multiple times.
With narrators describing events of 1921, “Seeking Justice” depicted the trial of one of the Black men, Jerome Hunter. Courtroom scenes show Hunter’s frustration that he and other Black men were arrested while no White men were arrested, and that a plea of self-defense would be no option for him. The final courtroom scene shows the judge sentencing Hunter and announcing his ruling in the cases of the other men. Some of them were sentenced, charges against others were dismissed, and charges against some were dismissed on the condition that the men leave the county.
In response to audience questions, Hinson told the audience that Jerome Hunter was released from jail before the end of his sentence. He left Warren County and married, ultimately settling in New York, where he lived until his death in the 1940s.
Discussion focused on the need for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to have difficult conversations on the path to reconciliation, and to work together to build a brighter future.
The White people who attended were asked what they took away from the production. Responses included “education” and the need for White people to talk to other White people about what happened in the past so they can understand.
Several descendants of Plummer Bullock, Alfred Williams and the men who were tried were in attendance and expressed appreciation that “Seeking Justice” was produced. They hoped that the production would serve as inspiration to move past merely the telling of their ancestors’ stories to moving forward to make the future better.
Repeated themes of the discussion included the need for all Warren County residents to work together to improve the county and the need for more people to be involved in the community.
The 1921 Project and the Descendants Project will continue to work together in the future. Plans include lectures on topics such as sharecropping and the difficulty to leave that way of life, and the gathering of more oral histories from community members.