The Tarboro Three : Rape Race and Secrecy in a Small Town

ECU Author/Contributor (non-ECU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Brian Lampkin (Creator)
East Carolina University (ECU )
Web Site:
Alex Albright

Abstract: In the summer of 1973 in the small town of Tarboro North Carolina three young black men offered a ride to a young white woman out walking alone at midnight. It is impossible to tell how different the lives of each of the four individuals would have been if this night had never happened. It is also difficult to determine how the town of Tarboro was changed by the events that spiraled out from that hot summer night. I do know that the three men--Vernon L. Brown Bobby Hines and Jesse Walston--were eventually sentenced to die in a Raleigh gas chamber for raping the unnamed white woman. And I know that much of Tarboro has little interest in revisiting the turmoil the town lived through from August 1973 to the release of the three men 18 months later. In 1973 Tarboro became a national story. The Southern Poverty Law Center took over the appeal process. The Black Panther Newsletter wrote on The Tarboro Three as did The New York Times. Angela Davis and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy came to town to protest. Thirty-seven years later the story is largely forgotten nationally and largely wished away locally. Perhaps that's for the best but I resist the impulse to silence. I have lived in Tarboro for six years and for 5 ½ of those years I never heard of what became known as The Tarboro Three case. It was kept quiet. No one talked about it despite the fact that most of the people who were directly involved in the case still lived here. Or perhaps that's why no one talked about it. Part of my interest in this story is centered on the paradoxical existence of a town wide secret. How does such a secret affect a town? Is there a tacit understanding of a community silence? Secrets we're led to believe can undermine an individual tear us up from the inside out. Do secrets have the same affect on a community? Much of this book will necessarily involve specific research into the separate accounts of the alleged rape the facts of the ensuing trial and the various opinions on the protests that followed the initial conviction. Court records newspaper accounts and personal interviews will provide the historical material needed. The very fact of writing a history of the events is an insistence on breaking the secrecy surrounding the story but it is difficult to talk with people who want nothing more than to bury the things I most want to unearth. This book will struggle with the writer's need for information and the various individual desires for privacy. Is there inherent value in the work of a writer uncovering a lost story of significant historical import? Are people entitled to forget awful events they wish they had no part in? Is it in the public interest to revisit these difficult times and thus expose the grandchildren of alleged rapists and victims to the harsh realities of their loved ones' lives? As creative nonfiction I intend to include my personal place within the town and to foreground the awkward and even at times dangerous position in which the writer looking for information might find himself. There are also secrets within my own family I intend to look into and to see how they have affected my family and me. Finally The Tarboro Three case is in my opinion an important moment in the waning years of the Civil Rights Era. It is a story that needs to be told but at what cost to the people who'd rather it stay a secret? 

Additional Information

Date: 2011
American studies
Tarboro (N.C.)--History--20th century
Racism--North Carolina--Tarboro
Tarboro (N.C.)--Race relations

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