Wyatt Outlaw was a lawman and Graham politician born in 1820. His death would be the catalyst of North Carolina’s Kirk-Holden War.
Military Service and Politics
With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Outlaw served in the 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Cavalry between 1864 and 1866. Outlaw saw action throughout Virginia. Following the war, he was stationed in Texas at the Rio Grande during the Indian Wars of the southwest.
When he returned to Graham in 1866, he became an influential Republican among the Black community throughout Alamance County. Wyatt Outlaw became a co-founder and trustee of the Alamance’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church two years later.
During Reconstruction, Blacks were put in positions of power in southern cities much to the chagrin of some of the bitter white populace. This riled a number of white vigilance groups in the region. Governor William Woods Holden made Outlaw a member of the Graham Town Council. This position would also see him take the post of constable, one of three in the town—all of whom were Black.
The late 1860s proved to be a dangerous time in Graham as the Klan were active in the area. On at least one account, the Black constables were involved in confrontations with the group during night rides.
The Lynching of Wyatt Outlaw
Outlaw was often active in dealing with the Klan which prompted pushback from Whites who supported them. On February 26, 1870, several white men dragged Outlaw from his house that night and hung him in the courthouse square. A message was on the lawman which read “Beware, ye guilty, both Black and white.” One witness to the crime, a Black man known only as Puryear, was eventually found dead in a pond near the town.
The lynching prompted action from Governor Holden who brought in Colonel George Washington Kirk to hunt down the Klan and make it safe for Blacks to vote in the county. This also resulted in martial law on two afflicted counties in the state.
Three years after Wyatt Outlaw’s death, Guilford County Superior Court Judge Albion Tourgee pushed for an investigation into the murder. The Grand Jury of Alamance had 18 murder counts on over 60 Klansmen who were rounded up.
At the time, the state was heavily controlled by southern Democrats who took measures to dismantle the laws that could’ve resulted in successful prosecution of the suspects. As a result, there were no trials held and no one was ever held responsible for Wyatt Outlaw’s murder.