AUTHOR: Leisa Greathouse; edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter
Archibald Beebe, known as Archie by relatives (even today), was born enslaved. When and where he was born is unknown. A wealthy plantation owner, Asa Beebe, bequeathed “Archy” to his young daughter Melinda. Asa Beebe died in 1842, which would have made Archie very young. Perhaps he was around the same age as Melinda. When the Civil War ended, Archie and four million Americans of African descent secured their freedom. He worked as a drayman, hauling loads of merchandise between the Cape Fear River landing and the businesses around the Market House in a horse-drawn wagon. That was a practice employed by many people (perhaps hundreds) since the time Fayetteville became a market center in North Carolina. On Sunday, February 10, 1867, Archie Beebe was at his home when Sheriff Hardie arrested him for allegedly trying to sexually assault Elvina Massey as she walked home earlier that same day. Beebe was taken into custody and locked in jail. On Monday, guards marched Beebe from the jail on Gillespie Street to the upstairs of the Market House for his initial court appearance. After the hearing, Beebe was escorted down the stairs by the sheriff and some guards, but a mob, including individuals wielding knives and guns, was waiting below. Some rushed at Beebe, thrusting knives at him. Sheriff Hardie managed to push away one or two assailants. At one point, Beebe fell to the ground. As he stood up, William Tolar drew a pistol from underneath the shawl he was wearing and shot Beebe in the head; the bullet entered behind Beebe’s left ear. Beebe died on the southeast corner of the Market House.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, when a mob takes the law into their own hands and kills someone, it is a lynching. Archie was lynched on February 11, 1867. He was denied due process as guaranteed by the United States Constitution in the 5th and 14th Amendments. IF Archie had committed the crime he was accused of, why would he be sitting at home? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that, had he been guilty, he would have been in hiding or in the process of running away? Since he was lynched and never stood trial for the accusations against him, the details of the alleged crime remain a mystery. It was for the prosecution to prove guilt and Archie, like any American citizen, should have been seen as innocent until proven guilty.
Although Archie’s life was ended, his story endures. That story epitomizes the shameful Reconstruction ethos and milieu that occurred in this nation. It is probable that Archie’s lynching was a conspiracy. Witnesses observed that many men in the mob had lit cigars, which were used as a signal to move forward with the attack on Archie’s life as he exited the upstairs of the Market House. From that mob, five white men were eventually arrested and charged with Archie’s murder. The defeat of the Confederate States had put North Carolina under the 2nd Military District. It is likely the only reason charges were brought against those men was because North Carolina was under military rule. A military trial proceeded the following June (1867): A five-member commission and a Judge Advocate General determined the fate of the murderers.
At the Market House that fateful February day was not only the mob but also vendors who had brought their goods to market and many curiosity seekers who knew about Archie’s first court appearance. At the trial to hear the case against Tolar and the other four men accused of murdering Beebe, those people provided eyewitness testimony. Two of the eyewitnesses were Robert Simmons and Matthew N. Leary, Jr., both Americans of African descent.
In 1867, Robert Simmons was one of the seven founders who contributed towards the payment of $136 for two lots on Gillespie Street for a school to educate Black children. Today, that school still thrives as Fayetteville State University. Simmons was born to an enslaved father and free mother. At the trial, when asked his occupation, Simmons replied, “I keep a grocery….” He was also a preacher and had been taught to read by his mother. Robert Simmons testified that he “saw Captain Tolar walk up and come around on this way, like on my [Simmons] right, and reached right over and shot.”
Like Simmons, Matthew N. Leary, Jr. was one of the seven founders of Fayetteville State University. He was a free man his whole life. Leary was the brother of Lewis Sheridan Leary, one of John Brown’s raiders at Harper’s Ferry who was fatally shot during the skirmish. After Beebe’s trial, Leary served the Fayetteville precinct as Registrar and was nominated for Register of Deeds at the Cumberland County Convention, which was held at the Market House in 1870. Matthew N. Leary, Jr. made his living as a saddle and harness maker. “Since the [Civil] war, I have added a small grocery in the same building,” he stated, when asked at the trial by the prosecution what his occupation was. He was the first witness called at the murder trial. Leary testified that he saw William Tolar fire a pistol at Beebe. The smoking gun that killed Beebe came from the hand of William Tolar. As African Americans, the testimonies of Leary and Simmons took extraordinary courage, since both men probably faced the prospect of cruel reprisals and threats of death.
The trial lasted approximately three months. Three of the five men charged with the murder of Archie Beebe—William J. Tolar, Thomas Powers, and David Watkins—were found guilty of murder and ordered to be “hung by the neck until they be dead.” However, two-thirds of the members of the trial commission voted to reduce the sentence to 15 years of hard labor at Fort Macon. Afterward, the families and friends of the convicted appealed to President Andrew Johnson to free the men. A year passed before President Johnson reviewed the murder convictions. Johnson gave full pardons to the three murderers who had spent only that one year in prison at Fort Macon.
When Tolar, Powers, and Watkins returned to Fayetteville, they were met with a hero’s welcome, complete with a parade. Some townspeople lauded Tolar with financial support that led to lucrative business opportunities. Tolar and the conspirators exercised every Constitutional right unhindered, beginning with the right to due process, resulting in a fair trial that convicted them of murder and, eventually, Presidential pardons, which are a U. S. President’s right to issue under the Constitution. Beebe’s rights, protected by the same Constitution, were ignored by the mob that lynched him. Tolar had his name engraved on a monument, but Beebe’s grave remains unknown. The murder of Archibald Beebe will forever be unjustifiable, as will all such events that personify the Reconstruction Era in America.