BLADENBORO, N.C. — Teresa Edwards was driving to Bo’s Food Store when she spotted the teenager walking along the dirt road. It was getting dark. He was alone. She recognized him as Lennon Lacy, one of her son’s best friends. She stopped to ask him if he needed a ride.
“No, ma’am,” she recalls him saying, “I’m just thinking.”
Lacy had plenty on his mind that night in August, and many would soon puzzle over what those thoughts might have been. The next morning, Lacy, who was black, was found hanging by two belts from a wooden swing set in a predominantly white trailer park. State authorities called it a suicide. His family, and many others here, wondered whether Lacy’s death was something else: a lynching.
It looked to them as if his body was on display. He didn’t leave a note. And Lacy had been dating an older white woman for months. He was found wearing unlaced white sneakers that his family said were not his, one of several unsettled issues. Last week, in a scene echoing the civil rights era in the South, the FBI was called in and the NAACP held a protest march over Lacy’s death.
Now, suspicion whistles through the town’s Carolina pines. To die here, in this way, has resurrected old fears about race in a place where the pained past has never felt all that distant.
People who knew Lacy don’t think he committed suicide. Others are unsure what to believe. But many here say the possibility that Lacy, a popular high school senior who moved easily between black and white social circles, was the victim of a racially motivated killing demands more investigation.
“We know suicide is possible,” said the Rev. Gregory Taylor, a black preacher in a town where there are two churches named First Baptist, their memberships split along racial lines. “It’s just hard to accept that a black youth would hang himself given the history of ‘strange fruit.’ The facts don’t add up.”
It was Thursday, Aug. 28, when Edwards, who is white, saw Lacy on the dirt road. She also doesn’t believe the teen killed himself.
He had just turned 17. That week he started his senior year at West Bladen High. He was excited about his first home football game, set for the following day, a Friday night under the lights. His gray and purple No. 51 jersey was laid out on his bed. He dreamed of the NFL.
The day before he died, Lacy attended the funeral of his 73-year-old great-uncle. The death raised questions for the teen about mortality that his family hadn’t heard him ask before. And he had just discovered that his girlfriend, a 31-year-old white woman living across the street, had broken up with him.
“That was someone that Lennon had fallen in love with,” said his brother, Larry Lacy, 25. “And being young, he fell hard.”
Lacy’s mom didn’t approve of her son’s relationship. Neither did his friends. But their objections were mostly about her age. The girlfriend was divorced and had three children. In math class days before he died, Lacy confided in his cousin A.J. Willis, 15.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about her. She’s a grown woman,’ ” Willis said.
The old lines dividing black and white in the South are harder to see these days and more often crossed over, especially by young people. Lacy’s mom, Claudia, has a biracial grandson. While she attends the black First Baptist Church — where a trustee observed, “The most segregated hour in the world is on Sunday morning” — her son had recently begun going with white friends to Galeed Baptist across town, where blacks and whites prayed together.
“Kids don’t see race,” said Claudia Lacy, 51. “Adults do.”
The Ku Klux Klan no longer parades through Bladenboro, as Jessica Belle, a black county resident, recalls the group last did in 1997. In 1994, a man was fired from his job here for refusing to remove a Confederate sticker from his toolbox, an issue that divided the town and fed rumors of the KKK’s revival in the schools. Now, the Confederate battle flag appears to have beaten a retreat from local flagpoles and truck bumpers. Until recently, the county sheriff was black. The one-room library on South Main prominently displays titles by Ralph Ellison and other black authors.
Bladenboro, 40 miles south of Fayetteville, has 1,800 residents, about 18 percent of them black.
“All in all, I think we have good relationships between blacks and whites in this town,” said Mayor Rufus Duckworth III, who is white and manages the town hardware store. “I get along with them fine.”
Barbara Cogdell, a black preacher, agreed.
“Black and white get along great,” she said, wryly smiling. “We just don’t get invited to their houses or the other way around.”
As in many places, black teens here complain about police harassment. When students hang out in the parking lot at Bo’s Food Store — the town is short on places for young people to gather — police appear more likely to let white teens loiter, they said. Earlier this year, Willis noticed that police asked him and his cousin why they were out walking late at night but ignored a couple of white teens nearby. But Lacy’s death has not ignited the kind of Ferguson-fueled protests seen in large cities. Everything is smaller here, and people know one another by name.
The town has a Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, a two-laner whose name changes to Seaboard Street at the traffic light in the heart of downtown. Black residents have taken note of that. “It should all be MLK,” Claudia Lacy said.
Following Seaboard to the west leads to the spot where Lennon Lacy’s body was found. It’s known as the Hill, although it’s pancake-flat. A massive brick cotton mill sat there for decades. Hundreds of people worked at the Bladenboro Cotton Mills, “spinners of weaving and knitting yarns.” But like most of the state’s textile industry, the mill is gone. Now, the Hill is occupied by a mobile-home park, 13 stark-white trailers spread in a rectangle around a straight line of wooden playground sets, many of them missing swings.
For years, black children were warned by their elders about the Hill, even though today black families live in at least three of the trailers.
Just behind the Hill sits a public housing complex of small red duplexes named Spinners Court, a nod to the town’s textile history. That’s where Lacy and his family lived. It’s where his white girlfriend lived. It’s where Edwards and her son, Justin Jomes, live, too.
Jomes has red hair, just like his mother. He and Lacy, along with another white teen, were always together. “My three sons,” Claudia Lacy called them. Jomes, 17, thinks something bad happened to his friend. He just doesn’t know what. And the search for answers seems to consume everyone.
“It’s the only thing we talk about anymore,” Jomes said.
Lennon Lacy was last seen alive about 10:30 p.m. by his father. The teen often went on training runs in the dark, when the humidity was lower. That night, he wore a blue West Bladen T-shirt his mom bought for him at Dollar General and athletic shorts. His family thinks he also wore his new gray Air Jordan sneakers — because the shoes seem to have disappeared.
The next morning, Claudia Lacy felt sick and didn’t go to her job as a hospital housekeeper. It was the day after the funeral for John E. Wright. The great-uncle had been in failing health for months. She was awoken by the sound of Lacy’s cellphone and recalled pulling it from under his pillow and looking at a text message: “I’m at school. Where you at? I don’t see you.”
He must have forgotten his phone, she thought. But why wasn’t he in school? Maybe the school bus was late. It was the first week of classes and the bus driver was new. Before she could worry too much on her own, the police chief was at her door.
The 911 call came in at 7:25 a.m. A body was hanging from a swing set, the feet just inches off the ground. The victim was clearly dead, covered in fire ants. The caller struggled to figure out how to get the body down. The county coroner arrived at 8:20 a.m. The body now lay on the ground, which Hubert Kinlaw knew right away would make his job harder. Kinlaw, who has been attending deaths for nearly 30 years, focused immediately on the teen’s sneakers.
“One of my first comments was, why’s there no laces on them?” Kinlaw recalled. “That part of it didn’t make sense.”
But the rest of it looked like a suicide to him, nothing criminal. Kinlaw noted the long noose created by two belts tied together. One was blue canvas and the other black and webbed “like a dog leash,” Kinlaw said. He looked at the swing set, which was attached to a small climbing platform for a green plastic slide. He didn’t take any measurements or run calculations — which later opened him up to criticism — but it appeared plausible to him that Lacy had done this himself.
Claudia Lacy identified her son. A state bureau of investigation agent interviewed her at the scene. She said that her son had just buried his great-uncle but that he didn’t seem depressed. The medical examiner performed an autopsy, failing to find any signs of a struggle or fight. Lacy’s death was ruled a suicide. No mention was made of the white sneakers — they didn’t arrive with Lacy’s body for the autopsy. It’s unclear what happened to the shoes, although the state bureau of investigation collected them, Kinlaw said.
To Claudia Lacy, the investigation felt rushed.
“Why were they so quick to call it that?” she asked now. “Was it because of my race? Was it because of my social status?”
She said state investigators didn’t visit her home until several days after her son’s death. They never looked for a note. They seemed to have their minds made up. Investigators could have performed something called a psychological autopsy to look for clues that could support or refute a finding of suicide, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
But Larry Lacy believes police simply failed to find his brother’s killer. He thinks the suicide was staged.
Shortly after Lennon Lacy’s death, his mom called a county commissioner, who put her in touch with the state branch of the NAACP. The NAACP hired a pathologist to review the state’s report, focusing doubt on whether the death scene was mishandled and whether Lacy could have died in a chokehold and the scene been arranged to look like a suicide.
“We’ve got a right to be suspicious,” William Barber II, head of the NAACP state chapter, told the crowd during last weekend’s march, as he rattled off a list of hasty false convictions of black men.
More than 4,700 lynchings occurred between the 1880s and 1968, mostly of black men, according to Tuskegee University in Alabama. The last case considered a racially motivated lynching took place in 1981, when a black man named Michael Donald was killed by two Klansmen and hanged from a tree in Mobile, Ala.
But the list of possible suspects in Lennon Lacy’s death is short. There seems to be less evidence pointing to who might have killed Lacy than evidence raising questions about whether he committed suicide. The white sneakers remain unexplained. His mom insists that he didn’t own the particular model of blue belt found around his neck. Weeks later, she found her son’s blue canvas belt in her glove compartment. He didn’t own two blue belts, she said, so where did the other one come from?
The white girlfriend moved out of her house in late October. Edwards said she drove the woman to a bus stop, where she had a one-way ticket to Illinois. Edwards said the Lacy family has since stopped speaking to her. The Washington Post tried unsuccessfully to locate the girlfriend for comment.
The Lacy family said it also suspects that a white family near the Hill trailer park might know how Lennon Lacy died. The white family’s son was friends with him A woman living there spoke briefly with The Post, barely cracking the faded front door. She said the two families had been close. She even tried to buy a headstone for Lacy but was told the family didn’t want her money. She said the state bureau of investigation had interviewed her.
“None of us had anything to do with this,” she said, crying. “They should know we would never hurt Lennon.”
The specter that Lacy was killed seemed to worry everyone in Bladenboro. An FBI investigation appeared to be welcomed by everyone, white and black. The county district attorney and the NAACP actually sparred over who should take credit for being first to invite the FBI.
During the NAACP march, Barber stopped to shake hands with the town’s police chief, Chris Hunt.
“We’re going to be here, and it’s not because of hate,” Barber said, leaning on a cane. “It’s because we want a full investigation.”
“The law enforcement community wants the same thing,” the police chief replied.
Now, the protesters are gone. The Lacy family is filled with mistrust of people once considered friends. The old dividing lines between black and white threaten to rise again. And while many of the reminders of that ugly past have disappeared here, the wooden swing set remains. But during a recent warm autumn day, no one played there.