The Summer of ’76

I would probably never have noticed the story of Sandra Dupree and Harry Lee Dickens, Jr. but for a brief write-up on it that appeared in a July 1976 issue of Jet magazine, right next to the story I was looking for: another brief write-up about the killing of Bernard Whitehurst, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the summer of 1976, as the nation’s bicentennial celebration was at high tide, the people of the small town of Scotland Neck, North Carolina had a racially charged killing to think about instead. In March of that year, a thirty-four-year-old white woman named Sandra Dupree, who was a mother of four and the wife of the local Free Will Baptist minister, had shot a twenty-one-year-old black man, Harry Lee Dickens, Jr., in the back (or the back of the head). Dickens died a few days later.

As with any crime of this sort, eyewitness accounts varied. Sandra Dupree claimed that she had shot Dickens in “self-defense,” [1] because Dickens “had attacked her and her son” Mark, who was fourteen. As with anything involving race and the South, there are many sides to the one story.

News stories explain that Mark Dupree had been selling copies of a rural newspaper called Grit, and there had been a confrontation:

A week before Dickens’ death, Mrs. Dupree’s oldest son, Mark, 14, had a scuffle with two younger black boys. He reportedly pulled a knife, which was taken from him by a large black man. [2]

On May 12, two months after the shooting, The Bee (in Danville, Virginia) reported that Dupree had stayed in jail until April 20, when she was bailed out. (Bail wasn’t usually granted in these kinds of cases.) Yet, more interesting is The Bee‘s telling of Mark Dupree’s altercation with local blacks while he was on his paper route. The way they tell it: on March 5, six days before the shooting, Mark Dupree was kicked off his bicycle by a group of black boys and he then pulled a knife on them. (This is a minister’s son, mind you.) During the fight, the black boys damaged Mark’s bicycle and took his knife away from him. One of the black boys was later sentenced to jail time by a local judge for assault— which is more punishment than Mark’s mother would get for shooting and killing a man. Yet, Sandra Dupree might have known what the outcome would be; as the newspaper reported it: she told the police, “If we couldn’t take care of the problem, she would.” [3]

Among the newspaper accounts that I read, Harry Lee Dickens was not mentioned as having been involved in that March 5 altercation at all, but the fight did occur “near the Dickens home.” One account said that Dickens was the Dupree family’s yard man— which, having been raised in the South, makes no sense to me: if you’ve got a fourteen-year-old son who is healthy enough to sell newspapers, why do you have a yard man?

Tensions among locals grew, and Dupree’s trial had to be moved to nearby Henderson, the county seat of adjacent Vance County, because the tiny community where the incident occurred was, as one newspaper put it, “not equipped to handle the trial.”

Whether or not race was factor in the killing depends on whose version of events you believe. Sandra Dupree said that race had nothing to do with it; she was quoted in one article as saying, “As far as I’m concerned this is not a racial thing . . . the color doesn’t enter in . . . I’m not prejudiced at all.” [4] However, one of the black boys involved in the fight with Mark “said Dupree called him ‘a black-assed nigger.'”

Contrary to Dupree’s claim of self-defense, Dickens’ sisters testified that, when he was shot, Harry Lee Dickens, Jr. was running from Sandra Dupree, trying to get away from her and into his house. [5] His older sister testified that Dupree had approached Dickens with a gun while he was chopping wood in their yard, then hit him in the face twice before the two struggled over the weapon. His younger sister, who saw this happening from the porch, said that her brother ran from Dupree when she dropped the gun. Then she picked up the gun and shot him.

By the time Sandra Dupree went on trial in the summer, the controversy was boiling over. There were protests, led by Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizer Golden Frinks. One report estimated the crowd at 250 people, though only twelve were arrested. [6]

The Evening Telegraph in Rocky Mount describes jury selection in the trial, in its July 6 issue, right below its coverage of the nation’s Bicentennial, complete with a great big full-color American flag. It was still America’s 200th birthday, after all.

At trial’s end, Sandra Dupree, it seems, swam through the proverbial river of you-know-what and came out clean on the other side. By July 11, the AP reported the outcome: “Sandra Dupree acquitted in murder trial.” She was found not-guilty by a jury of “11 whites and one black.” In his lengthy charge, the judge had told the jury that “to find her innocent, [they] would have to find she acted in self-defense.” [7] So, it seems they did. But that would not be all.

After Dupree’s acquittal, there were firebombings in Henderson and Scotland Neck, which law enforcement believed to be related to the verdict. In one location, an oil tanker was ignited by a bomb, and at a manufacturing company, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a trash container. (A third attempt was made elsewhere but it didn’t ignite.) The wire story on the fires reports that the Dupree family had been out of town “since the trial.” [8]

The story of Sandra Dupree and Harry Lee Dickens made national news from March until July 1976, both for its inflammatory basis and its outcome. No one seemed to dispute that a white minister’s wife got angry, got a gun, and got in her car intending to deal with the black people she believed had abused her son. That day, as a result of her ire, she shot and killed a black man in his own front yard, in full view of his two sisters.

In something of a strange twist, the September 1976 annual report of the Free Will Baptists, Contact, ran a short news piece on Dupree’s acquittal. There, in the twenty-page pink-and-blank newsletter, among news about the Bicentennial Convention, youth honors, and creative writing contest winners is “North Carolina Pastor’s Wife Acquitted of Murder Charge.” The telling is simple and matter-of-fact.

Among other news outlets to cover the story, the politically liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal includes tidbits of it in “Bicentennial on Death Row,” from August 1976. The writer, Lois Spear, is discussing racial injustice in North Carolina more generally, but brings in Dupree-Dickens as a case and point. Near the end of her piece, Spear writes,

In the South, you can see the contradiction laid open on the pages of the newspaper. In the long run, that may be more open and honest than in many northern cities.

Given the brutally matter-of-fact coverage that I read, Spear might be right.

References

  1. “Minister’s Wife Pleads Self-Defense.” AP. July 8, 1976.
  2. “Minister’s Wife Accused In Death Says It’s Torture.” AP. June 6, 1976
  3. “Pastor’s Wife Free On Bond in Shooting.” AP. May 12, 1976.
  4. “Minister’s Wife Pleads Self-Defense.” AP. July 8, 1976.
  5. “Sisters testify against Dupree.” UPI. July 6, 1976.
  6. “SCLC Picketers Are Arrested.” AP. June 1, 1976
  7. “Dupree Acquitted in Murder Trial.” AP. July 11, 1976.
  8. “Henderson Plant Firebombed.” High Point Enterprise. July 14, 1976.

 

 

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