Staff Person: Jonathan Dembo
At first sight, the photograph above shows a typical, normal, prosaic, civic event: the ground-breaking ceremonies for a new building; a home for the family of William Benjamin “Ben” O’Neal. Upon closer examination, however, it represents an astonishing triumph of charity, goodwill, and community spirit over murder, hate and despair in one southern town, Greenville, North Carolina. The photograph is from the O’Neal Foundation Papers, a collection that documents the selfless and tireless voluntary efforts of hundreds of individuals, businesses, and organizations in the Greenville area, to aid a single family, devastated by sudden tragedy. Together they collected nearly $3,600 for the house and lot. This sum does not count the many thousands of dollars of labor and materials contributed by numerous individuals, businesses, and organizations. In addition to the photograph, the papers also include the by-laws, minutes of meetings, correspondence, financial reports, resolutions relating to the O’Neal Foundation.
The photograph shows O’Neal’s widow, Virginia, in the first row of onlookers behind Earl Addler, commander of the Greenville Veterans of Foreign Wars post, the man on the left wielding a shovel; her mother-in-law Mrs. William Benjamin O’Neal, Sr. is seen between Mr. Addler and Ty Wagner, the man on the right with a shovel, who was commander of Pitt County Post 28 of the American Legion. The home was located on Wiley Street where Ben and Virginia O’Neal had hoped someday to build a dwelling.
The result of months of preparations, the O’Neal Foundation ground breaking took place Tuesday afternoon 21 June 1949. Plans were drawn by C. B. West, Jr., who oversaw the work as chairman of the Foundation’s building committee. The five-room house had a large living room and kitchen, two bedrooms and bath. It had porches on both the front and back.
The inspiration for both the O’Neal Foundation and the ground breaking ceremony was a crime of the most horrific nature. Ben O’Neal, a 29-year-old taxi driver, was brutally murdered early Sunday morning, 6 February 1949. O’Neal, a World War II veteran with only a grade school education, had enlisted in the Army in September 1942. Wounded in combat, he had spent 15 months as a German prisoner of war, before returning home in October 1945. Upon his return to Greenville, North Carolina, O’Neal had married Virginia Dixon, also of Greenville. O’Neal and his wife were expecting their first child at the time of his death. The couple shared a home with O’Neal’s widowed mother. Meanwhile, O’Neal had started training to be an auto mechanic and had begun to put down money on a lot on which they hoped to build a home. After school hours, O’Neal had taken a job driving a taxi for Moyer Taxi Service to support his wife and widowed mother.
O’Neal’s bright hopes and those of his family were not long lived. He was brutally murdered in the early hours of Sunday, 6 February 1949. Witnesses reported having seen O’Neal pick up two African American youths as fares on the night before. According to later testimony, the two men directed O’Neal to drive to a lonely, rural spot between Greenville and Grimesland where they robbed, tortured and killed him. The body was discovered soon after by Leroy Smith, an African American, who reported his discovery to the police. Pitt County Sheriff Ralph Tyson revealed to the press that there was evidence that O’Neal had defended himself vigorously before being overwhelmed with numerous wounds to his arms, face, and back. Signs showed that he had been beaten to death with a brick and sticks and had been tortured both before and after death.
The investigation, led by Sheriff Tyson, in the cooperation of the State Highway Patrol, the Greenville and Washington police departments, was a model of efficiency. By Sunday night Sheriff Tyson had one suspect in custody: Lloyd Ray Daniels, 18. On Tuesday morning they also arrested Lloyd’s cousin, Bennie Daniels, aged 19. Both men were African American farm laborers and from the vicinity where O’Neal’s body had been found. Both men had wounds and bruises consistent with a recent struggle. The sheriff said that both men had confessed in writing to killing O’Neal during the course of a robbery which netted them a mere $3.00. The confession was later used in the trial of the two men.
The brutality of the crime shocked and stunned the community in Greenville and Pitt County. Contrary to what might have been expected, there was no outburst of racial antagonisms as a result. There was no effort to blame an entire community for the crime of a few individuals. There were no “revenge” crimes reported. Most surprising of all, within days the shock and surprise were replaced by an almost magical upwelling of community and charitable feeling. Instead of focusing on the desire for punishment and revenge, the community responded by focusing on the plight of the surviving O’Neals whose devastating loss touched the hearts of a wide section of the community. It helped that leaders in the White community stepped forward to lead and channel this feeling. Educator J. H. Rose of Greenville, prominent citizen Charles B. Corey, and then-Mayor J. H. Boyd, Jr. started the campaign to assist the O’Neals. Soon, hundreds of businesses, organizations, and individuals joined the effort with offers to help the O’Neals. Veterans organizations, including the VFW and American Legion, also took the lead, to honor the memory of one of their own.
Heartened by the overwhelming public response, Mayor Boyd called a meeting of representatives of the city’s civic groups which organized the O’Neal Foundation. Even so, it was nearly too late. By the date of the meeting, on 9 February, American Legion Auxiliary Post 28 was already beginning its own campaign to raise funds to provide a home for O’Neal’s widow and mother. At the meeting, Boyd announced that 19 February would become “O’Neal Foundation Tag Day” and asked each citizen of Greenville to buy a tag to honor the memory of the community’s veterans.
Once the foundation was established, even more donations of money began flowing in from hundreds of people, including both Whites and African Americans, in Pitt County and surrounding areas. Some donations came from people in communities hundreds of miles away, and many offers came from carpenters, bricklayers, painters and others who offered to give free time to construction of a house for the O’Neals. Architect C. B. West, Jr. volunteered to draw up the plans for the four-room house free of charge, and when the construction work on the bungalow began, in June 1949, he supervised its construction.
By the time the O’Neal Foundation was incorporated as a non-profit corporation on 9 June 1949, the Foundation had a total of $3,509.92 in cash on hand to pay for the project in addition to thousands of dollars of material and labor offered by various tradesmen and business concerns in the area and construction work was ready to begin. By the following year, when work on the O’Neal home was completed and the family was living in it, the Foundation reported that it had raised a total of $3,595.92. That proved more than sufficient. Even after paying the balance of what the O’Neals owed on the lot and after paying the fire insurance premium on the house, $623.13 remained unspent.
According to the by-laws of the O’Neal Foundation, the house and property of the Foundation were to be for the use of O’Neal’s widow and mother as long as they lived, and then to be transferred to O’Neal’s unborn child when it came of age. The charter provided that if O’Neal’s child did not live, the property would revert to the foundation after the deaths of Mrs. O’Neal, Sr. and Mrs. O’Neal, Jr., to be used to aid other destitute families of deceased World War II veterans.
After three weeks construction, the home was ready for occupancy. On the afternoon of 23 June 1949, in a ceremony on the porch of the new bungalow, former Mayor J. H. Boyd, Jr. presented O’Neal’s wife and mother with the keys to their new home. Even as the ceremony was taking place, workmen were busy completing the home. In making the presentation, Boyd assured the young widow that she, her mother-in-law and her yet unborn child were in the prayers of the Pitt County community. Representatives of various civic organizations which had been active in the O’Neal Foundation project witnessed the presentation of the key to the house.
The O’Neal story does not end there. The construction on the O’Neal home occurred just days after the trial O’Neal’s accused murderers. The Daniels’ trial drew statewide attention to the Pitt County Courthouse when it opened on 30 May 1949. The courthouse was thronged with hundreds of people hoping for a chance to view the trial. It also featured a number of novelties for the time and place. According to press reports, it was the first Pitt County trial in 43 years in which two persons were jointly charged and tried and convicted of murder in the first degree in a single case. It was the first case in Pitt County history in which both Whites and African Americans – Travis M. Allen of Greenville — served on a jury in a murder case. The Daniels case was also the first in which a woman –Mrs. Willie Duning of Bethel — served on a jury in a murder case. Had not an African American woman disqualified herself from jury service, because of her conscientious objection to the death penalty, the case would also have been the first in which both White and African American women served on a murder case jury. While not unprecedented, the case was unusual, too, for the fact that both defense attorneys – C. J. Gates, of Durham, and Herman L Taylor, of Raleigh, were also African Americans. The prosecutor, W. J. Bundy and his assistant, J. H. Harrell, by contrast received little attention.
After four days of preliminary motions and jury selection, including extremely unusual night sessions, testimony in the case finally began on Friday morning 3 June. By continuing to hear evidence over the weekend, the case moved to a swift conclusion on Monday, 6 June, when Judge Clausen L. Williams reviewed the evidence and gave the case to the jury just before 7:00 PM Monday evening. After deliberating for only 40 minutes, the jury foreman, Fred J. Broadwell, read the jury’s verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree for each of the defendants. Afterwards, the jury members told the press that they had agreed on the verdict on the first ballot. Without further ado, Judge Williams then sentenced both defendants to death in the electric chair and set the execution date for 15 July to allow the defendants enough time to appeal the verdict.
Nor did the story end there. Indeed, it grew to have even greater regional, national and historical significance. The Daniels cousins appealed the verdict through the various state courts, eventually reaching the State Supreme Court, which rejected their appeal on a technicality. The North Carolina Communist Party organized a “Daniels Defense Committee” which made a spirited defense in these appeals cases over the next three years. The Committee tried to deflect suspicions from the Daniels cousins and on to others. They pointed out potential errors during the trial. They argued that African Americans had been excluded from the grand jury that indicted the Daniels cousins. The Defense Committee argued that the police had failed to properly investigate the scene of the crime. They suggested, for instance, that the defendants were under-aged and not 18 and 19 as described by the police and that a mystery woman’s footsteps leading from the scene of the crime had never been investigated by the police. The Defense Committee also argued that the Daniels’ confessions were fraudulent or forced, since the cousins were both illiterate. They tried to undermine the victim’s reputation and that argued that O’Neal was known as a notorious womanizer who had been seen with a married woman on the night he was murdered, and that O’Neal may have been involved in a car race on the night he died. None of these arguments seemed to work although they did result in a number of media reports. The Daniels Defense Committee continued their appeals through the federal courts all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. However, in 1953 the Supreme Court denied the Daniels’ final petition. The defense, however, was never able to provide any hard evidence to back up these claims in court and the Daniels were executed in the North Carolina electric chair on 6 November 1953. The Daniels’ trial and their appeals remain important in legal history, especially its implications for the selection of grand juries and the use of confessions at trials. It was also important in the history of the Communist Party in North Carolina and continues to be cited in works on the Party.