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The Kirby File: It was a morning of deadly carnage along U.S. 301

‘Instantly, the farm workers’ truck exploded into flames hampering relief and rescue operations,’ Fayetteville resident Jerry Reinoehl says about June 6, 1957, when 21 Black migrant workers perished in the wreck in Eastover. ‘The dead and injured were scattered along the road and in the trenches along the side of the road. Most of the deaths occurred at the accident site. Only one worker escaped without injury. The accident victims’ ages ranged from about 18 months to 57 years of age.’


They are what you may call footnotes in Cumberland County history, 15 migrant farm workers who were among 21 casualties of a fiery wreck more than 66 years ago along U.S. 301 in Eastover.

They were among 41 people crammed into the back of a flatbed stake truck guarded by wooden railings in hopes of earning a day of wages by working at a bean field in nearby Dunn, about 35 miles away in Harnett County.

“Earlier, they had departed their camp at Mount Olive and fueled up at a local gas station,” Jerry Reinoehl told the Fayetteville City Council on Monday night about the June 6, 1957, wreck that would take the lives of half of the Black migrant farm workers who were traveling from Alabama, South Carolina, California, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina, including Fayetteville. “The truck carrying the farm workers made a right turn off N.C. 102 near Eastover-Central Elementary School onto U.S. 301 north, pulling into the path of the oncoming tractor-trailer loaded with 10 tons of Irish potatoes traveling to a potato chip factory.”

The hour was early, Reinoehl said, around 6:55 a.m. The carnage of the dying migrant workers was a sight of horror.

“Instantly, the farm workers’ truck exploded into flames, hampering relief and rescue operations,” Reinoehl said. “The dead and injured were scattered along the road and in the trenches along the side of the road. Most of the deaths occurred at the accident site. Only one worker escaped without injury. The accident victims’ ages ranged from about 18 months to 57 years of age.”

All 21 were buried at Northside Cemetery on Brinkley Road in Fayetteville, Reinoehl said, although six were later moved to other locations by family members. The remains of the 15 others are together in the cemetery.

‘It was terrible’

It was a grim and harrowing morning along what later would be referenced as “Bloody 301.”

Charles McLaurin is the 80-year-old Eastover mayor, but he was just a middle schooler when news of the wreck swept through the rural community.

“I know the ambulances came by about all day,” said McLaurin, who lived just two miles away. “There were 21 people killed. A truck with migrants pulled out in front of a tractor trailer. The funeral home at Rogers and Breece was making runs back and forth.”

They mayor’s wife, Shirley, recalled the wreckage, too.

“I know my daddy helped clean it up,” she said about her father, Bill Tew. “I remember Daddy was on his way to work. Daddy had been a medic during the war. He helped clean up the bodies. He said he had not seen anything that bad in the war. It affected my daddy really bad.”

Sammy Warren’s late father owned and operated Hardy Warren Grocery in Eastover.

“He was the fire chief at Eastover,” Warren, 73, said. “It was the worst wreck in North Carolina to that point. My daddy said it was terrible and so much blood on the road. He washed the blood off the road. They had the road blocked for a long time.”

Fourteen people were pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, according to information provided by Jerry Reinoehl, and 13 days later the death toll was 21, including an 18-year-old boy. Wooden caskets with the bodies were laid side by side on June 15 at Northside Cemetery.

Among the deceased migrant workers buried in the mass grave, according to Reinoehl’s research, were Lee Abrum, Thomas Mackey, Lewis Wesley, Lee Brown, John Grant, Willie Gary, Richard Stevens, Retha Freeman, Charles Freeman, Lucille Freeman and Daisy Freeman.


Jerry Reinoehl said he became interested in the lives lost on June 6, 1957, after learning of and joining a Find-A-Grave organization while attending a high school reunion in Los Angeles. While there, he wanted to visit the grave of a classmate.

When you are unsure of where someone is buried in a cemetery, it can be frustrating.

Long story short here.

“I am requesting the Fayetteville City Council consider placing an appropriate monument at the unmarked mass grave in Northside Cemetery,” Reinoehl asked the council. “The grave contains the remains of 15 of 21 African Americans killed in what was then the nation’s deadliest traffic accident.”

One of the dead, Reinhoel said, was a World War II veteran.

“The accident was significant,” Reinoehl said Tuesday. “And you sort of look at the whole picture of the thing. This is the city and city history. And some of these folks were Fayetteville residents. This is Fayetteville history.”

And some of us agree with Jerry Reinoehl that we should never forget and always remember the history of who we are in our city and our county.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

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kirby accident Jerry Reinoehl migrant farmworkers