On an ordinary day in Rogersville the Southern Railway train, run by Conductor Shell, pulled into the station to unload its cargo of flour and take on the next load of lumber. Lewis Boyd, a black man, hopped up into the car to help unload the flour. As he removed the sacks of flour from the car, he happened to throw some of them to the ground. Conductor Shell reprimanded Boyd for his carelessness and Boyd took great offense. Boyd began to mutter and to curse the conductor out loud. Shell immediately responded, telling Boyd to stop. At this, Boyd snapped and he jumped onto Shell from the train car, hitting him on the head with a large stone. As Shell fell to the ground, Boyd hit him again and began kicking him. Other men working on the train rushed to the scene and restrained him. Boyd, seeing how badly Shell was hurt, ran for a nearby swampy area. However, the trainmen gave chase and brought him back.
Meanwhile, word spread of what had happened. As Boyd was apprehended and brought back to town, a mob assembled, ready to kill Boyd for what he had done. The trainmen averted a lynching by hurrying Boyd off to the judge in Rogersville, who promptly threw Boyd in jail. At his trial, Boyd claimed Shell was the cause of the incident, that his actions were provoked.
As railroads spread across the country in the period after the Civil War, they did more than just move goods for commerce from one place to another. They allowed people to move in, out, and around the south to a much greater degree than ever before. Thus, there were more unfamiliar faces- white and black- in towns where the railroad came. We don?t know if Boyd knew Shell personally, but it seems unlikely given the immediate hostility that arose between them on the day of the incident and given Boyd?s extreme actions. Historians have pointed out that these new social situations called for a more complex level of interaction than both white people and black people had been used to in the antebellum period. Indeed, race relations in these urban areas with people coming in and out were more impersonal and confrontational; thus a situation in which a railroad worker insulted a conductor and then attacked and severely injured him would be more likely to occur.