Historical Nonfiction Author

Mining a family photo for tantalizing clues

Sarah Rector McGee is surrounded by her nieces, Ola, Julia and Norma Thompson (from left).

Of all that’s come to light after publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, the photo of Sarah Rector McGee may be the most interesting.

McGee was the aunt of Shedrick Thompson, the man lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County. Thompson’s mother was her sister. In the picture, she is surrounded by Ola, Julia and Norma Thompson, Shedrick’s sisters. The picture was probably taken in the 1940s, either in Philadelphia, where Rector lived, or on a visit to Fauquier. Rector died in 1966. The Thompson sisters lived into their 90s.

I have never seen a picture of Thompson, so this one of his aunt and sisters was tantalizing. Did he look like them? Did he have the same eyes, the same face? The photo came to light last week, unearthed by Shawn Nicholls from the collection of the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County. Linda Tate, a resident of Detroit and a distant relative of Rector, donated the picture to the museum in Plains, Va., and supplied the biographical information. Tate said in an email to me this week that she knew the Thompson sisters for many years. “They didn’t look their age,” she said. “They were small in stature, but you listened when they spoke.”

When I studied the photo, I was drawn to Rector in the center and imagined what she might have been like. I saw her hat and fur-collared coat, the wedding band and rimless glasses, and wondered if she was a person of means and education. I saw the gesture of affection by her niece, standing behind her, and concluded that the girls cared deeply for their aunt. But most of all, I was struck by McGee’s bearing. I saw a pride and defiance that must have served her well during her long life. I suspect that she drew upon that strength when she heard of the horrible death of her nephew. She was little surprised, I would guess, but still, a lynching in 1932? Did she call upon her God for solace and understanding? I can only imagine.local-author-event

PS: I’ll be in Culpeper this Saturday, Oct. 29, from 1-4 p.m. for the Culpeper County Library’s annual Local Author Extravaganza. Please stop by if you’re in the area.

One response to “Mining a family photo for tantalizing clues”

  1. I am a descendant of the Rector family and thank you for all the irk and research you have done along side Linda Tate. I look forward to visiting the museum in Facquier County and will also be ordering you book in hopes of learning more about my history.


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