When the topic is lynching, people want to hear

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I spoke to ElderStudy members yesterday at the Stafford campus of the University of Mary Washington.

The question was a familiar one, but my answer was new, an admission that I had never made before.

Yesterday, at a presentation before the members of Mary Washington ElderStudy, an audience member asked, “Why did you pursue this project?” He and others before him seemed puzzled that I would devote time and energy to such an unusual and unpleasant topic.

I usually answer these questioners by talking about how this book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, is a spinoff from the work I did for my master’s thesis at VCU in 2001. But if you go back to before VCU, why did I choose to study lynching? Sometimes I wonder if there really is a prior life, and that somehow I was connected to a lynching in an earlier existence.

But yesterday, I offered a more earthly reason for my interest in the topic. I blamed my audience.

I explained how whenever I bring up the topic of lynching, the person I am talking to is immediately interested. I noticed it in Dr. Clarence Thomas, my advisor at VCU and not the Supreme Court justice,  when I proposed to study how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I noticed it in my editors at the Free Lance-Star newspaper when I proposed stories based on my research. And I noticed it in the immediate response from History Press when I proposed a book about the lynching of Shedrick Thompson in Fauquier County in 1932.

I can’t explain this interest. Perhaps it is a desire to see what anarchy looks like. Perhaps it is a fascination with a distant, primitive instinct.

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A Richmond Times-Dispatch story about the 1903 death of George Henderson.

But I do know that when I stand before a group of people, as I did yesterday, and talk about what happened to George Henderson and many others, there is silence in the room. People want to hear.

Henderson was from North Carolina, on his way by train to West Virginia. He stepped off the train when it stopped in a small town just south of Luray. What he could not know was that the citizens of that town in 1903 did not allow black people to be there. They chased Henderson, and he fled toward the Shenandoah River. He tried to cross the river on top of a dam but fell to his death. And, as usual, the news accounts made no mention of anyone being held responsible for his death.

So, as I said to the audience yesterday, I am a storyteller with stories of interest.

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