Family learns of grandad’s role in Thompson story

Noah Kenney. (Family photo from Pam Androsky)

Pam Androsky remembers the day she was riding with her father on Fiery Run Road in northern Fauquier County. When they passed what was then the Borden Farm and is today the Marriott Ranch, he pointed to the mountain and said, “That’s where they found a colored man hanging from an apple tree.”

George Kenney was correct. Shedrick Thompson was found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. But Kenney omitted a key detail when recounting the story for his daughter. He did not tell her that his own father, Noah Kenney, was the one who discovered Thompson’s body.

Androsky, a resident of  Maryland, learned this detail only last month, while reading The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Her relatives look to her as the family historian, yet she was unaware that her grandfather played an important part in the Thompson story in September 1932.

Noah Kenney was 57 then and a tenant farmer at the Borden Farm, where he lived with his wife, Ethel, and their 11 children.  He told authorities that his cattle had been getting out so he decided to inspect a fence line in the thicket behind his house. There he found the body of a black man hanging from an apple tree. The body was decomposed, but Kenney knew that it was Thompson.

Thompson had been the subject of an intense search throughout northern Fauquier that summer. The fugitive was wanted for the assault of Henry and Mamie Baxley, his employers. After Kenney’s discovery, authorities ruled Thompson’s death a suicide. But others said no, that it was a lynching.

Kenney immediately wrote to the county board of supervisors to claim the $250 reward. “I am entitled to the reward. Please let me hear from you at once,” he wrote. The county had published three different wanted posters, including two that used the phrase “dead or alive.” Kenney seized on this wording, but the county refused to pay. He even hired a Front Royal attorney to press his claim. Again the board refused.

After I talked with Androsky last week, she forwarded a family photo of Noah Kenney. In the picture, he is tall and thin, with an actor’s chin and his hat pulled low. Androsky also recalls that he had dark hair and blue eyes. Some family members confuse his picture with that of George, his oldest child. Noah died in 1948, two days after celebrating his 73rd birthday.

I learned about Androsky after reading her sister’s review of The Last Lynching on the Goodreads website. Brenda Stensney wrote that every time Noah Kenney picked apples for his wife, he would tease her by claiming that they came from the hanging tree. “Needless to say, that did not amuse her,” she wrote.

These are a few of my favorite things

Here are three things that this writer is happy about:

  1. The story about my book by Pam Kamphuis, editor of the Piedmont Virginian magazine.

Pam asked me to write about Fauquier County’s reaction to publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. I did, and last week she posted that piece on the magazine’s website. She also included her own thoughts, crediting the book and Tom Davenport’s film on the subject, The Other Side of Eden, with promoting discussion of Shedrick Thompson’s death, even at the risk of opening old wounds.

“The principle of treating history honestly, openly, and engaging in dialogues, though uncomfortable, will help us move forward as a nation,” she wrote.

2. My appearance in Fauquier County next week.

I’ll be taking part in the 3rd annual Great Writers Right Here program, sponsored by the Fauquier County Public Library. The event will be held on Friday, Oct. 13, from 6-8 p.m. in Warrenton. I’ll be one of 40 writers attending the fair. The group includes writers of fiction and nonfiction, for adults and children. Natalie Wheeler, one of the organizers, said the library hopes that the event will encourage writers to connect with their readers and with one another.

“We also want to show off our local talent,” she said.

I’ll be there to sign and sell books. Please stop by and say hello. You can learn more about the fair here.

3. The Last Lynching goes into a second printing.

Perhaps I’m burying my lead here, but I’m delighted that History Press has issued a second printing of my book. Adam Kidd, one of my contacts at the South Carolina company, said recently that the first printing of 900 copies sold out, and that the company did a new printing in mid-September, almost exactly one year after publication. Thank you to everyone who has supported me during this adventure. It’s been a wonderful ride.

PS: Here’s my revised schedule of appearances for this fall and winter:

  1. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., a talk at Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  2. Friday, Oct. 13, 6-8 p.m., a signing at Great Writers Right Here, Fauquier County Public Library, Family Life Center, First Baptist Church, 39 Alexandria Pike, Warrenton.
  3. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., a panel discussion at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  4. Friday, Nov. 17, 3 p.m., a talk at the Fredericksburg Literary Club, (Place to be determined.)
  5. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, 11:50 a.m., a talk at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  6. Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, 2 p.m., a screening at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County, 4243 Loudoun Ave., The Plains.  Tom Davenport will present The Other Side of Eden, his documentary about the Thompson case. I will be there too.
  7. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, a talk at the Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  8. Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, 10:30 a.m., a screening at the Lifetime Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Cir., Manassas. Tom Davenport will present The Other Side of Eden, a documentary about the Thompson case. I will be there too.
  9. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., a talk at the Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

 

 

What is the nature of your complaint, sir?

A drone picture of Edenhurst, the home where Shedrick Thompson attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley in 1932. (From “The Other Side of Eden” documentary.)

When Pam Kamphuis read my recent blog post about the Philip Carter Winery, she asked if I would step back and reflect on the resistance I’ve faced since publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Kamphuis, the editor of The Piedmont Virginian in Warrenton, said she wanted to use the piece on the magazine’s blog. Here’s what I wrote:

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, and a reader complained about one of my stories, I listened carefully to what the reader said. Was the story wrong or incomplete? Was it poorly written? Or was the reader unhappy, not because of what the story said, but simply because I wrote it? To these readers, no news was good news.

I was reminded of this in recent months as the author of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. The book describes the horrific lynching of Shedrick Thompson in Fauquier County in 1932. The reaction from some Fauquier residents has been similar to what I heard from unhappy newspaper readers. The complaints are not that I got my facts wrong, or that I’m a lousy writer. Instead, they are upset that I told the story at all. It’s as if I was dumping dead skunks in downtown Warrenton. Go away, they’ve said, go away.

The first hint of a problem came soon after publication when a local reporter asked one person mentioned in the book what she thought of it. “I don’t want to look at the cover,” she said. “I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read anything about it.”

Retailers in Warrenton also were nervous and told History Press, the publisher, that the topic was too sensitive for their shelves. In the early months, I had invitations to talk to groups in Richmond, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Culpeper, Stafford and Spotsylvania, but not Fauquier. Later the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier invited me to talk to its members. That appearance this spring is still the only time I’ve spoken in Fauquier.

I was scheduled to talk at a Fauquier winery this month, but a winery representative asked me to postpone the event to a time “when feelings are not so heated and the topics of conversation in your book might be better received.” But time itself is neutral and changes nothing, as Martin Luther King once said. So I spared the winery the pain of cancellation and did it myself. “I wish you the best,” I told them.

My friend, Tom Davenport, and I have worked together for months on this project. He has created a documentary film about the Thompson lynching and about the racial climate in Fauquier at the time. He too has experienced similar resistance. The leaders at his church, after much discussion, decided that the film was too controversial for a screening there. And after Tom did screen the film in May to a packed house in Warrenton, he received a threatening letter from a lawyer demanding that he remove one section. Because of the letter, Tom canceled a second showing in Upperville. But he also got his own attorney and successfully defended his right to show the entire film.

So when reading my book, if you find that my facts are wrong, please let me know. If you think the prose is pedestrian, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but I’ll continue to write and talk about this case. It’s a worthy topic that teaches, among other things, the dangers of ignorance. Pretty timely, I would say.

PS: Here’s my newly revised schedule of appearances for the fall/winter. Please join me if you’re in the area.

  1. Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m., Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, Va.
  2. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  3. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  4. Friday, Nov. 17, 3 p.m., Fredericksburg Literary Club, (Place to be determined.)
  5. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, 11:50 a.m., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University,4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  6. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  7. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

 

Surprised and disappointed, but I shouldn’t have been

Shedrick Thompson was 9 years old when his brother John (above) was born. John R. Thompson lived much of his life in New York and died there in 1975 at the age of 72. (Thompson family photo)

A representative of the Philip Carter Winery in Fauquier County wrote to me over the weekend to ask that my appearance there be rescheduled from September.  She wrote, “In light of recent events in the media, etc, we feel that it would be advantageous to both yourself and the winery to reschedule for a later date when feelings are not so heated and the topics of conversation in your book might be better received.”

I’m not sure what she meant by “when feelings are not so heated,” or when the topic of my book “might be better received.” But I’ve heard words like these before. To many in Fauquier, my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, calls forth unwelcome ghosts. As one online commenter said, “What good is it to dredge up the past now when there are so many unanswered questions that were taken to the grave? Let the dead rest in peace!”

My friend Tom Davenport has experienced similar opposition. Tom’s documentary about the Thompson lynching, The Other Side of Eden, opened in Warrenton in May to a standing-room-only crowd. Yet soon after the premiere, he had to hire an attorney to defend his First Amendment right to show the film. (You can see a 1-minute trailer for the film here.) The Washington Post summarized our experiences this spring when it reported, “getting the book sold or publicly discussed in Fauquier has been a seven-month struggle.”

So my reply to the folks at the winery was practiced but still discouraging to write. I said that Thompson’s lynching and the subsequent cover-up happened 85 years ago. To wait a couple more months to talk about it at the winery wasn’t going to make it any less disturbing. Nor will a change in the current political climate make Thompson’s murder any easier to talk about. To me, today’s climate of intolerance is reason to discuss the Thompson case, not avoid it, so we may explore the lessons that history offers.

I suspected that the folks at the winery wanted to cancel my reading but chose the less painful option of trying to reschedule it. I spared them the discomfort and canceled it myself. “My book is not a good fit for your winery,” I said, and wished them well.

Given the cancellation, here’s my revised schedule of appearances for the fall/winter: Please join me.

  1. Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m., Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, Va.
  2. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  3. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  4. Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, 11:50 a.m., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  5. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  6. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

 

 

 

 

For me, fall will be for the book

The Philip Carter Winery , Hume, Va.

I’m glad that my first book event this fall will be in Fauquier County, where The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is set. The summer has been quiet, but I have scheduled seven appearances beginning in September.

The first occurs just after Labor Day at the Philip Carter Winery in Fauquier. The winery is off Leeds Manor Road in Hume near many of the locations in the book. As Philip Carter Strother, the owner of the winery, said when he proposed the event: “It would be a pleasure for (you) to read passages from the book with Rattlesnake Mountain in the background.”

I was also delighted to be invited to the 19th annual Fall for the Book festival in Northern Virginia. The four-day event, Oct. 11-14, takes place at George Mason University and other locations in Fairfax County. I am one of 150 authors taking part.

When the organizers of Fall for the Book contacted History Press, my publisher, about me taking part, they suggested that I read from my book. I asked if I could do what I usually do when I appear before audiences. Could I talk about lynching in Virginia, focusing on the Fauquier incident that is the subject of my book? They replied that my idea of “doing a presentation is great and will fascinate audiences.”

I’ve also been invited to talk to two of the Lifelong Learning Institutes for seniors. One is in Manassas, and the other is in Fairfax. And I’ll be speaking to groups in Marshall, Stafford County and Leesburg. The schedule as of today is below. Please join me.

  1. Saturday, Sept. 9, 7 p.m., Philip Carter Winery of Virginia, 4366 Stillhouse Road, Hume, Va.
  2. Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m., Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, Va.
  3. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  4. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  5. Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, 11:50 a.m., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  6. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  7. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

Two reviewers take the measure of my work

The Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton.

Two reviews of this book appeared recently, and both authors made similar observations: that The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is instructive for its recounting of a long-ago lynching, but also for how it describes the lingering effects of that incident. As Mark Tooley wrote, the book is a “window into a time that seems like a different universe but is closer than we care to realize.”

Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an advocacy group based in Washington, and the author of three books. He wrote about The Last Lynching for his blog on the institute’s website. Tooley describes how he had lunch in Warrenton, then visited the Old Jail Museum, where he bought the book.

Dan Enos is a volunteer in the Virginiana Room at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. His review appeared on the library’s website just prior to my appearance there in April.

I was delighted that both writers liked the book, but I was also impressed with how much time they spent digesting the story and how accurately they described it.

And both also noted the same thing that has motivated me: that Shedrick Thompson was murdered in Fauquier County almost 85 years ago, but that his death is still falsely cast, and for that reason, doubly disturbing.

Fredericksburg, where I live, was the scene of several important Civil War battles, and at The Free Lance-Star newspaper, where I worked, we joked that this may be the only town in America where the Civil War is still breaking news. And so with Thompson’s death: it is still breaking news.

As Enos put it, “The narrative is a portrait of both a dark chapter in local history and of subsequent generations’ struggles to come to terms with the legacy of racism and the evil acts it incited.”

Thank you to the residents of Fauquier County

Jim Hall, Bridget Settles, Mamie Wilkins’ granddaughter, and Tom Davenport, from left, at the premiere of Davenport’s documentary about the Shedrick Thompson case. The film was shown May 13 in Warrenton. (Photo by Pam Kamphuis, Piedmont Virginian)

When I recall the events of last Saturday in Fauquier County, I see myself on stage facing a nearly full auditorium. I hear Rufus Mincey’s startling revelation. And I see a line of people waiting to buy my book. Thank you to the people of Fauquier for making my first author visit there a wonderful experience.

The day began with a talk at the Afro-American Historical Association at The Plains. The audience was courteous and attentive but feistier than any I’ve faced, and I mean that as a compliment. They knew something of the story I told in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia–the names, places and general outline–but they wanted to know more. They had so many questions, so early in the presentation, that I jokingly asked if they wanted to see the rest of the slides, or if they would prefer to just talk. They wanted to see the slides.

That night I stood in the back of the auditorium at Highland School in Warrenton for the premiere of Tom Davenport’s documentary about the Thompson case “The Other Side of Eden.”  I was standing because I gave up my seat twice to elderly visitors who couldn’t find empty seats. There may have been vacant seats up front, but the auditorium was almost full.

The panel discussion following Davenport’s film included, from left, Shawn Nicholls, Bridget Settles, Rufus Mincey, Jim Hall, Linda Tate and Rev. Lindsay Green. (Photo by Pam Kamphuis, Piedmont Virginian)

After the film, I took part in a panel discussion that also included Mincey, a black resident of South Carolina. Mincey stunned me, if not the entire audience, with the news that just days earlier he had received the results of a DNA test that said he was a descendant of the Hirst family in Pennsylvania. Henry Baxley Sr.’s mother was a Hirst from Pennsylvania, so the test confirmed that Baxley, a white man, fathered a child by his black cook. That child,  Mamie Wilkins, grew up, married and had her own children, one of whom was Mincey. In other words,  Mincey is Henry’s grandson.

The revelation gave weight to the theory that Shedrick Thompson attacked the Baxleys years later because of a suspected relationship between Henry Baxley Sr. and Ruth Thompson, Shedrick’s wife and also a cook for the Baxleys.

The next day I told Tom and Shawn Nichoils, his assistant, that I had begrudged them the time they spent on the white-father, black-mother story. I saw it as a diversion from the real story, the lynching of Shedrick Thompson. I also remember all the silent eye-rolls I did when Tom talked of “reconciliation,” how he wanted his film to explore the complicated relationships between white and black residents of Fauquier, in hopes of moving the community toward a better understanding of itself.

I was so wrong. The film and panel discussion did exactly as Tom and Shawn had hoped. The story line about white men of power fathering children by their black help was not a diversion from the real story. It was integral to the story about Thompson’s murder. The audience listened carefully and appeared moved. I was proud to be a part of it.

PS: Please join me this Saturday, May 20, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Old Town Warrenton Spring Festival in Warrenton. I have a tent and a space on Main Street, where I’ll be signing and selling books.

 

On Saturday, the road show arrives in Fauquier

Karen White of the Afro-American Historical Association is coauthor of this book on blacks in Fauquier.

This Saturday, May 13, brings two events of note. On Saturday afternoon I’ll give my first book talk in Fauquier County, and that night I’ll join Tom Davenport for the premiere of his film The Other Side of Eden. I’ve waited a long time for both events.

The book talk will be at 1 p.m. at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier in The Plains. The event is free and open to the public and is part of the association’s yearlong 25th anniversary celebration. I’ll talk about lynching in Virginia and especially the Shedrick Thompson case, the subject of my book The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. This talk comes seven months after publication of the book and marks the first time I’ve been invited to appear before a Fauquier audience. As described in a Washington Post article last month, “getting the book sold or publicly discussed in Fauquier has been a seven-month struggle.“

Tom’s hourlong documentary will have its first showing at 7 o’clock that night at the Highland School Center for the Arts, 597 Broadview Avenue, Warrenton.  It is free and open to the public. (You can see a 1-minute trailer here.)

Tom and I worked together for several years–he on his film and me on the book. The Other Side of Eden also describes the Thompson case. Tom, too, has encountered resistance, both to the making of the film and its showing.

Yet with each obstacle comes a show of support.  One example is the comment John Owens posted recently on my Facebook page. Owens works at the library at Lord Fairfax Community College in Fauquier. He wrote, “We purchased your book as soon as it came out. I read our copy and placed it on the staff picks shelf where it steadily circulated for some time. I consider myself a local history buff, yet I had never heard the story of Shedrick Thompson, and that is why this book is important. It is why I now own my own copy.”

 

Held prisoner on the mountain? A new wrinkle to the story

Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County.

Of all the comments that I received after last week’s story in The Washington Post, the most interesting was from a man who lives at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain. The man sent an email to say he heard an interesting story about Shedrick Thompson’s death, and he offered to share it with me.  I called, and we talked for maybe 45 minutes. The man gave permission to use his story in this blog. For many reasons, he asked that I not use his name. I agreed.

The story is similar to many of the other stories I heard while researching The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. It is hearsay and impossible to verify. But it is also vivid and plausible, at least parts of it, and for that reason it has survived in memory for many years.

This is what the man said:

The man has owned a 250-acre farm in northern Fauquier County near Hume for many years. At one point, he rented his land to a neighbor who ran cattle there. The cattleman loved to talk and tell stories, the landowner said. But one day the cattleman became serious and shared what he said was one of Fauquier’s darkest secrets: the death of Shedrick Thompson in 1932.

Born in 1920, the cattleman was 11 when Thompson attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley and fled west toward Buck Mountain. Hundreds of people took to the mountains to look for the fugitive, and the cattleman recalled being present when the lynch mob met to plan their search. These men caught Thompson on the second day after the attack, the cattleman said, and rather than deliver him to the authorities, they took him to a mountain cabin, where they tortured him. Finally, after two weeks, the posse lynched Thompson, the cattleman said. Thompson’s body was discovered two months later hanging from an apple tree on the Borden farm at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Much of what the cattleman told the landowner confirmed what others had told me: how the searchers gathered at places like Alex Green’s store in Markham, their hunt for Thompson in the mountains, his quick capture and torture, and finally his hanging. The cattleman’s story also dismisses the official version of Thompson’s death–suicide–as part of a cynical cover-up.

What was new was the possibility that the captors held Thompson prisoner for two weeks. That detail seems unlikely. Did the posse keep Thompson under a 24-hour watch? But if true, their actions spread a new layer of evil on an already sordid tale. As the landowner told me, “It’s a terrible, terrible story.”

 

The sun is shining for me, despite the day-long rain

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote about my book in today’s paper.

I am grateful to Margaret Sullivan and The Washington Post for the story about me in today’s paper. Sullivan is the media columnist, and her work usually appears in the Style section. When she called, she said my experience with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia was not the type she usually writes about–her most recent columns were about Bill O’Reilly and Facebook–but she thought it was interesting, and her editors agreed.

Sullivan heard from a friend of mine about the resistance that History Press has experienced trying to market my book in Warrenton and Fauquier County. She interviewed a number of people, including a publicist at History Press and a salesman there who went door-to-door in downtown Warrenton in a unsuccessful attempt to place the book with retailers.

I was impressed with Sullivan. She was true to her word and accurate, even calling back prior to publication to check her facts. Best of all, she documented the discouraging aspects of what has happened, but she also found reasons to be optimistic. She noted the change of heart by the directors of the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail, where the book is now for sale, and she talked with Karen White at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier. White told her that she understands the resistance to the book. “Sometimes people are in denial,” she said. “They think none of this ever happened here.” But White also sees a willingness to reconsider the past, and she said she welcomes those conversations.

It takes a certain kind of reporter to bring this attitude to a story, a belief in our better angels and in their eventual triumph. Sullivan seemed to have it.

PS: Please join me this Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the headquarters building of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. I’ll be talking about the book and about lynching in Virginia. The session is free and open to the public.