The university and the library: Two places I like

Edie Gross and her Newsgathering class at UMW.

I remember how happy and proud I was when I found my name on the shelves at the University of Mary Washington bookstore in Fredericksburg. The year was 1993, and I had agreed to teach there. One of my responsibilities as a new adjunct was to tell the bookstore which texts I would use in my class. They would then order the books, so students would have them for the start of the semester.

I told the bookstore that I wanted to use Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. About a week before the first class, I went to the bookstore to see if the books had arrived. I found the books, and below them on the shelf was a paper tag. I was happy to see the books, but it was the tag that really made me smile. It read:

Department: English

Course: Newsgathering 201

Section: 01

Instructor: Hall, J.

My life plan had no entry that said: become a college instructor. To be honest, I had no life plan. But I had become a college instructor, and I was smiling.

Please join me on Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

I was reminded of that day and that feeling recently when I was leaving the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. On the door leading to the parking lot were a collection of posters advertising upcoming events. One of the posters had my name and picture on it. I’ll speak in the library auditorium on April 27, and the library wanted everyone to know about it.

Again, my life plan had no entry that said: make a public presentation at the headquarters library. But that’s what I’ll be doing. And this time, I did more than smile when I saw the poster. I took a picture of it.

Colin Woodward

PS: I want to thank Colin Woodward for inviting me to appear on his Amerikan Rambler podcast. Colin lives in Colonial Beach, works at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, and travels the state talking to all kinds of people, many of whom are interested in history. Colin asked about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, but he also asked about my upbringing in Falls Church, my schooling and early jobs, and lots of other stuff. (You can listen to the podcast here.)

Claudine Ferrell and her History class at UMW.

Thanks also to Claudine Ferrell and Edie Gross. At their invitations, I was back in the classroom this month. Claudine wrote the introduction to my book and recently asked me to talk to one of her history classes at the University of Mary Washington. Edie, a former colleague at The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, asked me to talk to her Newsgathering class, the same one I taught those many years ago.

Why no mention of the Klan?

Daniel de Butts

The first thing that Daniel de Butts said to me when we met last week was, “Why didn’t you say anything about the Klan in your book?”

De Butts assumed that I had been pressured by prominent Fauquier County residents to keep any reference to the Ku Klux Klan out of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. To him, community pressure was understandable and expected.

De Butts, 67, is a graduate of Fauquier High who lives now in the Vint Hill area of Prince William County. His family has long ties to Fauquier, and two of his distant relatives, the brothers John and Caryle de Butts, are often mentioned as members of the posse who lynched Shedrick Thompson. De Butts read The Last Lynching soon after publication and has written me several times. In one of his earlier emails, he wrote, “My family was surely part of it, as you say. They made sure that he was not on Mt. Welby (the family home). Just over the fence on someone else’s land.”

De Butts also believes, as he said when we met last week, that the Klan’s fingerprints were all over the Thompson case. He said that the Klan was active in Fauquier in 1932, and that his ancestors were members. He said that the Klan quickly organized after Thompson’s assault on Henry and Mamie Baxley, pursued and caught him on Rattlesnake Mountain, and lynched him. Other Klan members aided in the cover-up that followed, he added. “People were better at keeping secrets than they are now,” he said.

De Butts bases his beliefs on family lore and his many years in Fauquier. He did not offer any writings, photos or Klan memorabilia to support his opinions.

I believe him. Last year my colleague Shawn Nicholls discovered an advertisement and two news stories about a Klan rally in Warrenton in 1926. The county weekly, The Fauquier Democrat, described torch-carrying Klan members, in robes and hoods, parading down Main Street and lighting a cross at a rally just outside town.  (Available here.) I can imagine that this same racial hatred was alive six years later, and that Klan members mobilized quickly to kill Thompson.

And no, as I told de Butts, no one pressured me to keep the Klan out of my book. Its absence was for a simpler reason: I just didn’t know about it at the time.

 

 

Have thumb drive, will travel

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Germanna Community College this week sponsored a program on publishing your first book. Participants were (from left) Rick Pullen, Howard Owen, Jim Hall, David Sam, Cory MacLauchlin and Chris Brown.

I expected to promote The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia after publication, but I didn’t realize that promotion would take the form that it has. I thought I would go to signings, sit behind a table, and talk to those who wanted to buy the book. I’ve done that and enjoy it very much.

But I’m also a man with a thumb drive and PowerPoint slides who travels the region, talking about lynching, especially lynchings in Virginia. I talk about the lynching I know best, the 1932 Fauquier County incident that is the subject of my book. But I spend as much or more time on other cases, such as the 1893 death of William Shorter. Shorter was pulled from a train outside Winchester, Va., and hanged beside the track. He was accused of murder and was with a deputy sheriff on his way to trial, but the residents of Winchester couldn’t wait.

All of a sudden, I’ve become something of an expert on lynching. I’ve given talks about it in Richmond, Culpeper, Manassas, Stafford and Fredericksburg. This month I will talk to a history class and a journalism class at the University of Mary Washington. Next month I’m at the Central Rappahannock library in Fredericksburg, and after that the Afro-American Historical Association in Fauquier County and the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University in Fairfax County.

I’m making good use of my master’s degree research, when I studied how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I found accounts of maybe 50 of the 70 incidents that occurred in the state from 1880-1930, including the 1897 death of Joseph McCoy. A mob dragged McCoy from the jail in Alexandria and hanged him from a lamppost at the corner of Cameron and Lee streets. He had been accused of the assault of a child.

I talked to a videographer this week when I spoke at a program sponsored by Germanna Community College. I’m thinking about making a video of one of my talks and placing it on YouTube. Who knows? Maybe I’ve found a new career as a speaker.

A story of persistence is supposed to end this way

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Rick Pullen
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David Sam

David Sam asked an interesting question last week: Is it persistence or delusion that compels a person to write a book and work tirelessly to get it published?

I would answer persistence, and Sam would too. Persistence paid off for him.

Sam is president of Germanna Community College, in the Fredericksburg area, and a published poet. He and I and Rick Pullen, a Fredericksburg resident and the author of the political thriller Naked Ambition, were guests last week on Town Talk, Ted Schubel’s show on WFVA radio. We were there to talk about getting your first book published, which is the subject of a panel discussion that Germanna will host later this month.

Sam is the perfect person to moderate the panel. I was astounded to hear what he’s gone through to get published. He told the radio audience that he’s written poetry for 43 years and has submitted more than 600 poems or collections of poems for publication. Fewer than 100 were accepted. The former English professor maintains a spreadsheet to track his submissions and acceptances. “My success rate is 13.6 percent,” he said.

Sam said people ask him why he perseveres. “I would say I have no good answer,” he said. “For whatever reason, I need to write poetry.”

Last week Sam learned that a collection of 20 poems, Finite to Fail, was the grand prize winner in a national chapbook contest. It was his first contest prize, and it means that the poems will be published by GFT Press in Florida. It is an honor that he is obviously proud of and the reward for years of persistence.

PS:  The free Germanna program will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in downtown Fredericksburg. In addition to Sam, Pullen and me, the panelists will be Cory MacLauchlin, Howard Owen and Chris Jones.

You can listen to our appearance on Town Talk here.

 

How I published my book, in three easy steps

firstbookjA University of Mary Washington student wrote me recently to say that he wouldn’t be able to attend the program that Germanna Community College is sponsoring next month on getting your first book published. Germanna invited me to be part of the program, and the student asked, “Could you lend me some of your advice on publishing?”

I had no idea how to answer a question like that, but I wanted to be helpful, so I told the student that if my experience qualifies as advice, I’d be happy to share it. So, here goes. This is how I got my book published, in three easy steps:

First, I wrote the book. Other writers may solicit a publisher on the strength of an idea and a completed first chapter. Not me. I had a 33,000-word nonfiction manuscript in hand when I began this journey.

Next, I sent cover letters and electronic copies of the work to three academic publications. I believed that’s where the manuscript belonged, but one after another, the three journals said no. In fact, the editor at the third one was dismissive of my scholarship and my writing. He hurt my feelings. I knew my research was solid, and I knew that my writing was 10 times better than the gibberish he published. But he was right. My work didn’t belong in his journal. It didn’t read like the other articles there, and it was three times as long. I realized then that my work was not a journal article but a book, a solid, general-interest history book. And that’s when I found History Press.

History Press, based in South Carolina, says it specializes in local and regional history, and that its books are soft-cover and shorter than most, with lots of pictures. That appealed to me. I went to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg and inspected several History Press books. They were handsome works, professionally made, and I could picture being published by them. I also studied the company’s catalog and found a niche where I might fit. I filled out their query form and attached a cover letter, saying that my book would work nicely under their “true crime” umbrella. They thought so too. I signed a contract, and about a year later, I had in hand The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

So to the UMW student, I say tell your story, then study the market for a publisher. Not just any publisher, but the best one for you. And, oh yes, the third and most important step: get up and try again after they knock you down, because they will.

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.

One set of facts but two different stories

Tom Davenport and I have worked together on this project for many months. We’ve shared files and photographs and joined forces for more than a dozen interviews. But I’ve always known that the film he’s making will be different than the book I wrote, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Tom has a more complicated story he wants to tell.

Perhaps because of my newspaper training, I focused on what happened in Markham, Va., during the summer and fall of 1932. I sought details on Shedrick Thompson’s attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley, his flight, capture and death, and the cover-up that followed. Everything else was a distraction.

Not so for Tom. He has long been interested in Thompson’s death. He shared with me filmed interviews from 1994 and 1997 in which he asked the late Elsie McCarthy and the late Emma Coleman, Fauquier County residents, about the case. Tom wants to tell the story of the lynching, but he also wants to examine in more detail the setting for the crime, especially one aspect of Fauquier’s racial life. We have found several examples of white men of standing who fathered children by the black women they employed. Each time, Tom has asked if the white men acknowledged their children, supported them as they grew, or remembered them in their wills. The answers were almost always no. It will be interesting to see how he weaves these pieces together, the hanging and the world from which it sprung.

Tom said this week that he has completed about 40 minutes of what will probably be a 60-minute documentary.  “It’s going good,” he said. The 2-minute video above is part of the opening of the film, what Tom calls a “rough cut.” In it, Henry Baxley Jr. and Alphonso Washington talk about the initial attack. (Earlier blog posts about Tom and our collaboration can be seen here and here.)

elderstudybannerPS: My first appearance of the new year will take place next week, Tuesday, Jan. 10. I’ll be talking to members of Mary Washington ElderStudy. The group of retirees meets at 10 a.m. at the Stafford campus of the University of Mary Washington on U.S. 17. I’ve been a member of the group for several years, but this is the first time I’ve been their guest speaker.

I write in praise of Rankin’s True Value

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You would think I had won the lottery the way I was hootin’ and hollerin’ around here this morning. The reason was my conversation with Ken Rankin of Warrenton.

Ken is a member of the family that founded and operates Rankin’s True Value Hardware. I learned about his store yesterday when talking to Adam Kidd, one of the sales specialists at History Press, the South Carolina publisher of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. I asked Adam to check his computer for any stores in Warrenton or Fauquier County that had purchased copies of the book. (The last I heard, no merchants in Fauquier would carry The Last Lynching because of the “sensitive” subject matter.) Our conversation went something like this:

Adam: Yes, there is one store, Rankin’s True Value Hardware.

Me: A True Value Hardware? Are you sure?

Adam: Yes, they bought 12 copies.

Why would a hardware store in a shopping center just outside downtown Warrenton carry my book? Did they have a book section tucked between the bolts and bird feeders? I thought about it all night, and this morning I put on my reporter’s cap and called the store to find out. The clerk who answered said, no, they did not have a book section, so I asked to talk to the manager. That’s when Ken picked up the phone.

Ken said, yes, he bought the book and displayed it with one other near the check-out. He also put a poster that History Press sent him in the window. He said he was a bit nervous at first, afraid that his customers, especially his black patrons, would complain. But the only one who said anything was a descendant of one of the people accused of the lynching. Ken said he bought a copy for himself and was reading it now.

“We sold out,” he added.

So, dear readers, if you need some touch-up paint for the living room, please consider Rankin’s True Value in Warrenton. Located in the Warrenton Village Center, it’s open weekdays and Saturdays, 8-7, Sundays, 10-4.

Reflections of a first-time author-Part 2

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Howard Owen, a friend, author and former colleague, taught me to always carry my book in the car in case someone wants to buy it. Edie Gross, another former colleague, did just that last week. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

Andi Russell, who does the Books page at the Free Lance-Star, where I used to work, invited me to participate in a new feature called the Local Author Spotlight. The Spotlight asks 17 questions of the writer. Here’s a preview of two of my answers:

What I learned from the writing/publishing process:

I was surprised to learn of the writer’s place in the publishing process. I compare it to the groom’s place in a wedding. He’s essential but strictly a minor player. I expected the writer to be an important player since he or she is the creator, the one who starts the process, and upon whom all others depend.

He is at first, but that changes when he surrenders the text to the publisher. Then, like the groom, he’s basically told where to stand and what to say. I don’t mean this in any way to be a criticism of History Press, my publisher. They have behaved honorably from day one. It’s my fault that I was not better informed as to what would happen to me and my work once I signed a contract with them.

What I learned is that after the writer surrenders his or her manuscript, it becomes the publisher’s book. The publisher decides how much of the writer’s text to use, what the book will look like, what it will be called, when it will reach the public, what it will sell for, what the writer will be paid, when he will be paid, and who will sell the book. The writer may be consulted on these points, and even get to argue them, but the publisher has final say.

The publisher prints the book or creates a digital equivalent and then ships it to retailers, the second major player in the process. Again, I was surprised to learn that the retail arm of the process appears to be dominated by one company, Amazon. The others, like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, keep one or two books on hand in their stores, then reorder one or two more when those are gone. I don’t know what percentage of my sales have been through Amazon, but I bet it is significant.

And so it is not surprising, when sales revenues are divided, that the author stands third in line behind the publisher and the retailer. My sense after being involved in this process for more than a year is that the $22 list price for my book is split roughly $12 (publisher), $8 (retailer) and $2 (author). Please tell me if I have the numbers wrong. It might make me feel better.

My advice for those trying to write:

Don’t be deterred by anything that I’ve said in answer to the question above. Write that darn book and get it published. It will make you very happy.

PS: Reflection of a first-time author, Part 1 can be seen here.

On the flight, death and skull. New details emerge

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Thompson family members at their home on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County. They are Margaret Thompson, Sallie Rector, Catherine Rector and Emily Rector, from left. The log cabin is now the site of a Boy Scout camp. (Photo from Linda Tate and the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County.)

I knew from my years as a reporter that it was not unusual to hear from key sources after publication. That is what happened with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. New sources came forward with new details.

In September, two weeks after the book came out, a member of the Shedrick Thompson family wrote to my colleague Dylan Nicholls to say that family members wanted to talk to us.

The family told us more about Thompson’s movements after his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in Fauquier County in July 1932, about the reaction of his family to his flight, and about what happened when family members learned of his lynching.

This new information came from Melvin Clay and Julia Mopkins, brother and sister, residents of Maryland, and both in their 80s. They are the children of Ola Clay, one of Thompson’s sisters. Tom Davenport, a Fauquier County filmmaker, interviewed them recently. (I have written about Tom and our collaborations here.)

We already knew that Thompson fled west into the mountains of northern Fauquier after he attacked the Baxleys. Now we know that he went to his boyhood home, a short distance away on Africa Mountain, where he told his mother, Fannie Thompson, what had happened. She asked him to leave, saying that by being there, he put the entire family at risk. She was correct. Family members were later threatened and even jailed while Thompson was at large. And the Thompson home was under constant watch. “They were prisoners in their own home for a short period of time,” Mopkins said.

Thompson was missing for two months, when his body was discovered hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. Word of the discovery spread, and a mob gathered to set fire to the body. We now know that the Thompson family also learned of the discovery, and that Marrington Thompson, Shedrick’s father, went to the scene. Was the mob still there? Did he try to prevent the burning? We don’t know.

After the burning, officials carried Thompson’s skull and shoes, all that remained, back to Warrenton. The skull was displayed under the steps of the county courthouse and was later moved to the county coroner’s office. Then it seemed to disappear. Now we know that someone took it back to Africa Mountain and placed it on the Thompsons’ front porch.  “My grandmother had nightmares,” said Clay. “She lived with that for the rest of her life.”

A face for radio.
A face for radio.

PS: Last week I was guest of Ted Schubel on News Talk 1230 WFVA radio.You can listen to the 40-minute interview here.