The mystery of Martinsburg is solved

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Julia Mopkins holds a picture of her as an infant, seated on her mother’s lap. The photo is believed to be from 1932, the same year Shedrick Thompson was lynched. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

Of the many puzzling aspects of the Shedrick Thompson story, one of the most curious is Thompson’s connection to Martinsburg, West Virginia. Why were authorities in Fauquier County so focused on that small West Virginia city? Now, thanks to Julia Mopkins, we know.

Within hours of Thompson’s attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in July 1932, Sheriff Stanley Woolf of Fauquier contacted William Schill, chief of police in Martinsburg. Martinsburg is located in northern West Virginia, about 60 miles from Fauquier. The 1930 census counted almost 15,000 people living there.

Woolf asked Schill if anyone there had seen Thompson. Schill said no and added, “We are on duty in case he comes here.” Woolf also asked Schill for some of Thompson’s clothes to help the tracking bloodhounds in Fauquier, and later he drove to Martinsburg to visit a place Thompson was known to have stayed and to interview people who knew the fugitive.

As I worked on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, I could never figure out why Martinsburg was one of the first places Woolf thought about when searching for Thompson. What was the connection?

The answer surfaced last week when my colleague Tom Davenport interviewed Mopkins at her home in Maryland. Mopkins, 86, is Thompson’s niece. Her mother, Ola, was Thompson’s younger sister.

Martinsburg was where the Thompson men went for work, Mopkins said. Shedrick, his father, Marrington, and his older brother, Raymond, worked the farms and orchards in Fauquier during the planting, growing and harvest seasons. But in winter, when there was no work in Fauquier, they went to Martinsburg to work in its mills, Mopkins said. “They would go in the winter and come back in the spring,” she said.

Sheriff Woolf must have known this when he called Schill for help. But Thompson hadn’t gone that far. His body was eventually discovered in Fauquier, near Hume, hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain.

‘That’s W.W. Pearson.’

W.W. Pearson
W.W. Pearson
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W.W. Pearson with his wife Florence.

I realized later that I forgot to ask the lady her name. Perhaps I was distracted by the photos she pulled from her notebook during a recent book signing at the Culpeper County Library.

She had two black-and-white pictures, one of a man in an overcoat and hat, and the other of the same man, smiling beside a smiling woman. “That’s W.W. Pearson,” the lady said.

I knew immediately who she was talking about. W.W. Pearson plays a key role in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. This was the first time I had seen a picture of him.

Pearson was the deputy sheriff in Fauquier County in September 1932, Sheriff Stanley Woolf’s only deputy. If I correctly understood the lady who stood before me, Pearson also was her great grandfather.

Pearson was one of the first officials to arrive after the discovery of Shedrick Thompson’s body, hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. He was there when the mob set fire to the body, destroying all but the skull and shoes. He told his family later that he tried to put out the flames by swatting at them with his new hat, but someone stuck a pistol in his ribs and said, “Let it burn.” Pearson stepped away and let the body burn, with only a scorched hat to show for his effort.

The lady confirmed a postscript to that story that I had heard but not included in the book: Pearson gave the hat to an acquaintance, but when the man learned how it had been damaged, he didn’t want it and gave it back.

logoPS: I’ll be at the annual Local Authors Reception, sponsored by my favorite library, the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. The event is tonight, Nov. 15, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Porter Branch, 2001 Parkway Blvd., North Stafford. Hope to see you there.

Banned in Warrenton? I hope not

The Fauquier County courthouse in Warrenton.
The Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton.

I expected this book to be judged on whether it is informative, entertaining and accurate. I did not expect it to be judged on whether it was “sensitive.” Sensitive? A history book?

I bring this up because of an email I received last week from a publicist at History Press, the publisher. She wrote that a field sales representative for the company visited many of the shops on Main Street in Warrenton but could find none that would carry The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. The book takes place in Warrenton and Fauquier County, but apparently the local angle did not sway the merchants. “Some retailers are hesitant to carry it due the sensitive subject matter,” she wrote.

She also described how the book has been subjected to board review at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton. The museum has a nice gift shop and book section, but again, the book is apparently too sensitive to place on the shelves.

Three of the museum’s board members are reading the book to see if it is appropriate to sell there. “We have 2 out of the necessary 3 approval votes to get it in the shop,” wrote the publicist. “At this point, we just have to wait for the third individual to finish reading and give the “okay” before we move forward.”

The museum is run by the Fauquier Historical Society, a private organization, which is free to sell whatever it wants in its gift shop. But I hope that society members are true to their mission. The society was formed in 1964 to “stimulate interest in Fauquier County and Virginia history by preserving the evidence of our past, connecting it to our present and educating the community about its importance to the future.”

Preserve the past, connect it to the present, and educate the community about its importance.

I see no distinction in this mission statement between history that’s uncomfortable and history that’s ennobling.

I would argue that the tale of a lynching is just as important, just as instructive, to a community’s understanding of itself as the tale of a soldier’s heroism in battle. Perhaps more so.

documentPS: I’ll be at the Manassas Museum, 9101 Prince William St., Manassas, this Sunday, Nov. 13, at 1:30 p.m. to talk about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia and to sign books. Hope to see you there.

The book has been written, yet the story still unfolds

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Melvin Clay with a photo of Fannie Thompson, his grandmother and Shedrick Thompson’s mother. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

First, I got a picture of Shedrick Thompson’s father, and then pictures of his siblings. And yesterday, I saw for the first time a picture of his mother. Maybe, if my luck holds, I will someday see a picture of Thompson himself.

Thompson is a key figure in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. He was accused of assault and  lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County in 1932. I spent years learning about the man, yet I have almost no idea what he looked like. A wanted poster at the time said that he was dark brown, 6 feet, 180 pounds, with a birthmark behind his ear, and an old gunshot wound on his hand. But I never found a photo of him and did not include one in the book. In fact, until very recently, I had never seen any photos of anyone in his large family.

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Marrington Thompson, Shedrick Thompson’s father. (Photo from Linda Tate)

Last month, however, I learned about Linda Tate and wrote to her. Tate is a resident of Detroit, related to the Thompsons and an expert in the family’s history. She sent me pictures of Marrington Thompson, the patriarch of the family, and seven of the Thompson children. (Shedrick was one of nine children.)

And then, Melvin Clay, a resident of Maryland and the son of one of Shedrick’s sisters, offered a picture of Fannie Thompson, Shedrick’s mother. Clay told my colleague Tom Davenport in a filmed interview last week that he admired his grandmother so much that he always kept her picture close by. With that, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out her framed picture. Clay held up the picture and smiled. I smiled too when I saw it.

Tate said yesterday that her reaction was similar. “The picture at the end blew me away. Every time I get to see a picture of one of my grandfather’s siblings, I get excited.”

 

Mining a family photo for tantalizing clues

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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.

If it’s not the money, why do I do this?

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I spoke last week about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia to my former colleagues at the Free Lance-Star. (Photo by Kristin Davis)

I was on the way to Richmond to speak at the Black History Museum of Virginia recently when I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?”

I was travelling 60 miles in the rain. I was not being paid, and the director had said that she wanted the museum, not me, to sell my book. From a financial standpoint, the speech didn’t make any sense. There had to be other reasons I was doing it.

I have struggled with this question before. I spent years doing the research and writing for The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. During that time, I spent money on everything from gasoline and postage to copy costs and reprint fees. I did the work and spent the money happily, even though I was not reimbursed and had no prospect of a payback. I joked that it was an expensive hobby, like owning a boat or playing golf.

That changed last year when I signed a contract with History Press. The publisher agreed to pay me a percentage of all sales, though the company writes checks only twice a year. My first payday won’t be until next March.

So if money is not the measure, why do I do this? What are the other pleasures in the task? I’ve identified three: I find reward in a job well done. I am motivated that others find the work worthwhile. And I experience the joy that teachers and actors do when they earn the attention of an audience. As Maslow said, we strive to realize our full potential.

Me and Harry F. Byrd

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I spoke about this book at the Black History Museum of Virginia in Richmond on Oct. 8. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

When the audience member asked, “Why did you pursue this story?” I decided to abandon the safe answers that I usually give to that question. Instead, I tried to put into words the feelings that have percolated inside me ever since I started working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

Usually when someone asks about the book, I talk about how the death of Shedrick Thompson was an incident that promised to hold my interest through months of research. Sometimes I add that it is a story of sufficient length and complexity to challenge me as a writer. This time, however, at a program Saturday at the Black History Museum of Virginia in Richmond, I talked about something more personal. I talked about my feelings toward Harry F. Byrd.

Byrd was Virginia governor from 1926-30 and U.S. senator for more than 30 years. As I told my questioner, I am a native Virginian and old enough to remember how powerful he was. Even though he was based in Washington, he ruled Virginia as if he were still in Richmond and a permanent resident of the Executive Mansion.

Harry F. Byrd
Harry F. Byrd

I objected to Byrd’s pay-as-you-go strategy for state finances. His insisted that the state avoid debt, which meant that Virginia did not have money for needed roads, schools and other services. To me, it made sense to borrow at low interest rates and let future residents help pay for improvements. Most of all, I objected to his naked racism. Byrd’s program of Massive Resistance to school integration in the late 1950s did untold damage to Virginia children.

So I was inspired when I learned of the role he played in the Thompson tale. Byrd was a key player in the cover-up of Thompson’s lynching. He and his friends lobbied intensely to have Thompson’s death listed as a suicide rather than a mob murder.

I believe he did this to preserve his political reputation. He didn’t care about justice. He cared only about himself. It was the same brute power that I had always objected to. If my book exposes Byrd’s hypocrisy and the real cause of Thompson’s death, I am delighted. It is small payback for the harm that he did to this state.

 

Some feedback about the book is puzzling

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Mt. Welby was the home of the DeButts family at the time of Shedrick Thompson’s death. It is now a bed-and-breakfast.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia has been out three weeks, long enough for me to get some feedback. As expected, the results are mixed.

I’m delighted when I hear that someone enjoyed the book. “You addressed a very difficult and dark subject very well,” said one reader. “Well done,” said another.

I also was pleased to hear from Daniel DeButts, a descendant of two of the men implicated in Shedrick Thompson’s death. DeButts posted on my Facebook page that he had read the book, and added, “My family was surely part of it, as you say. They made sure he was not on Mt. Welby (the family farm) when they strung him up. Just over the fence on someone else’s land.”

And two of Thompson’s descendants, after hearing about the project, wrote to set up an interview. I’ll meet with them later this month.

But I’m puzzled by some of the things I’ve heard. When I could not find the book at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in downtown Warrenton last week, I asked if they would be carrying it. The answer: Because of the “sensitive” nature of the book, board approval was required before it could appear on their shelves.

And a person related to key figures in the story was so upset by publication that she vowed never to read the book or even look at the cover. No good can come from reviving such an unpleasant topic, she said.

I disagree with her. To me, the book is not a revival of the Thompson tale. Rather, given all the efforts, past and present, to hide what happened, it’s a first-time telling.

bhmva_new_logoP.S.: I’ll be in Richmond this Saturday, Oct. 8, at 1 p.m. at the Black History Museum of Virginia. The museum, located at 122 W. Leigh St., calls the event “Literary Saturday.” I’ll be talking about the book and about lynching in Virginia.  Hope to see you there.

Where is Mr. Jennings when you need him?

books2When my friend said he didn’t do online shopping and asked where he could buy my book, I didn’t know how to answer. History Press said it was going to place the book with the national chains. Was it available in the stores here? The answer, I discovered, was yes and no.

At the local Barnes & Noble, I searched in the Virginia section, but The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia was not on the shelves. “We had one copy but sold it,” said a clerk, after checking his computer. “We have another one on order. Would you like to reserve it?”

My next stop was at the local Books-A-Million. Again, I did not see the book in the local history section. “We have two of them. They just came in,” a clerk said, after checking her computer. She and I searched the shelves but could not find it. “It must be in the back,” she said. Apparently the books were still boxed and sitting in the storage room. The clerk said they would need several days to move them to the display floor. “Check back this weekend,” she said.

I wanted to tell the clerk about Mr. Jennings, the manager of Clark Drug, where I worked when I lived in Southern California. Mr. Jennings patrolled the stock room, and if he saw a box of merchandise that he thought should be unpacked and moved to the floor, he marched us back there to get it. “You can’t sell stock that’s sitting back here,” he would say.

So now it appears that my partners in the book-selling business are one company with strict inventory controls and another that needs a lesson from Mr. Jennings. I wrote my friend and told him what I had learned and that I would sell him one of my copies. Sure, he said, bring it by any time.

 

Have book, will travel

fibfThat distant date on my calendar finally arrived. My book was published yesterday. Now I have to hit the road and promote it. I’ll be in Fredericksburg, Warrenton, Richmond, Culpeper and Manassas in the coming weeks to sign books and/or talk about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Please stop by if you’re in the area. Here’s my schedule so far.

  1. The Fredericksburg Independent Book Festival, Saturday, Sept. 24, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Riverfront Park, Sophia Street.
  2. “Great Writers Right Here,” sponsored by Fauquier County Public Library, gw_rh-logo-finalFriday, Sept. 30, 6 to 8 p.m.,  Family Life Center, First Baptist Church, 39 Alexandria Pike, Warrenton.
  3. Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, Saturday, Oct. 8, 1 p.m., 122 W. Leigh St., Richmond.
  4. “Fourth Annual Local Author Extravaganza” sponsored by the Culpeper County Library, Saturday, Oct. 29, 1 to 4 p.m., Southgate Shopping Center, Culpeper.
  5. Book Talk, sponsored by the Manassas Museum, Sunday, Nov. 13, 1:30 p.m. 9027 Center St., Manassas.
  6. Mary Washington Elderstudy, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, Stafford campus of University of Mary Washington.