Some feedback about the book is puzzling

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.

Reflections of a first-time author


When I signed a contract with History Press, I lost control of my book.

I‘m exaggerating, of course. I had plenty to say about publication of the book. But I also had a partner, a majority partner, according to the contract, with plenty of experience and a set way of doing things.

For example, the company chose a title over my objection. I believe that Shedrick Thompson’s death was the last lynching in all of Virginia, not just Northern Virginia. But History Press editors said that books with the subject locality in the title sell better than books without that. They prevailed.

The company also created a cover—an attractive one, I believe—that fit their look. I test myself when I’m in a bookstore to see if I can pick out the History Press books. Many of its covers look like mine, done in earth tones, and divided into thirds, with photos on top and bottom and text in the middle. I’m pretty good at spotting them. (See examples, including my book, above.)

I used to think of the newspaper where I worked as a giant maw, a machine that had to be fed seven local news stories a day before it spit out a newspaper. As times, History Press feels like that too. To this first-time author, it has seemed like a giant machine that gobbles manuscripts and produces finished books. Mine will soon be one of them. Look for it Monday, Sept. 12.

For this old reporter, lynch coverage was embarrassing

Stories about the Shedrick Thompson case appeared in newspapers throughout Virginia.
Stories about the Shedrick Thompson case appeared in newspapers throughout Virginia.

Shedrick Thompson’s attack on the Baxleys and the discovery of his body hanging from an apple tree were big news in Fauquier County in 1932. The Fauquier Democrat, the county weekly, followed the case closely, as did daily newspapers in nearby Strasburg, Winchester, Front Royal and throughout Virginia. I found 29 stories about the Thompson case in 16 newspapers while researching this book. Nineteen of those stories were on the front page.

I counted the number of stories published, but I also noted the words that the reporters used when writing them. What I found was that coverage of Thompson’s lynching was typical of the time.

I did my master’s thesis on lynching in Virginia, specifically on how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. At the turn of the 20th century, the state’s newspapers reflected their communities, in that they regarded blacks as second-class citizens and supported their harsh treatment. In the lynch stories, lynchers were justified in what they did, even heroic. Victims were guilty and described as brutes, savages or fiends. As a longtime newspaper reporter, I was surprised and embarrassed to read it.

But after about 1920, papers changed their coverage, again reflecting their communities. Stories and editorials were more critical of lynchers and less hostile toward the victims. Even so, reporters, as in the Thompson case, never tried to find out who the lynchers were. They made sure that readers knew that the accused was a Negro or “colored.” And they often assumed the victim’s guilt, as when they described Thompson as the “attacker.” One story said he “brutally assaulted” the Baxleys, even though he was never convicted of the crime or even charged. The worst of the old race tags were gone by this time, replaced by more neutral language. However, The Winchester Evening Star was the exception. In its stories, Thompson was not the accused or even the assailant. He was a “desperado.”


Proud of my book, but do I want to buy 200 copies?

The late Melvin Poe of Hume was 12 when Shedrick Thompson died. He remembered groups of volunteers searching for the fugitive.
The late Melvin Poe of Hume was 12 when Shedrick Thompson died. He remembered groups of volunteers searching for the fugitive.

In addition to being a partner with History Press in the publication of my book, I am also a customer. I ordered copies of my book from them recently, after refusing several earlier sales pitches.

Their first sales offer arrived a few days after I signed their contract.  ‘I’m excited to share some information with you about a preferred discount for authors only,” said the email from one of the sales managers. For a limited time only, I was eligible for a special discount of 54 percent off the cover price if I bought at least 200 copies. The discount was greater than their standard author discount. The company repeated the offer two weeks ago, again for a limited time only, and again if I bought at least 200 copies. This time, however, the discount was not quite as generous as the first one. I declined both offers.

I am very proud of my book and absolutely thrilled that History Press is publishing it. But 200 copies? I imagined boxes of books stored in my trunk and stashed in the closet. I planned to buy books to give to family and sell at book signings but not that many. Last week a sales person at the company assured me that, once the book was released next month, I could get delivery of any quantity within a week. So I placed an order for 40 copies and paid $457, or about $11.40 per book. It felt odd to send them so much money. Perhaps someday soon the money will flow in the other direction, from them to me.

Klan story stirs reaction and memory of rally in Caroline

Klan members at a rally in Port Royal, Va., in 1981. (Photo by Jim Hall)

A friend said she was surprised to read last week’s blog post about the Ku Klux Klan parade and rally in Warrenton. She is in her 50s, grew up in Fauquier County, graduated from high school in Warrenton, and knew of the Benner Farm where the cross-burning took place. Yet she had never heard of the 1926 incident.

Hundreds of Klan members, dressed in robes and hoods and carrying torches, paraded down Main Street, then lit a giant cross at the farm. She had a hard time imagining it, she said. And the Benner property is on a hillside, she said. A cross burned there would be visible for a long way, certainly from the homes of the black families who lived in two nearby neighborhoods, Haiti Street and Fry Town. “It was shocking,” she said.

Reading about the Warrenton rally reminded me of a similar Klan rally I covered in Caroline County in June 1981. The key elements were the same: people in robes, hateful speeches, the induction of new members and the burning of a cross.

Klan members from Southern Maryland tried to recruit new members at a Caroline County, Va., rally in 1981. (Photo by Jim Hall)

The Caroline rally took place in a secluded farm field near Port Royal. A group from Southern Maryland sponsored the event, saying that they hoped to attract new members. I remember how Caroline Sheriff O.J. Moore went door-to-door that night through the black neighborhood near the rally, telling families that he and his men were on duty and that nothing would happen to them. Nothing did happen.

The speakers were uninspiring, and few recruits stepped forward. I remember how the Klan leaders seemed comfortably middle class, yet somehow threatened by blacks, Jews and Catholics. They reminded me of someone who had gorged himself at an all-you-can-eat buffet and then complained about the food.


Making room for a late arrival

This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton.
This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton. (Photo by Shawn Nicholls)

One of the great things about writing for a newspaper is that you can make changes to your story right up to the last minute. That’s not to say that the editors will be happy when you do. But you can, and I did many times.

Writing a book is very different, as I learned last week. In fact, I may not be able to add new material, even if the book goes into an additional printing. The phrase “carved in stone” comes to mind.

In this case, the new material comes courtesy of Shawn Nicholls and involves a long-ago Ku Klux Klan rally in Fauquier County. Shawn is Tom Davenport’s assistant. Tom, Shawn and Shawn’s son, Dylan, are working on a documentary film about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson, the subject of this book. I have worked with them for more than two years, sharing research and doing interviews together. (I have written about their efforts here and here.) Last week Shawn found newspaper coverage of a 1926 Klan parade and cross-burning in downtown Warrenton. In addition, one of the staff members at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton pulled from storage a Klan robe that someone had given them.

This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.
This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.

More than 200 Klan members, wearing robes and hoods and carrying torches, marched on Main Street to the Courthouse, then on Alexandria Pike to the Benner Farm, according to Shawn’s research. There they made speeches, inducted new members and burned a 100-foot cross. “They made a very striking appearance,” said the Fauquier Democrat of the marchers.

It was a stunning discovery. A public display like that, even in 1926, was evidence of widespread, deeply ingrained racism. And it gave weight to my contention that Thompson died at the hands of his neighbors.

I knew it was too late to include the new information in the book. Publication is less than five weeks away. But I thought I would be able to add it to any future printings. Probably not, I learned later.

History Press has a reprint correction form that authors use after publication to correct errors. “No additions or enhancements to the book are permitted,” the form says. My editor was a little more lenient. He said they probably could add the Klan incident as long as it didn’t “re-page” the whole book. In other words, find a spot at the end of a chapter and make it fit.

Another possibility, as Tom suggested, was to add it to my author blog. Good idea.


Preparing to launch

Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.
Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.

A sales specialist from History Press sent me an email yesterday titled “Getting your book into the market.” It’s the type of correspondence that I’ve been receiving from the company lately and an indication that it’s time to resume posting here about my book. Publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is still scheduled for Sept. 12, and judging by my mail, I’d be surprised if it was delayed.

Today’s email described how a regional sales team will be working to place the book in the national chains, such as Barnes & Noble, and in local stores. There are no bookstores in Warrenton or Fauquier County, Va., the setting for my story, so I have given History Press the names of local museums, visitor centers and gift shops, such as The Town Duck and Sherrie’s Stuff. I’d like to think a sales person would actually go from store to store on Main Street, trying to place my book. If that’s the case, God bless ‘em. More likely, they’ll use email and phone to make the contacts.

History Press also sent me a supply of business cards and “meet the author” posters, all bearing the book’s cover. Their representatives have asked me to list local reporters who might want to interview me, and any “author events” that I can attend. Finally, a marketing person asked me, “Have you thought about where you’d like to have your book launch?” He described the launch as “the initial large event to announce your book.” My friend Howard Owen had a book launch at a downtown wine bar. Maybe I will do that. Everybody talked and drank while Howard signed books. It was very nice.


Let’s pause now for a short intermission

Pic. 012
The Cash and Carry, a general store operated by Alex Green in Markham, played a key role in the Shedrick Thompson story.

I started this blog in January with the goal of describing what it was like to write this book and get it published. One question that I faced immediately was how often to post. I hoped to develop interest in the book before publication, but I didn’t want to turn off potential readers with too much horn-tooting. After about a month, I found a rhythm of once a week that I was comfortable with. Today marks 17 Tuesdays in a row that I have written about some aspect of this book. But the string ends today.

My decision follows the news from History Press that publication will occur on Monday, Sept. 12, instead of July, as I originally thought. That means that the arrival of the book is still four months away. As my editor said, “We are basically in a quiet period.”

My guess is that The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia resides on someone’s computer at History Press headquarters in Charleston, S.C., awaiting transfer to its presses. So, as doctors tell prostate cancer patients, this is a period of “watchful waiting.”

I’ll resume this blog closer to press time, probably in late August. That’s when History Press expects to “set up author events, create press releases, send out review copies and provide promotional material,” according to one of their marketing staff. So, please, stay tuned.