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.

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.

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.


The new phone book’s here! The new phone book’s here!


The cover for this book arrived from History Press this morning, and all I can think about is Steve Martin in the 1979 movie “The Jerk.” I laughed again to see the YouTube clip of him celebrating the arrival of the new phone book.

“I’m somebody now!” Martin says. “Millions of people look at this book every day. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity, your name in print, that makes people! Things are going to start happening to me now.”

Today I share his goofy enthusiasm, his childish exuberance.

The publisher wants to know what I think about the cover. Any thoughts, dear readers? I’m disappointed that it’s black and white, rather than color, but perhaps that fits the time period and somber subject. Other than that, I like it. Or as Martin says in this 40-second clip,  “I’m in print.”

Reality intervenes after I mix enthusiasm and ignorance

The page proofs included the title page and chapter 1.

Lesson learned last week: The arrival of page proofs doesn’t mean that publication is imminent.

One of History Press’ copy editors recently completed a read-through of this manuscript and made dozens of changes. Then, within days and without warning, I found the page proofs in my inbox.

At the newspaper where I worked, page proofs represented the final review before publication. They were replicas of the finished pages, with everything from headlines to ads. Page proofs gave us one last chance to catch problems on paper that we may have missed on screen.

Because of this experience, I expected the page proofs for this book to be an inch-high stack of paper stuffed inside an oversized manila envelope. Instead, they were an email attachment, a PDF of 128 pages.

That meant that if I wanted to read the book on paper, I had to go to Office Depot and pay $15 for a copy. Even so, I was thrilled. My creation was no longer a Word document, printed out and bound by a staple in the corner. It was a book. At least it looked like a book, with an ISBN number, copyright notice and chapter headings. There was even a History Press logo on the title page.

With the page proofs in hand, I concluded that production of the book was moving quickly. I didn’t have the cover art for the front or a copy block for the back. Yet I had the page proofs. Certainly the missing pieces would arrive soon. Publication, which had been scheduled for July, would surely be advanced. I confidently told a friend that I might have a book in hand next month.


I had built a conclusion from little more than enthusiasm and ignorance. And my editor was quick to disabuse me. History Press’ printing schedule was set through August, he said, and I wasn’t on it. The soonest they could print this book was September, maybe October.

Wow, a summer book had become an autumn one. In the span of about 24 hours, I had gone from elation to dejection. Lesson learned.


A fortuitous phone call

Tom Davenport

One of my goals for this book was to figure out exactly what happened to Shedrick Thompson. If I have succeeded in doing that, it’s in large part because of Tom Davenport.

I was still working at the newspaper when Tom called and introduced himself as a Fauquier County, Va., filmmaker. He said he was long interested in Thompson’s death and had heard that no one knew more about the case than I did.

“Would you like to have coffee some time and talk about working together?” he said.

It was spring 2013, and I was three days from retirement. I had vague plans about gardening, exercising and reading, but otherwise my future was a blank slate. Working with Tom on the Thompson case sounded like a great idea.

And so began what has been a remarkable collaboration. Tom, 76, is a native Virginian, a Yale grad, and an award-winning filmmaker. He is founder and director of Folkstreams, a website that streams hundreds of independent documentary films on American folk life. And he helps his son on the family farm in Fauquier but admits that things run better if he stays out of the way.

For the Thompson project, we did many interviews together. Tom arranged the interviews with Fauquier residents who knew about Thompson’s death, including two people who were alive at the time. Often, we formed a caravan of cars—Tom, his assistant Shawn Nicholls, and me—traveling the backroads of Fauquier from one filmed interview to the next. Usually, I asked the questions, and he operated the camera. I counted 13 interviews we did together over two years.

When we started working together, I had a question mark in the title of this book: Death on Rattlesnake Mountain: Virginia’s Last Lynching? Now the question mark is gone. Because of Tom, I met many Fauquier residents who did not question how Thompson died. They told us over and over that he was lynched.


A new title, or learning to play well with the other children

2treeBefore History Press agreed to publish this story, they asked me to complete an 8-page application. One of the questions they asked was: are you capable of working with other people on a long-term project that requires a “high level of co-ordination.” In other words, do I play well with the other children?

I answered sure, that I was a former newspaper reporter who had worked with assigning editors, copy editors, managing editors, photographers, page designers and fellow reporters on stories that took months to complete. It was an honest answer, but now my breezy assurance is being tested. Other people are messing with my stuff.

The first change I’ve had to deal with is the title. I always liked the title that I gave this story: Death on Rattlesnake Mountain: Virginia’s Last Lynching. It was concise, as Strunk and White suggest. It was accurate and informative, as required of a good headline. And it was intriguing. As one of my former colleagues said, “Rattlesnake Mountain has such a mysterious appeal.”

But History Press has other standards. They have learned that if you put the subject locale in the title, the book sells better. The term “Rattlesnake Mountain” can’t carry this burden since there are Rattlesnake Mountains in New Hampshire and Washington state. They also argued that my title was repetitive, that “death” and “lynching” are the same thing. They wanted a subtitle that told the book buyer what my goal was in writing the book.

We went back and forth several times. They gave some, and I gave some. And so, as you may have noticed, this book has a new title: The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia: Searching for Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain. It’s not my first choice, but as I told them, I play well with other children.