Thompson’s name included on new lynching memorial

Oprah Winfrey and Bryan Stevenson tour the lynching memorial in Birmingham, Ala.

The caller on Sunday night said that I should turn on the TV and watch 60 Minutes. “Their second segment is about lynching,” she said.

The caller was Martha Powers, who in February invited me to speak to her group in Fairfax County, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University. I told Martha later that I was glad she called. The segment (here) was excellent.

Oprah Winfrey was the correspondent, and her report focused on Bryan Stevenson and his civil rights law firm, Equal Justice Initiative. The organization has used private donations to build a memorial to the nation’s 4,000 black lynch victims. Winfrey interviewed Stevenson and toured the memorial, which is located in Montgomery, Alabama, and opens April 26.

I contacted EJI three years ago after publication of their landmark study, Lynching in America. I wanted to know if they had included Shedrick Thompson, the subject of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, in their tally. John Dalton, staff attorney, said the group did not know about the Thompson case and invited me to send information. Later Dalton wrote, “We do plan on adding Mr. Thompson to our list for Virginia. Thank you again for letting us know about this case so that our list could be more complete.”

Dalton confirmed yesterday that Thompson’s name is inscribed at the memorial. Thompson was lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in 1932. He is one of two black lynch victims from Fauquier County included in the display. The other is Arthur Jordan, a young farm worker who ran away with his employer’s daughter in 1880. A private posse trailed the couple, caught them in Maryland, brought him back to Fauquier, and hanged him near the county courthouse in Warrenton.

Now, short of a road trip to Alabama, I need to figure out how to get a picture of Thompson’s name at the memorial. Anyone going to Montgomery or know someone who lives there?

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.”

‘The Other Side of Eden’ to debut in Warrenton in May

Alphonso Washington was witness to some of the events of July 1932 and describes them in “The Other Side of Eden.”

In some ways, Tom Davenport’s new film is a companion piece to my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. But in other ways, it is very different.

Viewers will soon have a chance to see these similarities and differences. The Other Side of Eden: A Southern Tragedy will premiere next month in Warrenton. The showing will be held on Saturday, May 13, at 7 p.m. at the Highland School Center for the Arts, 597 Broadview Avenue.  It is free and open to the public.

Tom has been working on the documentary for four years or 23 years, depending on when you date his initial interest. The film includes interviews from 1994 and 1997, but he recorded most of the material beginning in 2013, when he and I started working together. Tom and I shared documents and photographs, and I benefited greatly from his knowledge of the county, his contacts, and the research that he and Shawn Nicholls, his assistant, did. Tom, Shawn and I filmed at least a dozen interviews together, with me asking many of the questions and Tom filming over my shoulder. Tom will be 78 in June and has more than two dozen films to his credit. This is the first he’s done since last year’s follow-up to his 1986 film, A Singing Stream.

In The Other Side of Eden, viewers hear the story of Shedrick Thompson, his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in their home in 1932, and his subsequent lynching on Rattlesnake Mountain. The story is told by those who lived in Fauquier at the time, and by those who learned about it from their families and friends. It is clear from their testimonies that the incident had a profound effect on those directly involved, but also on the Baxley and the Thompson families. And on the community. The resistance Tom has encountered in compiling and showing his film, and the difficulty I have had in marketing the book in Fauquier, are measures of this. In my opinion, Thompson’s murder is an open wound in Fauquier, unacknowledged after almost 85 years, a story that still can’t be told.

But Tom expands on the lynching story, and in this way his film differs from my book. Tom explores a Depression-era feature of the racial climate in Fauquier: how white men of power fathered children out of wedlock with their black help. Several claims of this are offered in the film, including one involving Henry Baxley Sr. Shawn has been dogged in compiling evidence, and she believes that Baxley fathered a child by Mattie Wilkins, his black cook. There’s no known link between Mattie Wilkins and Shedrick Thompson, or Ruth Thompson, Shedrick’s wife, who was also a cook for the Baxleys. But Tom believes that this climate of what he calls “white sexual dominance” in Fauquier may have poisoned Thompson’s marriage and incited his violence against the Baxleys. The viewer gets to decide next month.

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.

Klan story stirs reaction and memory of rally in Caroline

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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.

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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.

 

He walked among them but was not of them

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Authorities published three versions of the reward poster for Thompson. In this one, they incorrectly listed his first name as Chad.

One of the first things I had to figure out when working on this book was Shedrick Thompson’s correct name. Thompson is one of the key characters in the story, the man accused of attacking the Baxleys and the man lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain. Yet in news accounts and legal documents, I found nine different versions of his name. He was Shadrack, Shad, Chad, Shedurek, Shadr’k, Shadrick, Shadrock, Shadrach and Shadric.

Thompson was born in Fauquier County to a Fauquier family. He spent most of his life in the county and married a Fauquier County woman. Yet after he attacked the Baxleys, when he became the object of an intense manhunt, no one seemed to know his name.

To me, this invisibility was a measure of what life must have been like for him in Fauquier in 1932. Thompson worked on his neighbors’ farms and in their orchards, yet they never bothered to learn his name. I can picture a reporter asking Sheriff Stanley Woolf, after the attack, for the name of the accused. “Thompson,” Woolf would have replied. “I think it’s Chad Thompson.”

No, Thompson’s 1917 draft registration and his 1921 marriage license are definitive. His first name was Shedrick.

Inserting more of me in this book

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Dr. Wayland Marks examines the late Ethel Davis while her daughter-in-law Linda Davis watches.

One of the first things that Dr. Wayland Marks asked when we met for coffee was, “So, what do you think? Do you think he was lynched?”

I have known Marks, a Fredericksburg, Va., physician, for many years. He was among a group of 15 people who volunteered to read an early version of this manuscript. I gave copies to family, friends, and four college history professors. I asked them to be my editors, to point out inaccuracies, typographical errors, anything that bothered them. Marks did just that, writing in the margin when he found a misspelling or a poorly chosen word. What really bothered him, however, is that he didn’t find enough of me in the paper.

“I’m an old newspaper reporter,” I said. “I’m not supposed to be in there.”

I told him that I wanted to do a credible job of including the two possible reasons for Shedrick Thompson’s death–lynching and suicide.

“There was an official ruling of suicide,” I added. “In fact, there were two of them. I couldn’t ignore that.”

“But it’s your book,” he replied. “I want to know what you thought.”

Marks was right, of course. It was my story, my version of what happened on Rattlesnake Mountain. I could use my newspaper training to learn about the events in Fauquier County in 1932. I could report what I learned, even the part that ran counter to common sense. But I could also be a guide, taking readers through the forest. I could do as Marks asked and let more of me come out.

With this new freedom, I went back to my computer and recast the story. I tried to make it complete, but now I also wanted it to be definitive. I became a prosecutor, dispelling reasonable doubt and building the case for murder. I hope Marks realizes how important his questions were that morning over coffee. They changed everything.

My book in 125 words or less

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The Cove, near Hume, Va., was Mamie Baxley’s home for much of her life.

The latest assignment from my editor is to write a paragraph for the back cover. He said to highlight the key places, people and events in the book, and convey the chronological and geographic scope. And please do all that in 125 words or less.

The assignment reminded me of an exercise I used when teaching beginning reporting at the University of Mary Washington here in Fredericksburg. I would give the class the facts of a police incident, including the who, what, when, where, why and how, as well as a police quote, victim quote and eyewitness quote. The students had to tell their stories in 250 words or less. When they finished, I asked them to rewrite their stories in 100 words or less, and then once more in 50 words or less. The exercise showed how flabby most writing is, and how much of their stories could be preserved, even with tight editing, if they spent the time needed to rewrite. Google tells me it was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, who was the first to say, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.”

So here’s what my book is about in 125 words or less. (Actually it’s 123 words.)

Fauquier County, Va., 1932. A black man is found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain.  A mob sets fire to the body. Officials identify the remains as Shedrick Thompson, wanted for the abduction and rape of a white woman. They say Thompson killed himself, the final act of a desperate fugitive. But residents who hunted him know better. They say he was the victim of Virginia’s last lynching.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia takes a close look at Thompson’s crimes and his death, the actions of his neighbors, and the official cover-up. It touches on themes still discussed, including our struggles with class and race. And it offers a new reading on Virginia history, one more complex and disturbing than previously believed.