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.