New evidence of a change in how Thompson case is seen

Gianluca DeFazio

I was delighted to learn recently that an essay I wrote has been published on a website I’ve long admired.

The website, Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927, is the creation of Gianluca DeFazio, an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. The site is a comprehensive, easy-to-use database, dedicated to the 104 people who were lynched in Virginia. Each victim, from Charlotte Harris (1877) to Leonard Woods (1927), is remembered with a recounting of what happened and supporting newspaper articles from the time. It’s a must-stop for anyone doing research on lynching in Virginia or just interested in the topic.

In July, DeFazio invited me and others to write essays for the site. In his invitation, he said he hoped the essays would provide “in-depth analyses for particular cases/periods/regions of Virginia.” I took him up on the offer and wrote about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson.  DeFazio described my submission as “exactly the type of contribution I was hoping for” and posted it last week.

I contacted DeFazio earlier this year when his website went live. I was disappointed that Thompson was not included. I recommended my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, as a way of arguing that Thompson belonged on his site. DeFazio was always cordial and open to my arguments, but Thompson never made it to the master list of victims. For me, Thompson’s absence was an example of how his hanging in Fauquier County is often unrecognized for what it was—a murder.

But that appears to be changing. DeFazio said last week that he will update his list of victims this spring, He said he will devote a page to the Thompson lynching and include supporting newspaper stories. Again, I was delighted. His decision reminded me of the decision earlier this year by the Equal Justice Initiative to include Thompson in its new national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Ala.

Thompson was no doubt guilty of multiple felonies when he attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley, but his death was not a suicide as county officials said at the time. It was a lynching, and increasingly, it is being recognized as such.

Fauquier inscriptions pictured at new lynching memorial

A monument to Fauquier County and its two black lynch victims is included in the new lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Wanda Foust)

Wanda Foust was looking at titles on Amazon.com when she found my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.  “I had never heard about this case, so it certainly sparked my interest,” she wrote in an email. Soon she was reading this blog and saw the appeal I made for photos from the new lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

A resident of Montgomery, Foust wrote to say that she would take the requested pictures. She had already visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon after its opening and returned on May 5 to take the pictures you see here. Thank you, Wanda.

The names of Fauquier’s two black lynch victims are inscribed on its monument at the new lynching memorial in Alabama. (Photo by Wanda Foust)

Her photos include one of a suspended, coffin-like steel monument, inscribed to Fauquier County, Virginia. On the monument are the names of Arthur Jordan, who was lynched in Warrenton in 1880, and Shadrack (Shedrick) Thompson, who was lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in northern Fauquier in 1932. (I played a small part in the inclusion of Thompson’s name at the memorial. In 2015, I asked the Equal Justice Initiative, the sponsors of the memorial, if he was in their database. They replied that he was not, and they asked for supporting information. They studied the material I sent and decided to include him in their list of lynching victims and to place his name on their memorial.)

There are 800 of these monuments at the memorial, one for each locality in the U.S. where a black person was lynched. More than 4,000 names are inscribed on the monuments, representing the nation’s black lynch victims.

The Fauquier County monument in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Wanda Foust)

Foust said that the monuments are made of corten steel, which changes color as it is exposed to the weather. “Some are darker, some lighter, and even some of them appear bloodstained due to the rust dripping and pattern,” she wrote.

To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the memorial is its six-acre field containing 800 duplicate monuments. Organizers have invited localities such as Fauquier to claim the duplicate monument and display it at home. “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not,” according to organizers.

A self-portrait by Wanda Foust

I asked Foust to describe herself, and she replied:

I am originally from Vietnam, born to a Vietnamese woman and a black Air Force member. We lived in Vietnam until I was three, and then we were stationed in the Philippines for a year before being stationed at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery. My parents separated about a year or so later. My mom, being from Vietnam, didn’t know the first thing about the U.S. other than what she’d seen or heard from TV and papers. And she definitely knew nothing of the south. Because of this, she couldn’t teach me about black history or culture, so I was raised in Vietnamese culture and traditions. I did eventually start learning about black history once I graduated from high school. Today I consider myself a black Vietnamese woman living in Montgomery.

I told Foust that her pictures were important to me, and I suspect, to members of Thompson’s family.  They are confirmation of what I have long believed, that Thompson did not commit suicide on Rattlesnake Mountain, as officials said. Instead, he was murdered, a victim of racial terror.

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?