On the flight, death and skull. New details emerge

left-margaret-thompson-sallie-rector-catherine-rector-emily-rector-log-cabin-on-rattlesnake-mountain
Thompson family members at their home on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County. They are Margaret Thompson, Sallie Rector, Catherine Rector and Emily Rector, from left. The log cabin is now the site of a Boy Scout camp. (Photo from Linda Tate and the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County.)

I knew from my years as a reporter that it was not unusual to hear from key sources after publication. That is what happened with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. New sources came forward with new details.

In September, two weeks after the book came out, a member of the Shedrick Thompson family wrote to my colleague Dylan Nicholls to say that family members wanted to talk to us.

The family told us more about Thompson’s movements after his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in Fauquier County in July 1932, about the reaction of his family to his flight, and about what happened when family members learned of his lynching.

This new information came from Melvin Clay and Julia Mopkins, brother and sister, residents of Maryland, and both in their 80s. They are the children of Ola Clay, one of Thompson’s sisters. Tom Davenport, a Fauquier County filmmaker, interviewed them recently. (I have written about Tom and our collaborations here.)

We already knew that Thompson fled west into the mountains of northern Fauquier after he attacked the Baxleys. Now we know that he went to his boyhood home, a short distance away on Africa Mountain, where he told his mother, Fannie Thompson, what had happened. She asked him to leave, saying that by being there, he put the entire family at risk. She was correct. Family members were later threatened and even jailed while Thompson was at large. And the Thompson home was under constant watch. “They were prisoners in their own home for a short period of time,” Mopkins said.

Thompson was missing for two months, when his body was discovered hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. Word of the discovery spread, and a mob gathered to set fire to the body. We now know that the Thompson family also learned of the discovery, and that Marrington Thompson, Shedrick’s father, went to the scene. Was the mob still there? Did he try to prevent the burning? We don’t know.

After the burning, officials carried Thompson’s skull and shoes, all that remained, back to Warrenton. The skull was displayed under the steps of the county courthouse and was later moved to the county coroner’s office. Then it seemed to disappear. Now we know that someone took it back to Africa Mountain and placed it on the Thompsons’ front porch.  “My grandmother had nightmares,” said Clay. “She lived with that for the rest of her life.”

A face for radio.
A face for radio.

PS: Last week I was guest of Ted Schubel on News Talk 1230 WFVA radio.You can listen to the 40-minute interview here.

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.