The book has been written, yet the story still unfolds

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Melvin Clay with a photo of Fannie Thompson, his grandmother and Shedrick Thompson’s mother. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

First, I got a picture of Shedrick Thompson’s father, and then pictures of his siblings. And yesterday, I saw for the first time a picture of his mother. Maybe, if my luck holds, I will someday see a picture of Thompson himself.

Thompson is a key figure in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. He was accused of assault and  lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County in 1932. I spent years learning about the man, yet I have almost no idea what he looked like. A wanted poster at the time said that he was dark brown, 6 feet, 180 pounds, with a birthmark behind his ear, and an old gunshot wound on his hand. But I never found a photo of him and did not include one in the book. In fact, until very recently, I had never seen any photos of anyone in his large family.

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Marrington Thompson, Shedrick Thompson’s father. (Photo from Linda Tate)

Last month, however, I learned about Linda Tate and wrote to her. Tate is a resident of Detroit, related to the Thompsons and an expert in the family’s history. She sent me pictures of Marrington Thompson, the patriarch of the family, and seven of the Thompson children. (Shedrick was one of nine children.)

And then, Melvin Clay, a resident of Maryland and the son of one of Shedrick’s sisters, offered a picture of Fannie Thompson, Shedrick’s mother. Clay told my colleague Tom Davenport in a filmed interview last week that he admired his grandmother so much that he always kept her picture close by. With that, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out her framed picture. Clay held up the picture and smiled. I smiled too when I saw it.

Tate said yesterday that her reaction was similar. “The picture at the end blew me away. Every time I get to see a picture of one of my grandfather’s siblings, I get excited.”

 

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.

 

Making room for a late arrival

This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton.
This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton. (Photo by Shawn Nicholls)

One of the great things about writing for a newspaper is that you can make changes to your story right up to the last minute. That’s not to say that the editors will be happy when you do. But you can, and I did many times.

Writing a book is very different, as I learned last week. In fact, I may not be able to add new material, even if the book goes into an additional printing. The phrase “carved in stone” comes to mind.

In this case, the new material comes courtesy of Shawn Nicholls and involves a long-ago Ku Klux Klan rally in Fauquier County. Shawn is Tom Davenport’s assistant. Tom, Shawn and Shawn’s son, Dylan, are working on a documentary film about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson, the subject of this book. I have worked with them for more than two years, sharing research and doing interviews together. (I have written about their efforts here and here.) Last week Shawn found newspaper coverage of a 1926 Klan parade and cross-burning in downtown Warrenton. In addition, one of the staff members at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton pulled from storage a Klan robe that someone had given them.

This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.
This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.

More than 200 Klan members, wearing robes and hoods and carrying torches, marched on Main Street to the Courthouse, then on Alexandria Pike to the Benner Farm, according to Shawn’s research. There they made speeches, inducted new members and burned a 100-foot cross. “They made a very striking appearance,” said the Fauquier Democrat of the marchers.

It was a stunning discovery. A public display like that, even in 1926, was evidence of widespread, deeply ingrained racism. And it gave weight to my contention that Thompson died at the hands of his neighbors.

I knew it was too late to include the new information in the book. Publication is less than five weeks away. But I thought I would be able to add it to any future printings. Probably not, I learned later.

History Press has a reprint correction form that authors use after publication to correct errors. “No additions or enhancements to the book are permitted,” the form says. My editor was a little more lenient. He said they probably could add the Klan incident as long as it didn’t “re-page” the whole book. In other words, find a spot at the end of a chapter and make it fit.

Another possibility, as Tom suggested, was to add it to my author blog. Good idea.

 

Preparing to launch

Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.
Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.

A sales specialist from History Press sent me an email yesterday titled “Getting your book into the market.” It’s the type of correspondence that I’ve been receiving from the company lately and an indication that it’s time to resume posting here about my book. Publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is still scheduled for Sept. 12, and judging by my mail, I’d be surprised if it was delayed.

Today’s email described how a regional sales team will be working to place the book in the national chains, such as Barnes & Noble, and in local stores. There are no bookstores in Warrenton or Fauquier County, Va., the setting for my story, so I have given History Press the names of local museums, visitor centers and gift shops, such as The Town Duck and Sherrie’s Stuff. I’d like to think a sales person would actually go from store to store on Main Street, trying to place my book. If that’s the case, God bless ‘em. More likely, they’ll use email and phone to make the contacts.

History Press also sent me a supply of business cards and “meet the author” posters, all bearing the book’s cover. Their representatives have asked me to list local reporters who might want to interview me, and any “author events” that I can attend. Finally, a marketing person asked me, “Have you thought about where you’d like to have your book launch?” He described the launch as “the initial large event to announce your book.” My friend Howard Owen had a book launch at a downtown wine bar. Maybe I will do that. Everybody talked and drank while Howard signed books. It was very nice.

 

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

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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.”

What color would you like, sir?

Sheriff Stanley Woolf led the search for Shedrick Thompson.
Sheriff Stanley Woolf led the search for Shedrick Thompson.

The questions that my editor asked reminded me of the goofy things that Gilda Radner would say as Baba Wawa on Saturday Night Live. But I understood why he wanted to know, and I enjoyed answering him. Again, he was thinking about the cover for this book, and he wanted to know two things:

What color or color scheme would apply to your book?

The color scheme for the cover would be important if I was writing about, say, the history of Notre Dame football (blue and gold). But that didn’t apply to this book. I did tell him, however, that I have never thought of the people, the region or the incidents in the book as “dark” or “forbidding.” It has always seemed to me that this was a “broad daylight” crime, even though parts of it took place at night. Thompson was an employee of the Baxleys, so there was no doubt he was their attacker. Also, the men who hanged Thompson talked about it afterward, even bragged about it. The fact that they had to appear before a grand jury is also an indication of how closely associated with the crime they were. Because of that, I voted against a black or deep brown color scheme.

What words describe the tone of your book?

I answered that the book is serious, argumentative, and corrective in that it challenges the existing historic record. I also said it was violent, disturbing, and senseless for what Thompson did to the Baxleys and what Fauquier residents did to Thompson. And it was puzzling since many aspects of the story are hard to explain.