Are you sure it was the last lynching?

Paul Beers’ 1994 article in The Appalachian Journal.

The comment from an English teacher at Lord Fairfax Community College was one I had heard before. It went something like this: “This wasn’t the last lynching in Northern Virginia. There was another one that came later.”

John Owens, a librarian at Lord Fairfax, reported the comment to me. John said that a teacher at the college was checking out my book from the library when she mentioned another lynching in Fauquier that had occurred years after Shedrick Thompson’s death.

John encouraged the teacher to attend the talk that I will give at Lord Fairfax this Saturday, Feb. 24, at 2 p.m., or to contact me with the details of the later lynching.

I assume that the teacher was referring to the death of Nelson Pendleton in 1935. At least that is the case that I have heard most often mentioned as a possible later lynching. (Thompson was killed in 1932). I don’t know a lot about the Pendleton case. While I was working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, I found two press clippings about his death. The first was a one-paragraph news story from The Fauquier Democrat. The other was an editorial from The Richmond Planet. The clippings said that Pendleton died on May 15, 1935, in Markham. He was black, 25, and accused of attempting to assault a white woman. His body was found in an orchard “by a group of enraged citizens, armed with rifles,” the Planet said. The coroner ruled his death a suicide.

The 1935 Fauquier Democrat story about Pendleton’s death.

The Planet, a popular black newspaper, was critical of the suicide verdict, the same verdict offered in Thompson’s death. The paper said the verdict was “overworked in Warrenton,” and it added, “There is a strong possibility that Judge Lynch is still holding court in this state.”

So was Pendleton lynched? Was he Virginia’s last lynching?

Maybe. It would be hard to answer definitively without doing a lot more research.

In a sense, this is where I was years ago when thinking about the Thompson case. I remember reading Paul Beers’ 1994 piece in The Appalachian Journal. Beers was writing about the 1926 death of Raymond Bird in Wythe County and called it “the last documented lynching in Virginia.” Beers may have known that statement would be controversial so he added a lengthy footnote. He dismissed the 1927 Leonard Woods lynching as a Kentucky incident, though few others agree with him. He also concluded that Thompson’s death was a suicide. He quoted Virginius Dabney, the longtime editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who wrote that lynching in Virginia ended with passage of the state’s antilynching law in 1928. “Nearly all other students of Virginia lynchings agree with Dabney’s conclusion,” Beers said.

Well, not exactly. I did not agree and took up the challenge. I spent months reading documents and talking to people. I made the case, I believe, that Thompson was lynched. I also believe he was Virginia’s last lynching.

Someday, someone may do the research and make the case that Pendleton was lynched, and that he, not Thompson, was Virginia’s last lynching.

Please, someone, take up the challenge.

Please join me this Saturday or at another of the appearances listed below:

Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, 2 p.m., book talk at Lord Fairfax Community College, 6480 College St., Warrenton, Va.

Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., book talk at the Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

Thursday, March 1, 2018, 10 a.m., joint appearance with filmmaker Tom Davenport for book talk and screening of his film, The Other Side of Eden. Lifetime Learning Institute, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle,  Manassas, Va.

Sunday, March 18, 2018, 2 p.m., book talk at the Mosby Heritage Area Association, The Hill School, 130 South Madison St., Middleburg, Va.

Why no mention of the Klan?

Daniel de Butts

The first thing that Daniel de Butts said to me when we met last week was, “Why didn’t you say anything about the Klan in your book?”

De Butts assumed that I had been pressured by prominent Fauquier County residents to keep any reference to the Ku Klux Klan out of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. To him, community pressure was understandable and expected.

De Butts, 67, is a graduate of Fauquier High who lives now in the Vint Hill area of Prince William County. His family has long ties to Fauquier, and two of his distant relatives, the brothers John and Caryle de Butts, are often mentioned as members of the posse who lynched Shedrick Thompson. De Butts read The Last Lynching soon after publication and has written me several times. In one of his earlier emails, he wrote, “My family was surely part of it, as you say. They made sure that he was not on Mt. Welby (the family home). Just over the fence on someone else’s land.”

De Butts also believes, as he said when we met last week, that the Klan’s fingerprints were all over the Thompson case. He said that the Klan was active in Fauquier in 1932, and that his ancestors were members. He said that the Klan quickly organized after Thompson’s assault on Henry and Mamie Baxley, pursued and caught him on Rattlesnake Mountain, and lynched him. Other Klan members aided in the cover-up that followed, he added. “People were better at keeping secrets than they are now,” he said.

De Butts bases his beliefs on family lore and his many years in Fauquier. He did not offer any writings, photos or Klan memorabilia to support his opinions.

I believe him. Last year my colleague Shawn Nicholls discovered an advertisement and two news stories about a Klan rally in Warrenton in 1926. The county weekly, The Fauquier Democrat, described torch-carrying Klan members, in robes and hoods, parading down Main Street and lighting a cross at a rally just outside town.  (Available here.) I can imagine that this same racial hatred was alive six years later, and that Klan members mobilized quickly to kill Thompson.

And no, as I told de Butts, no one pressured me to keep the Klan out of my book. Its absence was for a simpler reason: I just didn’t know about it at the time.

 

 

For this old reporter, lynch coverage was embarrassing

Stories about the Shedrick Thompson case appeared in newspapers throughout Virginia.
Stories about the Shedrick Thompson case appeared in newspapers throughout Virginia.

Shedrick Thompson’s attack on the Baxleys and the discovery of his body hanging from an apple tree were big news in Fauquier County in 1932. The Fauquier Democrat, the county weekly, followed the case closely, as did daily newspapers in nearby Strasburg, Winchester, Front Royal and throughout Virginia. I found 29 stories about the Thompson case in 16 newspapers while researching this book. Nineteen of those stories were on the front page.

I counted the number of stories published, but I also noted the words that the reporters used when writing them. What I found was that coverage of Thompson’s lynching was typical of the time.

I did my master’s thesis on lynching in Virginia, specifically on how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. At the turn of the 20th century, the state’s newspapers reflected their communities, in that they regarded blacks as second-class citizens and supported their harsh treatment. In the lynch stories, lynchers were justified in what they did, even heroic. Victims were guilty and described as brutes, savages or fiends. As a longtime newspaper reporter, I was surprised and embarrassed to read it.

But after about 1920, papers changed their coverage, again reflecting their communities. Stories and editorials were more critical of lynchers and less hostile toward the victims. Even so, reporters, as in the Thompson case, never tried to find out who the lynchers were. They made sure that readers knew that the accused was a Negro or “colored.” And they often assumed the victim’s guilt, as when they described Thompson as the “attacker.” One story said he “brutally assaulted” the Baxleys, even though he was never convicted of the crime or even charged. The worst of the old race tags were gone by this time, replaced by more neutral language. However, The Winchester Evening Star was the exception. In its stories, Thompson was not the accused or even the assailant. He was a “desperado.”

 

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.