A surprise invitation from the Fauquier History Museum

The Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton.

When a friend learned that I had been invited to appear at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail,  he wrote to say, “That is long overdue!”

I appreciated his email and shared in his frustration. But my reaction to the invitation was more complicated.

I was grateful, for sure. I’m happy to travel and share the Shedrick Thompson story, especially in Warrenton where many of the events took place.  But, more importantly for me,  the invitation was evidence of a change in thinking at the museum, and perhaps in Fauquier County. As I told Erin Clark, the executive director and the person who invited me, “There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I felt my book and the Thompson story were not welcome at the museum.” Now they are.

Seventeen months ago, when History Press published The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, downtown Warrenton was indifferent to the book, if not hostile. A company salesmen went store-to-store on Main Street, but merchants said a book about a local lynching was too sensitive and declined to carry it. At the same time, a company publicist tried to place the book in the gift shop at the History Museum but found similar resistance. “Three of the museum’s board members are reading the book to see if it is appropriate to sell there,” wrote the publicist. “We have 2 out of the necessary 3 approval votes. At this point, we just have to wait for the third individual to finish reading and give the ‘okay’ before we move forward.”

That okay did not come, at least for many months. At the time, I reminded myself that respect is earned not demanded, that the Fauquier Historical Society, which owns and operates the museum, owed me nothing and was free to sell whatever it wanted in its gift shop.  But I was also discouraged. As I saw it, one of Fauquier’s most important institutions was refusing to acknowledge an embarrassing chapter in the county’s history. To me, that was not good leadership.

But opinions changed sometime last summer when the gift shop began carrying the book. I am not privy to the discussions, if any, within the board of the Historical Society. Clark, who has been director for five months, said she was not sure what led to the reversal. But she added, “Our museum exhibits all aspects of Fauquier County history, even the ones that are difficult to talk about.”

In that spirit, I’ll be at the museum on Saturday, May 5, from noon to 2 p.m. for a book signing. Please join me.

 

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.