The sun is shining for me, despite the day-long rain

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote about my book in today’s paper.

I am grateful to Margaret Sullivan and The Washington Post for the story about me in today’s paper. Sullivan is the media columnist, and her work usually appears in the Style section. When she called, she said my experience with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia was not the type she usually writes about–her most recent columns were about Bill O’Reilly and Facebook–but she thought it was interesting, and her editors agreed.

Sullivan heard from a friend of mine about the resistance that History Press has experienced trying to market my book in Warrenton and Fauquier County. She interviewed a number of people, including a publicist at History Press and a salesman there who went door-to-door in downtown Warrenton in a unsuccessful attempt to place the book with retailers.

I was impressed with Sullivan. She was true to her word and accurate, even calling back prior to publication to check her facts. Best of all, she documented the discouraging aspects of what has happened, but she also found reasons to be optimistic. She noted the change of heart by the directors of the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail, where the book is now for sale, and she talked with Karen White at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier. White told her that she understands the resistance to the book. “Sometimes people are in denial,” she said. “They think none of this ever happened here.” But White also sees a willingness to reconsider the past, and she said she welcomes those conversations.

It takes a certain kind of reporter to bring this attitude to a story, a belief in our better angels and in their eventual triumph. Sullivan seemed to have it.

PS: Please join me this Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the headquarters building of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. I’ll be talking about the book and about lynching in Virginia. The session is free and open to the public.

The university and the library: Two places I like

Edie Gross and her Newsgathering class at UMW.

I remember how happy and proud I was when I found my name on the shelves at the University of Mary Washington bookstore in Fredericksburg. The year was 1993, and I had agreed to teach there. One of my responsibilities as a new adjunct was to tell the bookstore which texts I would use in my class. They would then order the books, so students would have them for the start of the semester.

I told the bookstore that I wanted to use Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. About a week before the first class, I went to the bookstore to see if the books had arrived. I found the books, and below them on the shelf was a paper tag. I was happy to see the books, but it was the tag that really made me smile. It read:

Department: English

Course: Newsgathering 201

Section: 01

Instructor: Hall, J.

My life plan had no entry that said: become a college instructor. To be honest, I had no life plan. But I had become a college instructor, and I was smiling.

Please join me on Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

I was reminded of that day and that feeling recently when I was leaving the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. On the door leading to the parking lot were a collection of posters advertising upcoming events. One of the posters had my name and picture on it. I’ll speak in the library auditorium on April 27, and the library wanted everyone to know about it.

Again, my life plan had no entry that said: make a public presentation at the headquarters library. But that’s what I’ll be doing. And this time, I did more than smile when I saw the poster. I took a picture of it.

Colin Woodward

PS: I want to thank Colin Woodward for inviting me to appear on his Amerikan Rambler podcast. Colin lives in Colonial Beach, works at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, and travels the state talking to all kinds of people, many of whom are interested in history. Colin asked about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, but he also asked about my upbringing in Falls Church, my schooling and early jobs, and lots of other stuff. (You can listen to the podcast here.)

Claudine Ferrell and her History class at UMW.

Thanks also to Claudine Ferrell and Edie Gross. At their invitations, I was back in the classroom this month. Claudine wrote the introduction to my book and recently asked me to talk to one of her history classes at the University of Mary Washington. Edie, a former colleague at The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, asked me to talk to her Newsgathering class, the same one I taught those many years ago.

Have thumb drive, will travel

germanna
Germanna Community College this week sponsored a program on publishing your first book. Participants were (from left) Rick Pullen, Howard Owen, Jim Hall, David Sam, Cory MacLauchlin and Chris Brown.

I expected to promote The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia after publication, but I didn’t realize that promotion would take the form that it has. I thought I would go to signings, sit behind a table, and talk to those who wanted to buy the book. I’ve done that and enjoy it very much.

But I’m also a man with a thumb drive and PowerPoint slides who travels the region, talking about lynching, especially lynchings in Virginia. I talk about the lynching I know best, the 1932 Fauquier County incident that is the subject of my book. But I spend as much or more time on other cases, such as the 1893 death of William Shorter. Shorter was pulled from a train outside Winchester, Va., and hanged beside the track. He was accused of murder and was with a deputy sheriff on his way to trial, but the residents of Winchester couldn’t wait.

All of a sudden, I’ve become something of an expert on lynching. I’ve given talks about it in Richmond, Culpeper, Manassas, Stafford and Fredericksburg. This month I will talk to a history class and a journalism class at the University of Mary Washington. Next month I’m at the Central Rappahannock library in Fredericksburg, and after that the Afro-American Historical Association in Fauquier County and the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University in Fairfax County.

I’m making good use of my master’s degree research, when I studied how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I found accounts of maybe 50 of the 70 incidents that occurred in the state from 1880-1930, including the 1897 death of Joseph McCoy. A mob dragged McCoy from the jail in Alexandria and hanged him from a lamppost at the corner of Cameron and Lee streets. He had been accused of the assault of a child.

I talked to a videographer this week when I spoke at a program sponsored by Germanna Community College. I’m thinking about making a video of one of my talks and placing it on YouTube. Who knows? Maybe I’ve found a new career as a speaker.

Inserting more of me in this book

marks1a
Dr. Wayland Marks examines the late Ethel Davis while her daughter-in-law Linda Davis watches.

One of the first things that Dr. Wayland Marks asked when we met for coffee was, “So, what do you think? Do you think he was lynched?”

I have known Marks, a Fredericksburg, Va., physician, for many years. He was among a group of 15 people who volunteered to read an early version of this manuscript. I gave copies to family, friends, and four college history professors. I asked them to be my editors, to point out inaccuracies, typographical errors, anything that bothered them. Marks did just that, writing in the margin when he found a misspelling or a poorly chosen word. What really bothered him, however, is that he didn’t find enough of me in the paper.

“I’m an old newspaper reporter,” I said. “I’m not supposed to be in there.”

I told him that I wanted to do a credible job of including the two possible reasons for Shedrick Thompson’s death–lynching and suicide.

“There was an official ruling of suicide,” I added. “In fact, there were two of them. I couldn’t ignore that.”

“But it’s your book,” he replied. “I want to know what you thought.”

Marks was right, of course. It was my story, my version of what happened on Rattlesnake Mountain. I could use my newspaper training to learn about the events in Fauquier County in 1932. I could report what I learned, even the part that ran counter to common sense. But I could also be a guide, taking readers through the forest. I could do as Marks asked and let more of me come out.

With this new freedom, I went back to my computer and recast the story. I tried to make it complete, but now I also wanted it to be definitive. I became a prosecutor, dispelling reasonable doubt and building the case for murder. I hope Marks realizes how important his questions were that morning over coffee. They changed everything.

My book in 125 words or less

The cove
The Cove, near Hume, Va., was Mamie Baxley’s home for much of her life.

The latest assignment from my editor is to write a paragraph for the back cover. He said to highlight the key places, people and events in the book, and convey the chronological and geographic scope. And please do all that in 125 words or less.

The assignment reminded me of an exercise I used when teaching beginning reporting at the University of Mary Washington here in Fredericksburg. I would give the class the facts of a police incident, including the who, what, when, where, why and how, as well as a police quote, victim quote and eyewitness quote. The students had to tell their stories in 250 words or less. When they finished, I asked them to rewrite their stories in 100 words or less, and then once more in 50 words or less. The exercise showed how flabby most writing is, and how much of their stories could be preserved, even with tight editing, if they spent the time needed to rewrite. Google tells me it was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, who was the first to say, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.”

So here’s what my book is about in 125 words or less. (Actually it’s 123 words.)

Fauquier County, Va., 1932. A black man is found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain.  A mob sets fire to the body. Officials identify the remains as Shedrick Thompson, wanted for the abduction and rape of a white woman. They say Thompson killed himself, the final act of a desperate fugitive. But residents who hunted him know better. They say he was the victim of Virginia’s last lynching.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia takes a close look at Thompson’s crimes and his death, the actions of his neighbors, and the official cover-up. It touches on themes still discussed, including our struggles with class and race. And it offers a new reading on Virginia history, one more complex and disturbing than previously believed.