Family learns of grandad’s role in Thompson story

Noah Kenney. (Family photo from Pam Androsky)

Pam Androsky remembers the day she was riding with her father on Fiery Run Road in northern Fauquier County. When they passed what was then the Borden Farm and is today the Marriott Ranch, he pointed to the mountain and said, “That’s where they found a colored man hanging from an apple tree.”

George Kenney was correct. Shedrick Thompson was found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. But Kenney omitted a key detail when recounting the story for his daughter. He did not tell her that his own father, Noah Kenney, was the one who discovered Thompson’s body.

Androsky, a resident of  Maryland, learned this detail only last month, while reading The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Her relatives look to her as the family historian, yet she was unaware that her grandfather played an important part in the Thompson story in September 1932.

Noah Kenney was 57 then and a tenant farmer at the Borden Farm, where he lived with his wife, Ethel, and their 11 children.  He told authorities that his cattle had been getting out so he decided to inspect a fence line in the thicket behind his house. There he found the body of a black man hanging from an apple tree. The body was decomposed, but Kenney knew that it was Thompson.

Thompson had been the subject of an intense search throughout northern Fauquier that summer. The fugitive was wanted for the assault of Henry and Mamie Baxley, his employers. After Kenney’s discovery, authorities ruled Thompson’s death a suicide. But others said no, that it was a lynching.

Kenney immediately wrote to the county board of supervisors to claim the $250 reward. “I am entitled to the reward. Please let me hear from you at once,” he wrote. The county had published three different wanted posters, including two that used the phrase “dead or alive.” Kenney seized on this wording, but the county refused to pay. He even hired a Front Royal attorney to press his claim. Again the board refused.

After I talked with Androsky last week, she forwarded a family photo of Noah Kenney. In the picture, he is tall and thin, with an actor’s chin and his hat pulled low. Androsky also recalls that he had dark hair and blue eyes. Some family members confuse his picture with that of George, his oldest child. Noah died in 1948, two days after celebrating his 73rd birthday.

I learned about Androsky after reading her sister’s review of The Last Lynching on the Goodreads website. Brenda Stensney wrote that every time Noah Kenney picked apples for his wife, he would tease her by claiming that they came from the hanging tree. “Needless to say, that did not amuse her,” she wrote.

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.”