Me and Harry F. Byrd

I spoke about this book at the Black History Museum of Virginia in Richmond on Oct. 8. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

When the audience member asked, “Why did you pursue this story?” I decided to abandon the safe answers that I usually give to that question. Instead, I tried to put into words the feelings that have percolated inside me ever since I started working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

Usually when someone asks about the book, I talk about how the death of Shedrick Thompson was an incident that promised to hold my interest through months of research. Sometimes I add that it is a story of sufficient length and complexity to challenge me as a writer. This time, however, at a program Saturday at the Black History Museum of Virginia in Richmond, I talked about something more personal. I talked about my feelings toward Harry F. Byrd.

Byrd was Virginia governor from 1926-30 and U.S. senator for more than 30 years. As I told my questioner, I am a native Virginian and old enough to remember how powerful he was. Even though he was based in Washington, he ruled Virginia as if he were still in Richmond and a permanent resident of the Executive Mansion.

Harry F. Byrd
Harry F. Byrd

I objected to Byrd’s pay-as-you-go strategy for state finances. His insisted that the state avoid debt, which meant that Virginia did not have money for needed roads, schools and other services. To me, it made sense to borrow at low interest rates and let future residents help pay for improvements. Most of all, I objected to his naked racism. Byrd’s program of Massive Resistance to school integration in the late 1950s did untold damage to Virginia children.

So I was inspired when I learned of the role he played in the Thompson tale. Byrd was a key player in the cover-up of Thompson’s lynching. He and his friends lobbied intensely to have Thompson’s death listed as a suicide rather than a mob murder.

I believe he did this to preserve his political reputation. He didn’t care about justice. He cared only about himself. It was the same brute power that I had always objected to. If my book exposes Byrd’s hypocrisy and the real cause of Thompson’s death, I am delighted. It is small payback for the harm that he did to this state.


I stand in praise of copy editors

The Washington Nationals host the Philadelphia Phillies in the first game of a four-game series at RFK Stadium in Washington DC on September 20, 2007. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star)
The author with Laura Moyer at a Washington Nationals game in 2007.

One of History Press’ copy editors reviewed this manuscript and pronounced it fit. Well, mostly fit.

The book is “very well written,” he said, but it contains errors of “grammar, style, spelling and consistency.” He made about 40 blue-type changes in the document. Most were violations of the publisher’s house style.

That means, in my case, that Shedrick Thompson served in the “army,” not the “Army,” that Warrenton was a “colonial-era” town, not a “Colonial-era” one, and that Harry F. Byrd’s title was “former governor,” not “former Gov.”

I also learned that you don’t abbreviate South Carolina, that my former employer is “the Free Lance-Star,” despite what it says on the newspaper’s flag, and that Thompson was not “6 feet, 190 and labor-strong.” He was “six feet, 190 pounds and labor-strong.”

History Press generally follows the Chicago Manual of Style, but like all publishers it ignores the style book when it chooses. For example, the Chicago Manual recommends the use of the serial comma, the one that precedes the final item in a series. I dutifully placed these commas throughout, but that was for naught. History Press doesn’t like serial commas and removed them.

I confess to being a little defensive about these changes. I try to be a careful writer, as in full of care. I look things up, rewrite and submit what I believe is error-free copy. I am similar to the airline executive who insists on clean flip-down trays so passengers will trust the engines. I want clean copy so readers will trust my conclusions.

Even so, I believe in copy editors. They have made my writing better. Heck, I’m engaged to a professional copy editor. Laura Moyer read several versions of this book and offered countless valuable suggestions. When she finished, it had the feel of a fine oak dresser, worn by the touch of much good use.

Gather, write, rewrite

The cover of Roy Flannagan's "Whipping"
The cover of Roy Flannagan’s “Whipping”

Writing this book or a writing a newspaper article is the result of a three-step process: gathering, writing and rewriting. I loop back and forth from one step to the other as long as time allows. So even though my deadline to submit the manuscript for The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is a month away, I want to keep working on the story by looking closer at the career of Roy Flannagan.

Flannagan plays a part in the story, as a reporter who visited Fauquier County to cover Thompson’s death and as an aide to former Gov. Harry F. Byrd. He also was a successful novelist. Two of his novels, set in small-town Virginia in the early years of the 20th century, seemed like they might contain material that would give depth to my story. Flannagan wrote one of them, The Whipping, in 1930, two years before Thompson’s death. It couldn’t reflect his thoughts about Fauquier or the Thompson case, but it had a provocative cover, with a beautiful young woman cowering before a group of hooded Ku Klux Klan figures. Would the novel focus on race relations in rural Virginia, a key part of my story?

Flannagan wrote the second novel, County Court, in 1937 so that one seemed more promising. It was about the trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband. I wondered if it contained a disguised description of the things he saw and the people he met in Warrenton. The librarians at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library helped me obtain copies of both books on inter-library loans. I skim-read them, but only County Court had material that seemed relevant. I enjoyed Flannagan’s description of the courthouse and courthouse area in his fictional town of Juliaville. It reminded me of Warrenton, and I will quote from it in my story. And so the process continues: gathering, writing and rewriting.