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.

 

What is the nature of your complaint, sir?

A drone picture of Edenhurst, the home where Shedrick Thompson attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley in 1932. (From “The Other Side of Eden” documentary.)

When Pam Kamphuis read my recent blog post about the Philip Carter Winery, she asked if I would step back and reflect on the resistance I’ve faced since publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Kamphuis, the editor of The Piedmont Virginian in Warrenton, said she wanted to use the piece on the magazine’s blog. Here’s what I wrote:

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, and a reader complained about one of my stories, I listened carefully to what the reader said. Was the story wrong or incomplete? Was it poorly written? Or was the reader unhappy, not because of what the story said, but simply because I wrote it? To these readers, no news was good news.

I was reminded of this in recent months as the author of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. The book describes the horrific lynching of Shedrick Thompson in Fauquier County in 1932. The reaction from some Fauquier residents has been similar to what I heard from unhappy newspaper readers. The complaints are not that I got my facts wrong, or that I’m a lousy writer. Instead, they are upset that I told the story at all. It’s as if I was dumping dead skunks in downtown Warrenton. Go away, they’ve said, go away.

The first hint of a problem came soon after publication when a local reporter asked one person mentioned in the book what she thought of it. “I don’t want to look at the cover,” she said. “I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read anything about it.”

Retailers in Warrenton also were nervous and told History Press, the publisher, that the topic was too sensitive for their shelves. In the early months, I had invitations to talk to groups in Richmond, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Culpeper, Stafford and Spotsylvania, but not Fauquier. Later the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier invited me to talk to its members. That appearance this spring is still the only time I’ve spoken in Fauquier.

I was scheduled to talk at a Fauquier winery this month, but a winery representative asked me to postpone the event to a time “when feelings are not so heated and the topics of conversation in your book might be better received.” But time itself is neutral and changes nothing, as Martin Luther King once said. So I spared the winery the pain of cancellation and did it myself. “I wish you the best,” I told them.

My friend, Tom Davenport, and I have worked together for months on this project. He has created a documentary film about the Thompson lynching and about the racial climate in Fauquier at the time. He too has experienced similar resistance. The leaders at his church, after much discussion, decided that the film was too controversial for a screening there. And after Tom did screen the film in May to a packed house in Warrenton, he received a threatening letter from a lawyer demanding that he remove one section. Because of the letter, Tom canceled a second showing in Upperville. But he also got his own attorney and successfully defended his right to show the entire film.

So when reading my book, if you find that my facts are wrong, please let me know. If you think the prose is pedestrian, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but I’ll continue to write and talk about this case. It’s a worthy topic that teaches, among other things, the dangers of ignorance. Pretty timely, I would say.

PS: Here’s my newly revised schedule of appearances for the fall/winter. Please join me if you’re in the area.

  1. Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m., Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, Va.
  2. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  3. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  4. Friday, Nov. 17, 3 p.m., Fredericksburg Literary Club, (Place to be determined.)
  5. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, 11:50 a.m., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University,4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  6. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  7. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

 

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.

How I published my book, in three easy steps

firstbookjA University of Mary Washington student wrote me recently to say that he wouldn’t be able to attend the program that Germanna Community College is sponsoring next month on getting your first book published. Germanna invited me to be part of the program, and the student asked, “Could you lend me some of your advice on publishing?”

I had no idea how to answer a question like that, but I wanted to be helpful, so I told the student that if my experience qualifies as advice, I’d be happy to share it. So, here goes. This is how I got my book published, in three easy steps:

First, I wrote the book. Other writers may solicit a publisher on the strength of an idea and a completed first chapter. Not me. I had a 33,000-word nonfiction manuscript in hand when I began this journey.

Next, I sent cover letters and electronic copies of the work to three academic publications. I believed that’s where the manuscript belonged, but one after another, the three journals said no. In fact, the editor at the third one was dismissive of my scholarship and my writing. He hurt my feelings. I knew my research was solid, and I knew that my writing was 10 times better than the gibberish he published. But he was right. My work didn’t belong in his journal. It didn’t read like the other articles there, and it was three times as long. I realized then that my work was not a journal article but a book, a solid, general-interest history book. And that’s when I found History Press.

History Press, based in South Carolina, says it specializes in local and regional history, and that its books are soft-cover and shorter than most, with lots of pictures. That appealed to me. I went to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg and inspected several History Press books. They were handsome works, professionally made, and I could picture being published by them. I also studied the company’s catalog and found a niche where I might fit. I filled out their query form and attached a cover letter, saying that my book would work nicely under their “true crime” umbrella. They thought so too. I signed a contract, and about a year later, I had in hand The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

So to the UMW student, I say tell your story, then study the market for a publisher. Not just any publisher, but the best one for you. And, oh yes, the third and most important step: get up and try again after they knock you down, because they will.

When the topic is lynching, people want to hear

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I spoke to ElderStudy members yesterday at the Stafford campus of the University of Mary Washington.

The question was a familiar one, but my answer was new, an admission that I had never made before.

Yesterday, at a presentation before the members of Mary Washington ElderStudy, an audience member asked, “Why did you pursue this project?” He and others before him seemed puzzled that I would devote time and energy to such an unusual and unpleasant topic.

I usually answer these questioners by talking about how this book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, is a spinoff from the work I did for my master’s thesis at VCU in 2001. But if you go back to before VCU, why did I choose to study lynching? Sometimes I wonder if there really is a prior life, and that somehow I was connected to a lynching in an earlier existence.

But yesterday, I offered a more earthly reason for my interest in the topic. I blamed my audience.

I explained how whenever I bring up the topic of lynching, the person I am talking to is immediately interested. I noticed it in Dr. Clarence Thomas, my advisor at VCU and not the Supreme Court justice,  when I proposed to study how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I noticed it in my editors at the Free Lance-Star newspaper when I proposed stories based on my research. And I noticed it in the immediate response from History Press when I proposed a book about the lynching of Shedrick Thompson in Fauquier County in 1932.

I can’t explain this interest. Perhaps it is a desire to see what anarchy looks like. Perhaps it is a fascination with a distant, primitive instinct.

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A Richmond Times-Dispatch story about the 1903 death of George Henderson.

But I do know that when I stand before a group of people, as I did yesterday, and talk about what happened to George Henderson and many others, there is silence in the room. People want to hear.

Henderson was from North Carolina, on his way by train to West Virginia. He stepped off the train when it stopped in a small town just south of Luray. What he could not know was that the citizens of that town in 1903 did not allow black people to be there. They chased Henderson, and he fled toward the Shenandoah River. He tried to cross the river on top of a dam but fell to his death. And, as usual, the news accounts made no mention of anyone being held responsible for his death.

So, as I said to the audience yesterday, I am a storyteller with stories of interest.

I write in praise of Rankin’s True Value

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You would think I had won the lottery the way I was hootin’ and hollerin’ around here this morning. The reason was my conversation with Ken Rankin of Warrenton.

Ken is a member of the family that founded and operates Rankin’s True Value Hardware. I learned about his store yesterday when talking to Adam Kidd, one of the sales specialists at History Press, the South Carolina publisher of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. I asked Adam to check his computer for any stores in Warrenton or Fauquier County that had purchased copies of the book. (The last I heard, no merchants in Fauquier would carry The Last Lynching because of the “sensitive” subject matter.) Our conversation went something like this:

Adam: Yes, there is one store, Rankin’s True Value Hardware.

Me: A True Value Hardware? Are you sure?

Adam: Yes, they bought 12 copies.

Why would a hardware store in a shopping center just outside downtown Warrenton carry my book? Did they have a book section tucked between the bolts and bird feeders? I thought about it all night, and this morning I put on my reporter’s cap and called the store to find out. The clerk who answered said, no, they did not have a book section, so I asked to talk to the manager. That’s when Ken picked up the phone.

Ken said, yes, he bought the book and displayed it with one other near the check-out. He also put a poster that History Press sent him in the window. He said he was a bit nervous at first, afraid that his customers, especially his black patrons, would complain. But the only one who said anything was a descendant of one of the people accused of the lynching. Ken said he bought a copy for himself and was reading it now.

“We sold out,” he added.

So, dear readers, if you need some touch-up paint for the living room, please consider Rankin’s True Value in Warrenton. Located in the Warrenton Village Center, it’s open weekdays and Saturdays, 8-7, Sundays, 10-4.

Reflections of a first-time author-Part 2

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Howard Owen, a friend, author and former colleague, taught me to always carry my book in the car in case someone wants to buy it. Edie Gross, another former colleague, did just that last week. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

Andi Russell, who does the Books page at the Free Lance-Star, where I used to work, invited me to participate in a new feature called the Local Author Spotlight. The Spotlight asks 17 questions of the writer. Here’s a preview of two of my answers:

What I learned from the writing/publishing process:

I was surprised to learn of the writer’s place in the publishing process. I compare it to the groom’s place in a wedding. He’s essential but strictly a minor player. I expected the writer to be an important player since he or she is the creator, the one who starts the process, and upon whom all others depend.

He is at first, but that changes when he surrenders the text to the publisher. Then, like the groom, he’s basically told where to stand and what to say. I don’t mean this in any way to be a criticism of History Press, my publisher. They have behaved honorably from day one. It’s my fault that I was not better informed as to what would happen to me and my work once I signed a contract with them.

What I learned is that after the writer surrenders his or her manuscript, it becomes the publisher’s book. The publisher decides how much of the writer’s text to use, what the book will look like, what it will be called, when it will reach the public, what it will sell for, what the writer will be paid, when he will be paid, and who will sell the book. The writer may be consulted on these points, and even get to argue them, but the publisher has final say.

The publisher prints the book or creates a digital equivalent and then ships it to retailers, the second major player in the process. Again, I was surprised to learn that the retail arm of the process appears to be dominated by one company, Amazon. The others, like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million, keep one or two books on hand in their stores, then reorder one or two more when those are gone. I don’t know what percentage of my sales have been through Amazon, but I bet it is significant.

And so it is not surprising, when sales revenues are divided, that the author stands third in line behind the publisher and the retailer. My sense after being involved in this process for more than a year is that the $22 list price for my book is split roughly $12 (publisher), $8 (retailer) and $2 (author). Please tell me if I have the numbers wrong. It might make me feel better.

My advice for those trying to write:

Don’t be deterred by anything that I’ve said in answer to the question above. Write that darn book and get it published. It will make you very happy.

PS: Reflection of a first-time author, Part 1 can be seen here.

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.

Reflections of a first-time author

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When I signed a contract with History Press, I lost control of my book.

I‘m exaggerating, of course. I had plenty to say about publication of the book. But I also had a partner, a majority partner, according to the contract, with plenty of experience and a set way of doing things.

For example, the company chose a title over my objection. I believe that Shedrick Thompson’s death was the last lynching in all of Virginia, not just Northern Virginia. But History Press editors said that books with the subject locality in the title sell better than books without that. They prevailed.

The company also created a cover—an attractive one, I believe—that fit their look. I test myself when I’m in a bookstore to see if I can pick out the History Press books. Many of its covers look like mine, done in earth tones, and divided into thirds, with photos on top and bottom and text in the middle. I’m pretty good at spotting them. (See examples, including my book, above.)

I used to think of the newspaper where I worked as a giant maw, a machine that had to be fed seven local news stories a day before it spit out a newspaper. As times, History Press feels like that too. To this first-time author, it has seemed like a giant machine that gobbles manuscripts and produces finished books. Mine will soon be one of them. Look for it Monday, Sept. 12.

Proud of my book, but do I want to buy 200 copies?

The late Melvin Poe of Hume was 12 when Shedrick Thompson died. He remembered groups of volunteers searching for the fugitive.
The late Melvin Poe of Hume was 12 when Shedrick Thompson died. He remembered groups of volunteers searching for the fugitive.

In addition to being a partner with History Press in the publication of my book, I am also a customer. I ordered copies of my book from them recently, after refusing several earlier sales pitches.

Their first sales offer arrived a few days after I signed their contract.  ‘I’m excited to share some information with you about a preferred discount for authors only,” said the email from one of the sales managers. For a limited time only, I was eligible for a special discount of 54 percent off the cover price if I bought at least 200 copies. The discount was greater than their standard author discount. The company repeated the offer two weeks ago, again for a limited time only, and again if I bought at least 200 copies. This time, however, the discount was not quite as generous as the first one. I declined both offers.

I am very proud of my book and absolutely thrilled that History Press is publishing it. But 200 copies? I imagined boxes of books stored in my trunk and stashed in the closet. I planned to buy books to give to family and sell at book signings but not that many. Last week a sales person at the company assured me that, once the book was released next month, I could get delivery of any quantity within a week. So I placed an order for 40 copies and paid $457, or about $11.40 per book. It felt odd to send them so much money. Perhaps someday soon the money will flow in the other direction, from them to me.