Is Virginia ready to apologize for lynching?

Sen. Jennifer McClellan

I applaud the efforts of Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan and others to pass a lynching resolution in this year’s General Assembly, but I’m not optimistic about their chances.

McClellan, a Democrat, represents portions of the Richmond area in the Virginia Senate. She is also chair of the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and the driving force behind HJR655, a resolution now before the General Assembly.

The measure says that the General Assembly “acknowledge with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching” in Virginia. It also calls for the King Commission to make a complete record of all the people killed during the lynch era, and for the commission and the Department of Historic Resources to identify sites for historic markers where lynchings occurred. Finally it asks that state educators, from kindergarten through college, be informed of the Assembly’s action, as a not-so-subtle encouragement to include lynching in their history curricula. The resolution has been referred to committee.

The resolution is moderate and much-needed. However, as a lifelong observer of Virginia politics, I despair that Assembly members will be willing to stir such a painful pot. I can see them objecting to the costs, and I can hear them saying that this is a first step on the slippery slope to reparations.

Virginia has much to answer for—from slavery, introduced 400 years ago this year in Jamestown, to lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement and denied civil rights. It’s time to acknowledge this past and to apologize.

Gianluca De Fazio, an assistant professor at James Madison University, lists 109 Virginia lynchings on his online database. Sixty-three Virginia localities had at least one lynching and 27 of these had more than one. This means that for more than 50 years, mob rule went almost unchecked throughout Virginia, and black residents paid for it with their lives.

Since publication of my book about a Fauquier County lynching, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, I have traveled throughout central and northern Virginia to talk about the book and about lynching. Invariably an audience member will approach me after a talk to say, “I had no idea.”

McClellan’s resolution lifts the silence that has shielded the practice of lynching for many years. I hope I am wrong about the resistance I suspect she will encounter.

Speaking of talks, I will be on the road again soon. I will be the guest of the Middle Potomac History Research Group on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 4 p.m. The group meets at the Josephine School Community Museum and Clarke County African-American Cultural Center in Berryville.

On Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 9:30 a.m. I’ll be talking at the Fredericksburg campus of Germanna Community College as part of their Black History Month observance. Please join me.

Finally, I’m proud to say that Professor De Fazio at James Madison has published another of my essays on his website. This essay is about eyewitness accounts of lynching, how rare they are and how powerful. One example I cite is the lynching of Archer Cook in Farmville in 1888, which was described by eyewitness Richard Sanderson.


New evidence of a change in how Thompson case is seen

Gianluca DeFazio

I was delighted to learn recently that an essay I wrote has been published on a website I’ve long admired.

The website, Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927, is the creation of Gianluca DeFazio, an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. The site is a comprehensive, easy-to-use database, dedicated to the 104 people who were lynched in Virginia. Each victim, from Charlotte Harris (1877) to Leonard Woods (1927), is remembered with a recounting of what happened and supporting newspaper articles from the time. It’s a must-stop for anyone doing research on lynching in Virginia or just interested in the topic.

In July, DeFazio invited me and others to write essays for the site. In his invitation, he said he hoped the essays would provide “in-depth analyses for particular cases/periods/regions of Virginia.” I took him up on the offer and wrote about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson.  DeFazio described my submission as “exactly the type of contribution I was hoping for” and posted it last week.

I contacted DeFazio earlier this year when his website went live. I was disappointed that Thompson was not included. I recommended my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, as a way of arguing that Thompson belonged on his site. DeFazio was always cordial and open to my arguments, but Thompson never made it to the master list of victims. For me, Thompson’s absence was an example of how his hanging in Fauquier County is often unrecognized for what it was—a murder.

But that appears to be changing. DeFazio said last week that he will update his list of victims this spring, He said he will devote a page to the Thompson lynching and include supporting newspaper stories. Again, I was delighted. His decision reminded me of the decision earlier this year by the Equal Justice Initiative to include Thompson in its new national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Ala.

Thompson was no doubt guilty of multiple felonies when he attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley, but his death was not a suicide as county officials said at the time. It was a lynching, and increasingly, it is being recognized as such.