Why no mention of the Klan?

Daniel de Butts

The first thing that Daniel de Butts said to me when we met last week was, “Why didn’t you say anything about the Klan in your book?”

De Butts assumed that I had been pressured by prominent Fauquier County residents to keep any reference to the Ku Klux Klan out of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. To him, community pressure was understandable and expected.

De Butts, 67, is a graduate of Fauquier High who lives now in the Vint Hill area of Prince William County. His family has long ties to Fauquier, and two of his distant relatives, the brothers John and Caryle de Butts, are often mentioned as members of the posse who lynched Shedrick Thompson. De Butts read The Last Lynching soon after publication and has written me several times. In one of his earlier emails, he wrote, “My family was surely part of it, as you say. They made sure that he was not on Mt. Welby (the family home). Just over the fence on someone else’s land.”

De Butts also believes, as he said when we met last week, that the Klan’s fingerprints were all over the Thompson case. He said that the Klan was active in Fauquier in 1932, and that his ancestors were members. He said that the Klan quickly organized after Thompson’s assault on Henry and Mamie Baxley, pursued and caught him on Rattlesnake Mountain, and lynched him. Other Klan members aided in the cover-up that followed, he added. “People were better at keeping secrets than they are now,” he said.

De Butts bases his beliefs on family lore and his many years in Fauquier. He did not offer any writings, photos or Klan memorabilia to support his opinions.

I believe him. Last year my colleague Shawn Nicholls discovered an advertisement and two news stories about a Klan rally in Warrenton in 1926. The county weekly, The Fauquier Democrat, described torch-carrying Klan members, in robes and hoods, parading down Main Street and lighting a cross at a rally just outside town.  (Available here.) I can imagine that this same racial hatred was alive six years later, and that Klan members mobilized quickly to kill Thompson.

And no, as I told de Butts, no one pressured me to keep the Klan out of my book. Its absence was for a simpler reason: I just didn’t know about it at the time.

 

 

Klan story stirs reaction and memory of rally in Caroline

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Klan members at a rally in Port Royal, Va., in 1981. (Photo by Jim Hall)

A friend said she was surprised to read last week’s blog post about the Ku Klux Klan parade and rally in Warrenton. She is in her 50s, grew up in Fauquier County, graduated from high school in Warrenton, and knew of the Benner Farm where the cross-burning took place. Yet she had never heard of the 1926 incident.

Hundreds of Klan members, dressed in robes and hoods and carrying torches, paraded down Main Street, then lit a giant cross at the farm. She had a hard time imagining it, she said. And the Benner property is on a hillside, she said. A cross burned there would be visible for a long way, certainly from the homes of the black families who lived in two nearby neighborhoods, Haiti Street and Fry Town. “It was shocking,” she said.

Reading about the Warrenton rally reminded me of a similar Klan rally I covered in Caroline County in June 1981. The key elements were the same: people in robes, hateful speeches, the induction of new members and the burning of a cross.

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Klan members from Southern Maryland tried to recruit new members at a Caroline County, Va., rally in 1981. (Photo by Jim Hall)

The Caroline rally took place in a secluded farm field near Port Royal. A group from Southern Maryland sponsored the event, saying that they hoped to attract new members. I remember how Caroline Sheriff O.J. Moore went door-to-door that night through the black neighborhood near the rally, telling families that he and his men were on duty and that nothing would happen to them. Nothing did happen.

The speakers were uninspiring, and few recruits stepped forward. I remember how the Klan leaders seemed comfortably middle class, yet somehow threatened by blacks, Jews and Catholics. They reminded me of someone who had gorged himself at an all-you-can-eat buffet and then complained about the food.

 

Making room for a late arrival

This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton.
This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton. (Photo by Shawn Nicholls)

One of the great things about writing for a newspaper is that you can make changes to your story right up to the last minute. That’s not to say that the editors will be happy when you do. But you can, and I did many times.

Writing a book is very different, as I learned last week. In fact, I may not be able to add new material, even if the book goes into an additional printing. The phrase “carved in stone” comes to mind.

In this case, the new material comes courtesy of Shawn Nicholls and involves a long-ago Ku Klux Klan rally in Fauquier County. Shawn is Tom Davenport’s assistant. Tom, Shawn and Shawn’s son, Dylan, are working on a documentary film about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson, the subject of this book. I have worked with them for more than two years, sharing research and doing interviews together. (I have written about their efforts here and here.) Last week Shawn found newspaper coverage of a 1926 Klan parade and cross-burning in downtown Warrenton. In addition, one of the staff members at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton pulled from storage a Klan robe that someone had given them.

This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.
This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.

More than 200 Klan members, wearing robes and hoods and carrying torches, marched on Main Street to the Courthouse, then on Alexandria Pike to the Benner Farm, according to Shawn’s research. There they made speeches, inducted new members and burned a 100-foot cross. “They made a very striking appearance,” said the Fauquier Democrat of the marchers.

It was a stunning discovery. A public display like that, even in 1926, was evidence of widespread, deeply ingrained racism. And it gave weight to my contention that Thompson died at the hands of his neighbors.

I knew it was too late to include the new information in the book. Publication is less than five weeks away. But I thought I would be able to add it to any future printings. Probably not, I learned later.

History Press has a reprint correction form that authors use after publication to correct errors. “No additions or enhancements to the book are permitted,” the form says. My editor was a little more lenient. He said they probably could add the Klan incident as long as it didn’t “re-page” the whole book. In other words, find a spot at the end of a chapter and make it fit.

Another possibility, as Tom suggested, was to add it to my author blog. Good idea.

 

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.