The book has been written, yet the story still unfolds

Melvin Clay with a photo of Fannie Thompson, his grandmother and Shedrick Thompson’s mother. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

First, I got a picture of Shedrick Thompson’s father, and then pictures of his siblings. And yesterday, I saw for the first time a picture of his mother. Maybe, if my luck holds, I will someday see a picture of Thompson himself.

Thompson is a key figure in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. He was accused of assault and  lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County in 1932. I spent years learning about the man, yet I have almost no idea what he looked like. A wanted poster at the time said that he was dark brown, 6 feet, 180 pounds, with a birthmark behind his ear, and an old gunshot wound on his hand. But I never found a photo of him and did not include one in the book. In fact, until very recently, I had never seen any photos of anyone in his large family.

Marrington Thompson, Shedrick Thompson’s father. (Photo from Linda Tate)

Last month, however, I learned about Linda Tate and wrote to her. Tate is a resident of Detroit, related to the Thompsons and an expert in the family’s history. She sent me pictures of Marrington Thompson, the patriarch of the family, and seven of the Thompson children. (Shedrick was one of nine children.)

And then, Melvin Clay, a resident of Maryland and the son of one of Shedrick’s sisters, offered a picture of Fannie Thompson, Shedrick’s mother. Clay told my colleague Tom Davenport in a filmed interview last week that he admired his grandmother so much that he always kept her picture close by. With that, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out her framed picture. Clay held up the picture and smiled. I smiled too when I saw it.

Tate said yesterday that her reaction was similar. “The picture at the end blew me away. Every time I get to see a picture of one of my grandfather’s siblings, I get excited.”


Mining a family photo for tantalizing clues

Sarah Rector McGee is surrounded by her nieces, Ola, Julia and Norma Thompson (from left).

Of all that’s come to light after publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, the photo of Sarah Rector McGee may be the most interesting.

McGee was the aunt of Shedrick Thompson, the man lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County. Thompson’s mother was her sister. In the picture, she is surrounded by Ola, Julia and Norma Thompson, Shedrick’s sisters. The picture was probably taken in the 1940s, either in Philadelphia, where Rector lived, or on a visit to Fauquier. Rector died in 1966. The Thompson sisters lived into their 90s.

I have never seen a picture of Thompson, so this one of his aunt and sisters was tantalizing. Did he look like them? Did he have the same eyes, the same face? The photo came to light last week, unearthed by Shawn Nicholls from the collection of the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County. Linda Tate, a resident of Detroit and a distant relative of Rector, donated the picture to the museum in Plains, Va., and supplied the biographical information. Tate said in an email to me this week that she knew the Thompson sisters for many years. “They didn’t look their age,” she said. “They were small in stature, but you listened when they spoke.”

When I studied the photo, I was drawn to Rector in the center and imagined what she might have been like. I saw her hat and fur-collared coat, the wedding band and rimless glasses, and wondered if she was a person of means and education. I saw the gesture of affection by her niece, standing behind her, and concluded that the girls cared deeply for their aunt. But most of all, I was struck by McGee’s bearing. I saw a pride and defiance that must have served her well during her long life. I suspect that she drew upon that strength when she heard of the horrible death of her nephew. She was little surprised, I would guess, but still, a lynching in 1932? Did she call upon her God for solace and understanding? I can only imagine.local-author-event

PS: I’ll be in Culpeper this Saturday, Oct. 29, from 1-4 p.m. for the Culpeper County Library’s annual Local Author Extravaganza. Please stop by if you’re in the area.