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.

One set of facts but two different stories

Tom Davenport and I have worked together on this project for many months. We’ve shared files and photographs and joined forces for more than a dozen interviews. But I’ve always known that the film he’s making will be different than the book I wrote, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Tom has a more complicated story he wants to tell.

Perhaps because of my newspaper training, I focused on what happened in Markham, Va., during the summer and fall of 1932. I sought details on Shedrick Thompson’s attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley, his flight, capture and death, and the cover-up that followed. Everything else was a distraction.

Not so for Tom. He has long been interested in Thompson’s death. He shared with me filmed interviews from 1994 and 1997 in which he asked the late Elsie McCarthy and the late Emma Coleman, Fauquier County residents, about the case. Tom wants to tell the story of the lynching, but he also wants to examine in more detail the setting for the crime, especially one aspect of Fauquier’s racial life. We have found several examples of white men of standing who fathered children by the black women they employed. Each time, Tom has asked if the white men acknowledged their children, supported them as they grew, or remembered them in their wills. The answers were almost always no. It will be interesting to see how he weaves these pieces together, the hanging and the world from which it sprung.

Tom said this week that he has completed about 40 minutes of what will probably be a 60-minute documentary.  “It’s going good,” he said. The 2-minute video above is part of the opening of the film, what Tom calls a “rough cut.” In it, Henry Baxley Jr. and Alphonso Washington talk about the initial attack. (Earlier blog posts about Tom and our collaboration can be seen here and here.)

elderstudybannerPS: My first appearance of the new year will take place next week, Tuesday, Jan. 10. I’ll be talking to members of Mary Washington ElderStudy. The group of retirees meets at 10 a.m. at the Stafford campus of the University of Mary Washington on U.S. 17. I’ve been a member of the group for several years, but this is the first time I’ve been their guest speaker.

Have book, will travel

fibfThat distant date on my calendar finally arrived. My book was published yesterday. Now I have to hit the road and promote it. I’ll be in Fredericksburg, Warrenton, Richmond, Culpeper and Manassas in the coming weeks to sign books and/or talk about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Please stop by if you’re in the area. Here’s my schedule so far.

  1. The Fredericksburg Independent Book Festival, Saturday, Sept. 24, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Riverfront Park, Sophia Street.
  2. “Great Writers Right Here,” sponsored by Fauquier County Public Library, gw_rh-logo-finalFriday, Sept. 30, 6 to 8 p.m.,  Family Life Center, First Baptist Church, 39 Alexandria Pike, Warrenton.
  3. Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, Saturday, Oct. 8, 1 p.m., 122 W. Leigh St., Richmond.
  4. “Fourth Annual Local Author Extravaganza” sponsored by the Culpeper County Library, Saturday, Oct. 29, 1 to 4 p.m., Southgate Shopping Center, Culpeper.
  5. Book Talk, sponsored by the Manassas Museum, Sunday, Nov. 13, 1:30 p.m. 9027 Center St., Manassas.
  6. Mary Washington Elderstudy, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, Stafford campus of University of Mary Washington.