Two reviewers take the measure of my work

The Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton.

Two reviews of this book appeared recently, and both authors made similar observations: that The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is instructive for its recounting of a long-ago lynching, but also for how it describes the lingering effects of that incident. As Mark Tooley wrote, the book is a “window into a time that seems like a different universe but is closer than we care to realize.”

Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, an advocacy group based in Washington, and the author of three books. He wrote about The Last Lynching for his blog on the institute’s website. Tooley describes how he had lunch in Warrenton, then visited the Old Jail Museum, where he bought the book.

Dan Enos is a volunteer in the Virginiana Room at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. His review appeared on the library’s website just prior to my appearance there in April.

I was delighted that both writers liked the book, but I was also impressed with how much time they spent digesting the story and how accurately they described it.

And both also noted the same thing that has motivated me: that Shedrick Thompson was murdered in Fauquier County almost 85 years ago, but that his death is still falsely cast, and for that reason, doubly disturbing.

Fredericksburg, where I live, was the scene of several important Civil War battles, and at The Free Lance-Star newspaper, where I worked, we joked that this may be the only town in America where the Civil War is still breaking news. And so with Thompson’s death: it is still breaking news.

As Enos put it, “The narrative is a portrait of both a dark chapter in local history and of subsequent generations’ struggles to come to terms with the legacy of racism and the evil acts it incited.”

Some feedback about the book is puzzling

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Mt. Welby was the home of the DeButts family at the time of Shedrick Thompson’s death. It is now a bed-and-breakfast.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia has been out three weeks, long enough for me to get some feedback. As expected, the results are mixed.

I’m delighted when I hear that someone enjoyed the book. “You addressed a very difficult and dark subject very well,” said one reader. “Well done,” said another.

I also was pleased to hear from Daniel DeButts, a descendant of two of the men implicated in Shedrick Thompson’s death. DeButts posted on my Facebook page that he had read the book, and added, “My family was surely part of it, as you say. They made sure he was not on Mt. Welby (the family farm) when they strung him up. Just over the fence on someone else’s land.”

And two of Thompson’s descendants, after hearing about the project, wrote to set up an interview. I’ll meet with them later this month.

But I’m puzzled by some of the things I’ve heard. When I could not find the book at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in downtown Warrenton last week, I asked if they would be carrying it. The answer: Because of the “sensitive” nature of the book, board approval was required before it could appear on their shelves.

And a person related to key figures in the story was so upset by publication that she vowed never to read the book or even look at the cover. No good can come from reviving such an unpleasant topic, she said.

I disagree with her. To me, the book is not a revival of the Thompson tale. Rather, given all the efforts, past and present, to hide what happened, it’s a first-time telling.

bhmva_new_logoP.S.: I’ll be in Richmond this Saturday, Oct. 8, at 1 p.m. at the Black History Museum of Virginia. The museum, located at 122 W. Leigh St., calls the event “Literary Saturday.” I’ll be talking about the book and about lynching in Virginia.  Hope to see you there.

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.