Thank you, Mr. Baxley

Henry Baxley, at the Cove, his mother’s family home, in 2013.

I was saddened to learn last week of the passing of Henry Baxley Jr. Mr. Baxley died at his home in the Marshall area of Fauquier County. He was 88. His funeral will be held this afternoon. His obituary, posted at Fauquier Now, is here.

I will always be grateful to Henry for the help he provided while I was working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. I first contacted him in 2011. He did not know me, yet he agreed to meet and talk. We ended up meeting several times, as he shared his memories, his knowledge of Fauquier and his family’s history. He had endless patience as he answered my many questions.
I remember traveling with him in his pickup throughout Fauquier to visit some of the sites critical to the story. He knew everyone, and was universally admired, so an introduction from him was invaluable. We drove to Little Africa Mountain, Rattlesnake Mountain and the Cove, his mother’s family home. One time we drove up unannounced at Edenhurst, his onetime family home and the site of Shedrick Thompson’s attack on his parents.  The current owner, Dorothy Showers, acted as if she had been expecting us. She gave us a tour of the upstairs bedrooms where the Baxleys were attacked.

“Did you know that (Thompson) dropped his gun here on the landing?” she asked Henry.

“No, I never heard that,” he replied.

“Your father told me that,” she said.

I called Henry again in 2015 to tell him that I had completed a draft of the story. I asked if I could meet with him again and double-check my facts. The call-back was a standard technique I used as a reporter because it often uncovered the small but important errors that could spoil a manuscript, things like a misspelled name or incorrect date.

Henry returned my call to say, no, he did not want to meet again. He said he was confident the book would be fine. He just didn’t want to deal with it, or with me, anymore. Yes, he added, I had his permission to use his family photos.

I was disappointed but understood. I had pestered him for a long time. I will be forever grateful for the kindnesses Henry showed me. I can’t begin to tell you how much better the book is because of him.

Fauquier inscriptions pictured at new lynching memorial

A monument to Fauquier County and its two black lynch victims is included in the new lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Wanda Foust)

Wanda Foust was looking at titles on Amazon.com when she found my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.  “I had never heard about this case, so it certainly sparked my interest,” she wrote in an email. Soon she was reading this blog and saw the appeal I made for photos from the new lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala.

A resident of Montgomery, Foust wrote to say that she would take the requested pictures. She had already visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon after its opening and returned on May 5 to take the pictures you see here. Thank you, Wanda.

The names of Fauquier’s two black lynch victims are inscribed on its monument at the new lynching memorial in Alabama. (Photo by Wanda Foust)

Her photos include one of a suspended, coffin-like steel monument, inscribed to Fauquier County, Virginia. On the monument are the names of Arthur Jordan, who was lynched in Warrenton in 1880, and Shadrack (Shedrick) Thompson, who was lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in northern Fauquier in 1932. (I played a small part in the inclusion of Thompson’s name at the memorial. In 2015, I asked the Equal Justice Initiative, the sponsors of the memorial, if he was in their database. They replied that he was not, and they asked for supporting information. They studied the material I sent and decided to include him in their list of lynching victims and to place his name on their memorial.)

There are 800 of these monuments at the memorial, one for each locality in the U.S. where a black person was lynched. More than 4,000 names are inscribed on the monuments, representing the nation’s black lynch victims.

The Fauquier County monument in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Wanda Foust)

Foust said that the monuments are made of corten steel, which changes color as it is exposed to the weather. “Some are darker, some lighter, and even some of them appear bloodstained due to the rust dripping and pattern,” she wrote.

To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the memorial is its six-acre field containing 800 duplicate monuments. Organizers have invited localities such as Fauquier to claim the duplicate monument and display it at home. “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not,” according to organizers.

A self-portrait by Wanda Foust

I asked Foust to describe herself, and she replied:

I am originally from Vietnam, born to a Vietnamese woman and a black Air Force member. We lived in Vietnam until I was three, and then we were stationed in the Philippines for a year before being stationed at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery. My parents separated about a year or so later. My mom, being from Vietnam, didn’t know the first thing about the U.S. other than what she’d seen or heard from TV and papers. And she definitely knew nothing of the south. Because of this, she couldn’t teach me about black history or culture, so I was raised in Vietnamese culture and traditions. I did eventually start learning about black history once I graduated from high school. Today I consider myself a black Vietnamese woman living in Montgomery.

I told Foust that her pictures were important to me, and I suspect, to members of Thompson’s family.  They are confirmation of what I have long believed, that Thompson did not commit suicide on Rattlesnake Mountain, as officials said. Instead, he was murdered, a victim of racial terror.

Family learns of grandad’s role in Thompson story

Noah Kenney. (Family photo from Pam Androsky)

Pam Androsky remembers the day she was riding with her father on Fiery Run Road in northern Fauquier County. When they passed what was then the Borden Farm and is today the Marriott Ranch, he pointed to the mountain and said, “That’s where they found a colored man hanging from an apple tree.”

George Kenney was correct. Shedrick Thompson was found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. But Kenney omitted a key detail when recounting the story for his daughter. He did not tell her that his own father, Noah Kenney, was the one who discovered Thompson’s body.

Androsky, a resident of  Maryland, learned this detail only last month, while reading The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Her relatives look to her as the family historian, yet she was unaware that her grandfather played an important part in the Thompson story in September 1932.

Noah Kenney was 57 then and a tenant farmer at the Borden Farm, where he lived with his wife, Ethel, and their 11 children.  He told authorities that his cattle had been getting out so he decided to inspect a fence line in the thicket behind his house. There he found the body of a black man hanging from an apple tree. The body was decomposed, but Kenney knew that it was Thompson.

Thompson had been the subject of an intense search throughout northern Fauquier that summer. The fugitive was wanted for the assault of Henry and Mamie Baxley, his employers. After Kenney’s discovery, authorities ruled Thompson’s death a suicide. But others said no, that it was a lynching.

Kenney immediately wrote to the county board of supervisors to claim the $250 reward. “I am entitled to the reward. Please let me hear from you at once,” he wrote. The county had published three different wanted posters, including two that used the phrase “dead or alive.” Kenney seized on this wording, but the county refused to pay. He even hired a Front Royal attorney to press his claim. Again the board refused.

After I talked with Androsky last week, she forwarded a family photo of Noah Kenney. In the picture, he is tall and thin, with an actor’s chin and his hat pulled low. Androsky also recalls that he had dark hair and blue eyes. Some family members confuse his picture with that of George, his oldest child. Noah died in 1948, two days after celebrating his 73rd birthday.

I learned about Androsky after reading her sister’s review of The Last Lynching on the Goodreads website. Brenda Stensney wrote that every time Noah Kenney picked apples for his wife, he would tease her by claiming that they came from the hanging tree. “Needless to say, that did not amuse her,” she wrote.

Held prisoner on the mountain? A new wrinkle to the story

Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County.

Of all the comments that I received after last week’s story in The Washington Post, the most interesting was from a man who lives at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain. The man sent an email to say he heard an interesting story about Shedrick Thompson’s death, and he offered to share it with me.  I called, and we talked for maybe 45 minutes. The man gave permission to use his story in this blog. For many reasons, he asked that I not use his name. I agreed.

The story is similar to many of the other stories I heard while researching The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. It is hearsay and impossible to verify. But it is also vivid and plausible, at least parts of it, and for that reason it has survived in memory for many years.

This is what the man said:

The man has owned a 250-acre farm in northern Fauquier County near Hume for many years. At one point, he rented his land to a neighbor who ran cattle there. The cattleman loved to talk and tell stories, the landowner said. But one day the cattleman became serious and shared what he said was one of Fauquier’s darkest secrets: the death of Shedrick Thompson in 1932.

Born in 1920, the cattleman was 11 when Thompson attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley and fled west toward Buck Mountain. Hundreds of people took to the mountains to look for the fugitive, and the cattleman recalled being present when the lynch mob met to plan their search. These men caught Thompson on the second day after the attack, the cattleman said, and rather than deliver him to the authorities, they took him to a mountain cabin, where they tortured him. Finally, after two weeks, the posse lynched Thompson, the cattleman said. Thompson’s body was discovered two months later hanging from an apple tree on the Borden farm at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Much of what the cattleman told the landowner confirmed what others had told me: how the searchers gathered at places like Alex Green’s store in Markham, their hunt for Thompson in the mountains, his quick capture and torture, and finally his hanging. The cattleman’s story also dismisses the official version of Thompson’s death–suicide–as part of a cynical cover-up.

What was new was the possibility that the captors held Thompson prisoner for two weeks. That detail seems unlikely. Did the posse keep Thompson under a 24-hour watch? But if true, their actions spread a new layer of evil on an already sordid tale. As the landowner told me, “It’s a terrible, terrible story.”

 

‘The Other Side of Eden’ to debut in Warrenton in May

Alphonso Washington was witness to some of the events of July 1932 and describes them in “The Other Side of Eden.”

In some ways, Tom Davenport’s new film is a companion piece to my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. But in other ways, it is very different.

Viewers will soon have a chance to see these similarities and differences. The Other Side of Eden: A Southern Tragedy will premiere next month in Warrenton. The showing will be held on Saturday, May 13, at 7 p.m. at the Highland School Center for the Arts, 597 Broadview Avenue.  It is free and open to the public.

Tom has been working on the documentary for four years or 23 years, depending on when you date his initial interest. The film includes interviews from 1994 and 1997, but he recorded most of the material beginning in 2013, when he and I started working together. Tom and I shared documents and photographs, and I benefited greatly from his knowledge of the county, his contacts, and the research that he and Shawn Nicholls, his assistant, did. Tom, Shawn and I filmed at least a dozen interviews together, with me asking many of the questions and Tom filming over my shoulder. Tom will be 78 in June and has more than two dozen films to his credit. This is the first he’s done since last year’s follow-up to his 1986 film, A Singing Stream.

In The Other Side of Eden, viewers hear the story of Shedrick Thompson, his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in their home in 1932, and his subsequent lynching on Rattlesnake Mountain. The story is told by those who lived in Fauquier at the time, and by those who learned about it from their families and friends. It is clear from their testimonies that the incident had a profound effect on those directly involved, but also on the Baxley and the Thompson families. And on the community. The resistance Tom has encountered in compiling and showing his film, and the difficulty I have had in marketing the book in Fauquier, are measures of this. In my opinion, Thompson’s murder is an open wound in Fauquier, unacknowledged after almost 85 years, a story that still can’t be told.

But Tom expands on the lynching story, and in this way his film differs from my book. Tom explores a Depression-era feature of the racial climate in Fauquier: how white men of power fathered children out of wedlock with their black help. Several claims of this are offered in the film, including one involving Henry Baxley Sr. Shawn has been dogged in compiling evidence, and she believes that Baxley fathered a child by Mattie Wilkins, his black cook. There’s no known link between Mattie Wilkins and Shedrick Thompson, or Ruth Thompson, Shedrick’s wife, who was also a cook for the Baxleys. But Tom believes that this climate of what he calls “white sexual dominance” in Fauquier may have poisoned Thompson’s marriage and incited his violence against the Baxleys. The viewer gets to decide next month.

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.

 

 

On the flight, death and skull. New details emerge

left-margaret-thompson-sallie-rector-catherine-rector-emily-rector-log-cabin-on-rattlesnake-mountain
Thompson family members at their home on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County. They are Margaret Thompson, Sallie Rector, Catherine Rector and Emily Rector, from left. The log cabin is now the site of a Boy Scout camp. (Photo from Linda Tate and the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County.)

I knew from my years as a reporter that it was not unusual to hear from key sources after publication. That is what happened with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. New sources came forward with new details.

In September, two weeks after the book came out, a member of the Shedrick Thompson family wrote to my colleague Dylan Nicholls to say that family members wanted to talk to us.

The family told us more about Thompson’s movements after his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in Fauquier County in July 1932, about the reaction of his family to his flight, and about what happened when family members learned of his lynching.

This new information came from Melvin Clay and Julia Mopkins, brother and sister, residents of Maryland, and both in their 80s. They are the children of Ola Clay, one of Thompson’s sisters. Tom Davenport, a Fauquier County filmmaker, interviewed them recently. (I have written about Tom and our collaborations here.)

We already knew that Thompson fled west into the mountains of northern Fauquier after he attacked the Baxleys. Now we know that he went to his boyhood home, a short distance away on Africa Mountain, where he told his mother, Fannie Thompson, what had happened. She asked him to leave, saying that by being there, he put the entire family at risk. She was correct. Family members were later threatened and even jailed while Thompson was at large. And the Thompson home was under constant watch. “They were prisoners in their own home for a short period of time,” Mopkins said.

Thompson was missing for two months, when his body was discovered hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. Word of the discovery spread, and a mob gathered to set fire to the body. We now know that the Thompson family also learned of the discovery, and that Marrington Thompson, Shedrick’s father, went to the scene. Was the mob still there? Did he try to prevent the burning? We don’t know.

After the burning, officials carried Thompson’s skull and shoes, all that remained, back to Warrenton. The skull was displayed under the steps of the county courthouse and was later moved to the county coroner’s office. Then it seemed to disappear. Now we know that someone took it back to Africa Mountain and placed it on the Thompsons’ front porch.  “My grandmother had nightmares,” said Clay. “She lived with that for the rest of her life.”

A face for radio.
A face for radio.

PS: Last week I was guest of Ted Schubel on News Talk 1230 WFVA radio.You can listen to the 40-minute interview here.

The mystery of Martinsburg is solved

juliamopkins
Julia Mopkins holds a picture of her as an infant, seated on her mother’s lap. The photo is believed to be from 1932, the same year Shedrick Thompson was lynched. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

Of the many puzzling aspects of the Shedrick Thompson story, one of the most curious is Thompson’s connection to Martinsburg, West Virginia. Why were authorities in Fauquier County so focused on that small West Virginia city? Now, thanks to Julia Mopkins, we know.

Within hours of Thompson’s attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in July 1932, Sheriff Stanley Woolf of Fauquier contacted William Schill, chief of police in Martinsburg. Martinsburg is located in northern West Virginia, about 60 miles from Fauquier. The 1930 census counted almost 15,000 people living there.

Woolf asked Schill if anyone there had seen Thompson. Schill said no and added, “We are on duty in case he comes here.” Woolf also asked Schill for some of Thompson’s clothes to help the tracking bloodhounds in Fauquier, and later he drove to Martinsburg to visit a place Thompson was known to have stayed and to interview people who knew the fugitive.

As I worked on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, I could never figure out why Martinsburg was one of the first places Woolf thought about when searching for Thompson. What was the connection?

The answer surfaced last week when my colleague Tom Davenport interviewed Mopkins at her home in Maryland. Mopkins, 86, is Thompson’s niece. Her mother, Ola, was Thompson’s younger sister.

Martinsburg was where the Thompson men went for work, Mopkins said. Shedrick, his father, Marrington, and his older brother, Raymond, worked the farms and orchards in Fauquier during the planting, growing and harvest seasons. But in winter, when there was no work in Fauquier, they went to Martinsburg to work in its mills, Mopkins said. “They would go in the winter and come back in the spring,” she said.

Sheriff Woolf must have known this when he called Schill for help. But Thompson hadn’t gone that far. His body was eventually discovered in Fauquier, near Hume, hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain.

‘That’s W.W. Pearson.’

W.W. Pearson
W.W. Pearson
wwpearson2
W.W. Pearson with his wife Florence.

I realized later that I forgot to ask the lady her name. Perhaps I was distracted by the photos she pulled from her notebook during a recent book signing at the Culpeper County Library.

She had two black-and-white pictures, one of a man in an overcoat and hat, and the other of the same man, smiling beside a smiling woman. “That’s W.W. Pearson,” the lady said.

I knew immediately who she was talking about. W.W. Pearson plays a key role in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. This was the first time I had seen a picture of him.

Pearson was the deputy sheriff in Fauquier County in September 1932, Sheriff Stanley Woolf’s only deputy. If I correctly understood the lady who stood before me, Pearson also was her great grandfather.

Pearson was one of the first officials to arrive after the discovery of Shedrick Thompson’s body, hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. He was there when the mob set fire to the body, destroying all but the skull and shoes. He told his family later that he tried to put out the flames by swatting at them with his new hat, but someone stuck a pistol in his ribs and said, “Let it burn.” Pearson stepped away and let the body burn, with only a scorched hat to show for his effort.

The lady confirmed a postscript to that story that I had heard but not included in the book: Pearson gave the hat to an acquaintance, but when the man learned how it had been damaged, he didn’t want it and gave it back.

logoPS: I’ll be at the annual Local Authors Reception, sponsored by my favorite library, the Central Rappahannock Regional Library. The event is tonight, Nov. 15, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Porter Branch, 2001 Parkway Blvd., North Stafford. Hope to see you there.

He walked among them but was not of them

Pic. 024
Authorities published three versions of the reward poster for Thompson. In this one, they incorrectly listed his first name as Chad.

One of the first things I had to figure out when working on this book was Shedrick Thompson’s correct name. Thompson is one of the key characters in the story, the man accused of attacking the Baxleys and the man lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain. Yet in news accounts and legal documents, I found nine different versions of his name. He was Shadrack, Shad, Chad, Shedurek, Shadr’k, Shadrick, Shadrock, Shadrach and Shadric.

Thompson was born in Fauquier County to a Fauquier family. He spent most of his life in the county and married a Fauquier County woman. Yet after he attacked the Baxleys, when he became the object of an intense manhunt, no one seemed to know his name.

To me, this invisibility was a measure of what life must have been like for him in Fauquier in 1932. Thompson worked on his neighbors’ farms and in their orchards, yet they never bothered to learn his name. I can picture a reporter asking Sheriff Stanley Woolf, after the attack, for the name of the accused. “Thompson,” Woolf would have replied. “I think it’s Chad Thompson.”

No, Thompson’s 1917 draft registration and his 1921 marriage license are definitive. His first name was Shedrick.