Talks resume with stops in Lovettsville, Warrenton, Fairfax

I’ll be on the road again soon with book talks in Loudoun, Fauquier and Fairfax counties. Please join me.

The first stop will be this Sunday, Aug. 12, at 2 p.m., when I’ll be the guest of the Lovettsville Historical Society for its monthly history lecture series. The talk will be at St. James United Church of Christ, 10 East Broad Way, Lovettsville.

In their website preview of my talk, the society says, “Virginians have long thought of themselves as above (lynching), but the story of the Commonwealth–and Loudoun—shows a different story. While two-thirds of Virginia cities and counties had no lynchings, some like Loudoun and Fauquier had more than one.” In fact, Loudoun had three lynchings, and I’ll talk about them as part of my presentation.

On Thursday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m., I’ll return to Warrenton and the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail. When Erin Clark, executive director, invited me to a book-signing there in April, I wrote about how much it meant to me. I feel the same way this time, and I have already started revising my talk to include some of the latest developments. These include the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., and the inscriptions for two Fauquier lynching victims—Shedrick Thompson and Arthur Jordan—at that memorial. In addition, thanks to Fauquier residents Shawn Nicholls and Kirk Goolsby, I have learned a lot more about Jordan, and I hope to share some of that information on Aug. 23. It is interesting that my talk that night will be in the museum’s courtyard, the place where Jordan was abducted in 1880.

Finally, I am proud to be a part of the Honors College Colloquium at George Mason University in Fairfax. I will be there on Friday, Sept. 14, at 1:30 p.m. John Woolsey, one of the organizers, said the audience will include 200 to 300 freshmen who probably don’t know much about lynching in Virginia. I find that to be common experience, that audiences are surprised when they learn about lynching in Virginia. As the Lovettsville Historical Society said, it was more frequent than usually assumed and “one of the cruelest parts of Southern history.”


Thank you to the residents of Fauquier County

Jim Hall, Bridget Settles, Mamie Wilkins’ granddaughter, and Tom Davenport, from left, at the premiere of Davenport’s documentary about the Shedrick Thompson case. The film was shown May 13 in Warrenton. (Photo by Pam Kamphuis, Piedmont Virginian)

When I recall the events of last Saturday in Fauquier County, I see myself on stage facing a nearly full auditorium. I hear Rufus Mincey’s startling revelation. And I see a line of people waiting to buy my book. Thank you to the people of Fauquier for making my first author visit there a wonderful experience.

The day began with a talk at the Afro-American Historical Association at The Plains. The audience was courteous and attentive but feistier than any I’ve faced, and I mean that as a compliment. They knew something of the story I told in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia–the names, places and general outline–but they wanted to know more. They had so many questions, so early in the presentation, that I jokingly asked if they wanted to see the rest of the slides, or if they would prefer to just talk. They wanted to see the slides.

That night I stood in the back of the auditorium at Highland School in Warrenton for the premiere of Tom Davenport’s documentary about the Thompson case “The Other Side of Eden.”  I was standing because I gave up my seat twice to elderly visitors who couldn’t find empty seats. There may have been vacant seats up front, but the auditorium was almost full.

The panel discussion following Davenport’s film included, from left, Shawn Nicholls, Bridget Settles, Rufus Mincey, Jim Hall, Linda Tate and Rev. Lindsay Green. (Photo by Pam Kamphuis, Piedmont Virginian)

After the film, I took part in a panel discussion that also included Mincey, a black resident of South Carolina. Mincey stunned me, if not the entire audience, with the news that just days earlier he had received the results of a DNA test that said he was a descendant of the Hirst family in Pennsylvania. Henry Baxley Sr.’s mother was a Hirst from Pennsylvania, so the test confirmed that Baxley, a white man, fathered a child by his black cook. That child,  Mamie Wilkins, grew up, married and had her own children, one of whom was Mincey. In other words,  Mincey is Henry’s grandson.

The revelation gave weight to the theory that Shedrick Thompson attacked the Baxleys years later because of a suspected relationship between Henry Baxley Sr. and Ruth Thompson, Shedrick’s wife and also a cook for the Baxleys.

The next day I told Tom and Shawn Nichoils, his assistant, that I had begrudged them the time they spent on the white-father, black-mother story. I saw it as a diversion from the real story, the lynching of Shedrick Thompson. I also remember all the silent eye-rolls I did when Tom talked of “reconciliation,” how he wanted his film to explore the complicated relationships between white and black residents of Fauquier, in hopes of moving the community toward a better understanding of itself.

I was so wrong. The film and panel discussion did exactly as Tom and Shawn had hoped. The story line about white men of power fathering children by their black help was not a diversion from the real story. It was integral to the story about Thompson’s murder. The audience listened carefully and appeared moved. I was proud to be a part of it.

PS: Please join me this Saturday, May 20, beginning at 9 a.m., at the Old Town Warrenton Spring Festival in Warrenton. I have a tent and a space on Main Street, where I’ll be signing and selling books.


‘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.

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.

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.


‘He was wrong what he did’

I remember how excited I was when I first saw this video by Dylan Nicholls. Dylan created it in 2014 as part of a successful Kickstarter campaign to help fund a film about the Shedrick Thompson case.

Dylan is a student at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., who works part time with Fauquier County filmmaker Tom Davenport. (I wrote about Tom in an earlier blog post.) Dylan’s mother, Shawn Nicholls, and his brother, Zach, also work with Tom. Together they are producing a documentary about Thompson’s lynching. They hope to complete it by the end of this year. My dream is that Tom and I will someday make joint appearances before school and civic groups, where I talk about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia and Tom shows his film.

This 2-minute trailer was exciting because Dylan successfully pieced together excerpts from our filmed interviews and our research. It was evidence of how powerful the Thompson story is. And it was my first experience as an on-camera talking head.



A fortuitous phone call

Tom Davenport

One of my goals for this book was to figure out exactly what happened to Shedrick Thompson. If I have succeeded in doing that, it’s in large part because of Tom Davenport.

I was still working at the newspaper when Tom called and introduced himself as a Fauquier County, Va., filmmaker. He said he was long interested in Thompson’s death and had heard that no one knew more about the case than I did.

“Would you like to have coffee some time and talk about working together?” he said.

It was spring 2013, and I was three days from retirement. I had vague plans about gardening, exercising and reading, but otherwise my future was a blank slate. Working with Tom on the Thompson case sounded like a great idea.

And so began what has been a remarkable collaboration. Tom, 76, is a native Virginian, a Yale grad, and an award-winning filmmaker. He is founder and director of Folkstreams, a website that streams hundreds of independent documentary films on American folk life. And he helps his son on the family farm in Fauquier but admits that things run better if he stays out of the way.

For the Thompson project, we did many interviews together. Tom arranged the interviews with Fauquier residents who knew about Thompson’s death, including two people who were alive at the time. Often, we formed a caravan of cars—Tom, his assistant Shawn Nicholls, and me—traveling the backroads of Fauquier from one filmed interview to the next. Usually, I asked the questions, and he operated the camera. I counted 13 interviews we did together over two years.

When we started working together, I had a question mark in the title of this book: Death on Rattlesnake Mountain: Virginia’s Last Lynching? Now the question mark is gone. Because of Tom, I met many Fauquier residents who did not question how Thompson died. They told us over and over that he was lynched.