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.

New evidence of a change in how Thompson case is seen

Gianluca DeFazio

I was delighted to learn recently that an essay I wrote has been published on a website I’ve long admired.

The website, Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927, is the creation of Gianluca DeFazio, an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. The site is a comprehensive, easy-to-use database, dedicated to the 104 people who were lynched in Virginia. Each victim, from Charlotte Harris (1877) to Leonard Woods (1927), is remembered with a recounting of what happened and supporting newspaper articles from the time. It’s a must-stop for anyone doing research on lynching in Virginia or just interested in the topic.

In July, DeFazio invited me and others to write essays for the site. In his invitation, he said he hoped the essays would provide “in-depth analyses for particular cases/periods/regions of Virginia.” I took him up on the offer and wrote about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson.  DeFazio described my submission as “exactly the type of contribution I was hoping for” and posted it last week.

I contacted DeFazio earlier this year when his website went live. I was disappointed that Thompson was not included. I recommended my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, as a way of arguing that Thompson belonged on his site. DeFazio was always cordial and open to my arguments, but Thompson never made it to the master list of victims. For me, Thompson’s absence was an example of how his hanging in Fauquier County is often unrecognized for what it was—a murder.

But that appears to be changing. DeFazio said last week that he will update his list of victims this spring, He said he will devote a page to the Thompson lynching and include supporting newspaper stories. Again, I was delighted. His decision reminded me of the decision earlier this year by the Equal Justice Initiative to include Thompson in its new national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Ala.

Thompson was no doubt guilty of multiple felonies when he attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley, but his death was not a suicide as county officials said at the time. It was a lynching, and increasingly, it is being recognized as such.

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.”

 

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.

A surprise invitation from the Fauquier History Museum

The Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton.

When a friend learned that I had been invited to appear at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail,  he wrote to say, “That is long overdue!”

I appreciated his email and shared in his frustration. But my reaction to the invitation was more complicated.

I was grateful, for sure. I’m happy to travel and share the Shedrick Thompson story, especially in Warrenton where many of the events took place.  But, more importantly for me,  the invitation was evidence of a change in thinking at the museum, and perhaps in Fauquier County. As I told Erin Clark, the executive director and the person who invited me, “There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I felt my book and the Thompson story were not welcome at the museum.” Now they are.

Seventeen months ago, when History Press published The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, downtown Warrenton was indifferent to the book, if not hostile. A company salesmen went store-to-store on Main Street, but merchants said a book about a local lynching was too sensitive and declined to carry it. At the same time, a company publicist tried to place the book in the gift shop at the History Museum but found similar resistance. “Three of the museum’s board members are reading the book to see if it is appropriate to sell there,” wrote the publicist. “We have 2 out of the necessary 3 approval votes. At this point, we just have to wait for the third individual to finish reading and give the ‘okay’ before we move forward.”

That okay did not come, at least for many months. At the time, I reminded myself that respect is earned not demanded, that the Fauquier Historical Society, which owns and operates the museum, owed me nothing and was free to sell whatever it wanted in its gift shop.  But I was also discouraged. As I saw it, one of Fauquier’s most important institutions was refusing to acknowledge an embarrassing chapter in the county’s history. To me, that was not good leadership.

But opinions changed sometime last summer when the gift shop began carrying the book. I am not privy to the discussions, if any, within the board of the Historical Society. Clark, who has been director for five months, said she was not sure what led to the reversal. But she added, “Our museum exhibits all aspects of Fauquier County history, even the ones that are difficult to talk about.”

In that spirit, I’ll be at the museum on Saturday, May 5, from noon to 2 p.m. for a book signing. Please join me.

 

Thompson’s name included on new lynching memorial

Oprah Winfrey and Bryan Stevenson tour the lynching memorial in Birmingham, Ala.

The caller on Sunday night said that I should turn on the TV and watch 60 Minutes. “Their second segment is about lynching,” she said.

The caller was Martha Powers, who in February invited me to speak to her group in Fairfax County, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University. I told Martha later that I was glad she called. The segment (here) was excellent.

Oprah Winfrey was the correspondent, and her report focused on Bryan Stevenson and his civil rights law firm, Equal Justice Initiative. The organization has used private donations to build a memorial to the nation’s 4,000 black lynch victims. Winfrey interviewed Stevenson and toured the memorial, which is located in Montgomery, Alabama, and opens April 26.

I contacted EJI three years ago after publication of their landmark study, Lynching in America. I wanted to know if they had included Shedrick Thompson, the subject of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, in their tally. John Dalton, staff attorney, said the group did not know about the Thompson case and invited me to send information. Later Dalton wrote, “We do plan on adding Mr. Thompson to our list for Virginia. Thank you again for letting us know about this case so that our list could be more complete.”

Dalton confirmed yesterday that Thompson’s name is inscribed at the memorial. Thompson was lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in 1932. He is one of two black lynch victims from Fauquier County included in the display. The other is Arthur Jordan, a young farm worker who ran away with his employer’s daughter in 1880. A private posse trailed the couple, caught them in Maryland, brought him back to Fauquier, and hanged him near the county courthouse in Warrenton.

Now, short of a road trip to Alabama, I need to figure out how to get a picture of Thompson’s name at the memorial. Anyone going to Montgomery or know someone who lives there?

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.

What is the nature of your complaint, sir?

A drone picture of Edenhurst, the home where Shedrick Thompson attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley in 1932. (From “The Other Side of Eden” documentary.)

When Pam Kamphuis read my recent blog post about the Philip Carter Winery, she asked if I would step back and reflect on the resistance I’ve faced since publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. Kamphuis, the editor of The Piedmont Virginian in Warrenton, said she wanted to use the piece on the magazine’s blog. Here’s what I wrote:

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, and a reader complained about one of my stories, I listened carefully to what the reader said. Was the story wrong or incomplete? Was it poorly written? Or was the reader unhappy, not because of what the story said, but simply because I wrote it? To these readers, no news was good news.

I was reminded of this in recent months as the author of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. The book describes the horrific lynching of Shedrick Thompson in Fauquier County in 1932. The reaction from some Fauquier residents has been similar to what I heard from unhappy newspaper readers. The complaints are not that I got my facts wrong, or that I’m a lousy writer. Instead, they are upset that I told the story at all. It’s as if I was dumping dead skunks in downtown Warrenton. Go away, they’ve said, go away.

The first hint of a problem came soon after publication when a local reporter asked one person mentioned in the book what she thought of it. “I don’t want to look at the cover,” she said. “I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to read anything about it.”

Retailers in Warrenton also were nervous and told History Press, the publisher, that the topic was too sensitive for their shelves. In the early months, I had invitations to talk to groups in Richmond, Fredericksburg, Manassas, Culpeper, Stafford and Spotsylvania, but not Fauquier. Later the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier invited me to talk to its members. That appearance this spring is still the only time I’ve spoken in Fauquier.

I was scheduled to talk at a Fauquier winery this month, but a winery representative asked me to postpone the event to a time “when feelings are not so heated and the topics of conversation in your book might be better received.” But time itself is neutral and changes nothing, as Martin Luther King once said. So I spared the winery the pain of cancellation and did it myself. “I wish you the best,” I told them.

My friend, Tom Davenport, and I have worked together for months on this project. He has created a documentary film about the Thompson lynching and about the racial climate in Fauquier at the time. He too has experienced similar resistance. The leaders at his church, after much discussion, decided that the film was too controversial for a screening there. And after Tom did screen the film in May to a packed house in Warrenton, he received a threatening letter from a lawyer demanding that he remove one section. Because of the letter, Tom canceled a second showing in Upperville. But he also got his own attorney and successfully defended his right to show the entire film.

So when reading my book, if you find that my facts are wrong, please let me know. If you think the prose is pedestrian, I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but I’ll continue to write and talk about this case. It’s a worthy topic that teaches, among other things, the dangers of ignorance. Pretty timely, I would say.

PS: Here’s my newly revised schedule of appearances for the fall/winter. Please join me if you’re in the area.

  1. Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m., Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, Va.
  2. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  3. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  4. Friday, Nov. 17, 3 p.m., Fredericksburg Literary Club, (Place to be determined.)
  5. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, 11:50 a.m., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University,4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  6. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  7. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

 

Surprised and disappointed, but I shouldn’t have been

Shedrick Thompson was 9 years old when his brother John (above) was born. John R. Thompson lived much of his life in New York and died there in 1975 at the age of 72. (Thompson family photo)

A representative of the Philip Carter Winery in Fauquier County wrote to me over the weekend to ask that my appearance there be rescheduled from September.  She wrote, “In light of recent events in the media, etc, we feel that it would be advantageous to both yourself and the winery to reschedule for a later date when feelings are not so heated and the topics of conversation in your book might be better received.”

I’m not sure what she meant by “when feelings are not so heated,” or when the topic of my book “might be better received.” But I’ve heard words like these before. To many in Fauquier, my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, calls forth unwelcome ghosts. As one online commenter said, “What good is it to dredge up the past now when there are so many unanswered questions that were taken to the grave? Let the dead rest in peace!”

My friend Tom Davenport has experienced similar opposition. Tom’s documentary about the Thompson lynching, The Other Side of Eden, opened in Warrenton in May to a standing-room-only crowd. Yet soon after the premiere, he had to hire an attorney to defend his First Amendment right to show the film. (You can see a 1-minute trailer for the film here.) The Washington Post summarized our experiences this spring when it reported, “getting the book sold or publicly discussed in Fauquier has been a seven-month struggle.”

So my reply to the folks at the winery was practiced but still discouraging to write. I said that Thompson’s lynching and the subsequent cover-up happened 85 years ago. To wait a couple more months to talk about it at the winery wasn’t going to make it any less disturbing. Nor will a change in the current political climate make Thompson’s murder any easier to talk about. To me, today’s climate of intolerance is reason to discuss the Thompson case, not avoid it, so we may explore the lessons that history offers.

I suspected that the folks at the winery wanted to cancel my reading but chose the less painful option of trying to reschedule it. I spared them the discomfort and canceled it myself. “My book is not a good fit for your winery,” I said, and wished them well.

Given the cancellation, here’s my revised schedule of appearances for the fall/winter: Please join me.

  1. Wednesday, Oct. 4, 10:30 a.m., Lifelong Learning Institute-Manassas, Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas, Va.
  2. Thursday, Oct. 12, 7 p.m., Fall for the Book, Kings Park Library, 9000 Burke Lake Rd., Burke, Va.
  3. Saturday, Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m., Central Rappahannock Regional Library, England Run Branch, 806 Lyons Blvd., Fredericksburg, Va.
  4. Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, 11:50 a.m., Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va.
  5. Sunday, Feb 11, 2018, Mosby Heritage Area Association, Marshall, Va. (Time and place to be determined)
  6. Sunday, Feb 25, 2018, 2 p.m., Thomas Balch Library, 208 W. Market St., Leesburg, Va.

 

 

 

 

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.”