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.

 

On Saturday, the road show arrives in Fauquier

Karen White of the Afro-American Historical Association is coauthor of this book on blacks in Fauquier.

This Saturday, May 13, brings two events of note. On Saturday afternoon I’ll give my first book talk in Fauquier County, and that night I’ll join Tom Davenport for the premiere of his film The Other Side of Eden. I’ve waited a long time for both events.

The book talk will be at 1 p.m. at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier in The Plains. The event is free and open to the public and is part of the association’s yearlong 25th anniversary celebration. I’ll talk about lynching in Virginia and especially the Shedrick Thompson case, the subject of my book The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. This talk comes seven months after publication of the book and marks the first time I’ve been invited to appear before a Fauquier audience. As described in a Washington Post article last month, “getting the book sold or publicly discussed in Fauquier has been a seven-month struggle.“

Tom’s hourlong documentary will have its first showing at 7 o’clock that night at the Highland School Center for the Arts, 597 Broadview Avenue, Warrenton.  It is free and open to the public. (You can see a 1-minute trailer here.)

Tom and I worked together for several years–he on his film and me on the book. The Other Side of Eden also describes the Thompson case. Tom, too, has encountered resistance, both to the making of the film and its showing.

Yet with each obstacle comes a show of support.  One example is the comment John Owens posted recently on my Facebook page. Owens works at the library at Lord Fairfax Community College in Fauquier. He wrote, “We purchased your book as soon as it came out. I read our copy and placed it on the staff picks shelf where it steadily circulated for some time. I consider myself a local history buff, yet I had never heard the story of Shedrick Thompson, and that is why this book is important. It is why I now own my own copy.”

 

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.

 

 

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.

‘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.

The book has been written, yet the story still unfolds

melvinclayfannied
Melvin Clay with a photo of Fannie Thompson, his grandmother and Shedrick Thompson’s mother. (Photo by Tom Davenport)

First, I got a picture of Shedrick Thompson’s father, and then pictures of his siblings. And yesterday, I saw for the first time a picture of his mother. Maybe, if my luck holds, I will someday see a picture of Thompson himself.

Thompson is a key figure in The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. He was accused of assault and  lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County in 1932. I spent years learning about the man, yet I have almost no idea what he looked like. A wanted poster at the time said that he was dark brown, 6 feet, 180 pounds, with a birthmark behind his ear, and an old gunshot wound on his hand. But I never found a photo of him and did not include one in the book. In fact, until very recently, I had never seen any photos of anyone in his large family.

marrington-thompson
Marrington Thompson, Shedrick Thompson’s father. (Photo from Linda Tate)

Last month, however, I learned about Linda Tate and wrote to her. Tate is a resident of Detroit, related to the Thompsons and an expert in the family’s history. She sent me pictures of Marrington Thompson, the patriarch of the family, and seven of the Thompson children. (Shedrick was one of nine children.)

And then, Melvin Clay, a resident of Maryland and the son of one of Shedrick’s sisters, offered a picture of Fannie Thompson, Shedrick’s mother. Clay told my colleague Tom Davenport in a filmed interview last week that he admired his grandmother so much that he always kept her picture close by. With that, he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out her framed picture. Clay held up the picture and smiled. I smiled too when I saw it.

Tate said yesterday that her reaction was similar. “The picture at the end blew me away. Every time I get to see a picture of one of my grandfather’s siblings, I get excited.”

 

Me and Harry F. Byrd

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I spoke about this book at the Black History Museum of Virginia in Richmond on Oct. 8. (Photo by Laura Moyer)

When the audience member asked, “Why did you pursue this story?” I decided to abandon the safe answers that I usually give to that question. Instead, I tried to put into words the feelings that have percolated inside me ever since I started working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

Usually when someone asks about the book, I talk about how the death of Shedrick Thompson was an incident that promised to hold my interest through months of research. Sometimes I add that it is a story of sufficient length and complexity to challenge me as a writer. This time, however, at a program Saturday at the Black History Museum of Virginia in Richmond, I talked about something more personal. I talked about my feelings toward Harry F. Byrd.

Byrd was Virginia governor from 1926-30 and U.S. senator for more than 30 years. As I told my questioner, I am a native Virginian and old enough to remember how powerful he was. Even though he was based in Washington, he ruled Virginia as if he were still in Richmond and a permanent resident of the Executive Mansion.

Harry F. Byrd
Harry F. Byrd

I objected to Byrd’s pay-as-you-go strategy for state finances. His insisted that the state avoid debt, which meant that Virginia did not have money for needed roads, schools and other services. To me, it made sense to borrow at low interest rates and let future residents help pay for improvements. Most of all, I objected to his naked racism. Byrd’s program of Massive Resistance to school integration in the late 1950s did untold damage to Virginia children.

So I was inspired when I learned of the role he played in the Thompson tale. Byrd was a key player in the cover-up of Thompson’s lynching. He and his friends lobbied intensely to have Thompson’s death listed as a suicide rather than a mob murder.

I believe he did this to preserve his political reputation. He didn’t care about justice. He cared only about himself. It was the same brute power that I had always objected to. If my book exposes Byrd’s hypocrisy and the real cause of Thompson’s death, I am delighted. It is small payback for the harm that he did to this state.