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.

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

‘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.