‘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.