The university and the library: Two places I like

Edie Gross and her Newsgathering class at UMW.

I remember how happy and proud I was when I found my name on the shelves at the University of Mary Washington bookstore in Fredericksburg. The year was 1993, and I had agreed to teach there. One of my responsibilities as a new adjunct was to tell the bookstore which texts I would use in my class. They would then order the books, so students would have them for the start of the semester.

I told the bookstore that I wanted to use Mencher’s News Reporting and Writing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook. About a week before the first class, I went to the bookstore to see if the books had arrived. I found the books, and below them on the shelf was a paper tag. I was happy to see the books, but it was the tag that really made me smile. It read:

Department: English

Course: Newsgathering 201

Section: 01

Instructor: Hall, J.

My life plan had no entry that said: become a college instructor. To be honest, I had no life plan. But I had become a college instructor, and I was smiling.

Please join me on Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

I was reminded of that day and that feeling recently when I was leaving the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. On the door leading to the parking lot were a collection of posters advertising upcoming events. One of the posters had my name and picture on it. I’ll speak in the library auditorium on April 27, and the library wanted everyone to know about it.

Again, my life plan had no entry that said: make a public presentation at the headquarters library. But that’s what I’ll be doing. And this time, I did more than smile when I saw the poster. I took a picture of it.

Colin Woodward

PS: I want to thank Colin Woodward for inviting me to appear on his Amerikan Rambler podcast. Colin lives in Colonial Beach, works at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County, and travels the state talking to all kinds of people, many of whom are interested in history. Colin asked about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, but he also asked about my upbringing in Falls Church, my schooling and early jobs, and lots of other stuff. (You can listen to the podcast here.)

Claudine Ferrell and her History class at UMW.

Thanks also to Claudine Ferrell and Edie Gross. At their invitations, I was back in the classroom this month. Claudine wrote the introduction to my book and recently asked me to talk to one of her history classes at the University of Mary Washington. Edie, a former colleague at The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, asked me to talk to her Newsgathering class, the same one I taught those many years ago.

Have thumb drive, will travel

germanna
Germanna Community College this week sponsored a program on publishing your first book. Participants were (from left) Rick Pullen, Howard Owen, Jim Hall, David Sam, Cory MacLauchlin and Chris Brown.

I expected to promote The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia after publication, but I didn’t realize that promotion would take the form that it has. I thought I would go to signings, sit behind a table, and talk to those who wanted to buy the book. I’ve done that and enjoy it very much.

But I’m also a man with a thumb drive and PowerPoint slides who travels the region, talking about lynching, especially lynchings in Virginia. I talk about the lynching I know best, the 1932 Fauquier County incident that is the subject of my book. But I spend as much or more time on other cases, such as the 1893 death of William Shorter. Shorter was pulled from a train outside Winchester, Va., and hanged beside the track. He was accused of murder and was with a deputy sheriff on his way to trial, but the residents of Winchester couldn’t wait.

All of a sudden, I’ve become something of an expert on lynching. I’ve given talks about it in Richmond, Culpeper, Manassas, Stafford and Fredericksburg. This month I will talk to a history class and a journalism class at the University of Mary Washington. Next month I’m at the Central Rappahannock library in Fredericksburg, and after that the Afro-American Historical Association in Fauquier County and the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University in Fairfax County.

I’m making good use of my master’s degree research, when I studied how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. I found accounts of maybe 50 of the 70 incidents that occurred in the state from 1880-1930, including the 1897 death of Joseph McCoy. A mob dragged McCoy from the jail in Alexandria and hanged him from a lamppost at the corner of Cameron and Lee streets. He had been accused of the assault of a child.

I talked to a videographer this week when I spoke at a program sponsored by Germanna Community College. I’m thinking about making a video of one of my talks and placing it on YouTube. Who knows? Maybe I’ve found a new career as a speaker.

How I published my book, in three easy steps

firstbookjA University of Mary Washington student wrote me recently to say that he wouldn’t be able to attend the program that Germanna Community College is sponsoring next month on getting your first book published. Germanna invited me to be part of the program, and the student asked, “Could you lend me some of your advice on publishing?”

I had no idea how to answer a question like that, but I wanted to be helpful, so I told the student that if my experience qualifies as advice, I’d be happy to share it. So, here goes. This is how I got my book published, in three easy steps:

First, I wrote the book. Other writers may solicit a publisher on the strength of an idea and a completed first chapter. Not me. I had a 33,000-word nonfiction manuscript in hand when I began this journey.

Next, I sent cover letters and electronic copies of the work to three academic publications. I believed that’s where the manuscript belonged, but one after another, the three journals said no. In fact, the editor at the third one was dismissive of my scholarship and my writing. He hurt my feelings. I knew my research was solid, and I knew that my writing was 10 times better than the gibberish he published. But he was right. My work didn’t belong in his journal. It didn’t read like the other articles there, and it was three times as long. I realized then that my work was not a journal article but a book, a solid, general-interest history book. And that’s when I found History Press.

History Press, based in South Carolina, says it specializes in local and regional history, and that its books are soft-cover and shorter than most, with lots of pictures. That appealed to me. I went to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg and inspected several History Press books. They were handsome works, professionally made, and I could picture being published by them. I also studied the company’s catalog and found a niche where I might fit. I filled out their query form and attached a cover letter, saying that my book would work nicely under their “true crime” umbrella. They thought so too. I signed a contract, and about a year later, I had in hand The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.

So to the UMW student, I say tell your story, then study the market for a publisher. Not just any publisher, but the best one for you. And, oh yes, the third and most important step: get up and try again after they knock you down, because they will.

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.

We will begin with a few words by Claudine Ferrell

Claudine Ferrell
Claudine Ferrell

I am grateful to Claudine Ferrell for writing the introduction for this book. Claudine is a professor of history at the University of Mary Washington, where she has taught for more than 30 years. Her doctoral work at Rice University focused on lynching in the South.

One of the librarians at Mary Washington told me about her and suggested that I contact her. I had never met her, but I wrote in July 2014 and asked if she would be willing to read what I had written about the Shedrick Thompson case. To my surprise, she agreed and has been a friend to this project ever since. Recently I spoke to one of her classes at UMW and heard her encourage her students to make that “cold call” to the expert who might be able to help them in their research. There is a good chance that the expert will respond, she said. I thought, yes, that is exactly what happened to me.

After reading my work, Claudine suggested several changes, which I made, and she encouraged me that my research and writing were worthy of publication. When my editor at History Press asked if I knew a scholar versed in the topic of lynching who would write the introduction, I thought of Claudine.

In her introduction, Ferrell vividly describes the scope and nature of lynching in America: “Tens of thousands of mob members killed—by rope, gun, fire, knife, fist, and any other means at their disposal—thousands of alleged violators of the law and of social order. For three-quarters of a century, most members of the mob were white men—and even women and children—and most of the victims were black men—and even women and children. The alleged violations varied from murder, arson, and rape to speaking disrespectfully to a white man. Sometimes, the crime matched the statute books. Sometimes, the offender received a trial; sometimes, the trial provided a semblance of due process. All too often, the mob acted regardless of statute or court or fairness.”

 

My book in 125 words or less

The cove
The Cove, near Hume, Va., was Mamie Baxley’s home for much of her life.

The latest assignment from my editor is to write a paragraph for the back cover. He said to highlight the key places, people and events in the book, and convey the chronological and geographic scope. And please do all that in 125 words or less.

The assignment reminded me of an exercise I used when teaching beginning reporting at the University of Mary Washington here in Fredericksburg. I would give the class the facts of a police incident, including the who, what, when, where, why and how, as well as a police quote, victim quote and eyewitness quote. The students had to tell their stories in 250 words or less. When they finished, I asked them to rewrite their stories in 100 words or less, and then once more in 50 words or less. The exercise showed how flabby most writing is, and how much of their stories could be preserved, even with tight editing, if they spent the time needed to rewrite. Google tells me it was Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, who was the first to say, “I have made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have the time to make it shorter.”

So here’s what my book is about in 125 words or less. (Actually it’s 123 words.)

Fauquier County, Va., 1932. A black man is found hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain.  A mob sets fire to the body. Officials identify the remains as Shedrick Thompson, wanted for the abduction and rape of a white woman. They say Thompson killed himself, the final act of a desperate fugitive. But residents who hunted him know better. They say he was the victim of Virginia’s last lynching.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia takes a close look at Thompson’s crimes and his death, the actions of his neighbors, and the official cover-up. It touches on themes still discussed, including our struggles with class and race. And it offers a new reading on Virginia history, one more complex and disturbing than previously believed.