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.”

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 sun is shining for me, despite the day-long rain

Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post wrote about my book in today’s paper.

I am grateful to Margaret Sullivan and The Washington Post for the story about me in today’s paper. Sullivan is the media columnist, and her work usually appears in the Style section. When she called, she said my experience with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia was not the type she usually writes about–her most recent columns were about Bill O’Reilly and Facebook–but she thought it was interesting, and her editors agreed.

Sullivan heard from a friend of mine about the resistance that History Press has experienced trying to market my book in Warrenton and Fauquier County. She interviewed a number of people, including a publicist at History Press and a salesman there who went door-to-door in downtown Warrenton in a unsuccessful attempt to place the book with retailers.

I was impressed with Sullivan. She was true to her word and accurate, even calling back prior to publication to check her facts. Best of all, she documented the discouraging aspects of what has happened, but she also found reasons to be optimistic. She noted the change of heart by the directors of the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail, where the book is now for sale, and she talked with Karen White at the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier. White told her that she understands the resistance to the book. “Sometimes people are in denial,” she said. “They think none of this ever happened here.” But White also sees a willingness to reconsider the past, and she said she welcomes those conversations.

It takes a certain kind of reporter to bring this attitude to a story, a belief in our better angels and in their eventual triumph. Sullivan seemed to have it.

PS: Please join me this Thursday, April 27, at 7 p.m. at the headquarters building of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. I’ll be talking about the book and about lynching in Virginia. The session is free and open to the public.

‘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.

 

 

I write in praise of Rankin’s True Value

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You would think I had won the lottery the way I was hootin’ and hollerin’ around here this morning. The reason was my conversation with Ken Rankin of Warrenton.

Ken is a member of the family that founded and operates Rankin’s True Value Hardware. I learned about his store yesterday when talking to Adam Kidd, one of the sales specialists at History Press, the South Carolina publisher of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. I asked Adam to check his computer for any stores in Warrenton or Fauquier County that had purchased copies of the book. (The last I heard, no merchants in Fauquier would carry The Last Lynching because of the “sensitive” subject matter.) Our conversation went something like this:

Adam: Yes, there is one store, Rankin’s True Value Hardware.

Me: A True Value Hardware? Are you sure?

Adam: Yes, they bought 12 copies.

Why would a hardware store in a shopping center just outside downtown Warrenton carry my book? Did they have a book section tucked between the bolts and bird feeders? I thought about it all night, and this morning I put on my reporter’s cap and called the store to find out. The clerk who answered said, no, they did not have a book section, so I asked to talk to the manager. That’s when Ken picked up the phone.

Ken said, yes, he bought the book and displayed it with one other near the check-out. He also put a poster that History Press sent him in the window. He said he was a bit nervous at first, afraid that his customers, especially his black patrons, would complain. But the only one who said anything was a descendant of one of the people accused of the lynching. Ken said he bought a copy for himself and was reading it now.

“We sold out,” he added.

So, dear readers, if you need some touch-up paint for the living room, please consider Rankin’s True Value in Warrenton. Located in the Warrenton Village Center, it’s open weekdays and Saturdays, 8-7, Sundays, 10-4.

On the flight, death and skull. New details emerge

left-margaret-thompson-sallie-rector-catherine-rector-emily-rector-log-cabin-on-rattlesnake-mountain
Thompson family members at their home on Rattlesnake Mountain in Fauquier County. They are Margaret Thompson, Sallie Rector, Catherine Rector and Emily Rector, from left. The log cabin is now the site of a Boy Scout camp. (Photo from Linda Tate and the Afro-American Historical Association of Fauquier County.)

I knew from my years as a reporter that it was not unusual to hear from key sources after publication. That is what happened with The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. New sources came forward with new details.

In September, two weeks after the book came out, a member of the Shedrick Thompson family wrote to my colleague Dylan Nicholls to say that family members wanted to talk to us.

The family told us more about Thompson’s movements after his attack on Henry and Mamie Baxley in Fauquier County in July 1932, about the reaction of his family to his flight, and about what happened when family members learned of his lynching.

This new information came from Melvin Clay and Julia Mopkins, brother and sister, residents of Maryland, and both in their 80s. They are the children of Ola Clay, one of Thompson’s sisters. Tom Davenport, a Fauquier County filmmaker, interviewed them recently. (I have written about Tom and our collaborations here.)

We already knew that Thompson fled west into the mountains of northern Fauquier after he attacked the Baxleys. Now we know that he went to his boyhood home, a short distance away on Africa Mountain, where he told his mother, Fannie Thompson, what had happened. She asked him to leave, saying that by being there, he put the entire family at risk. She was correct. Family members were later threatened and even jailed while Thompson was at large. And the Thompson home was under constant watch. “They were prisoners in their own home for a short period of time,” Mopkins said.

Thompson was missing for two months, when his body was discovered hanging from an apple tree on Rattlesnake Mountain. Word of the discovery spread, and a mob gathered to set fire to the body. We now know that the Thompson family also learned of the discovery, and that Marrington Thompson, Shedrick’s father, went to the scene. Was the mob still there? Did he try to prevent the burning? We don’t know.

After the burning, officials carried Thompson’s skull and shoes, all that remained, back to Warrenton. The skull was displayed under the steps of the county courthouse and was later moved to the county coroner’s office. Then it seemed to disappear. Now we know that someone took it back to Africa Mountain and placed it on the Thompsons’ front porch.  “My grandmother had nightmares,” said Clay. “She lived with that for the rest of her life.”

A face for radio.
A face for radio.

PS: Last week I was guest of Ted Schubel on News Talk 1230 WFVA radio.You can listen to the 40-minute interview here.

Banned in Warrenton? I hope not

The Fauquier County courthouse in Warrenton.
The Fauquier County Courthouse in Warrenton.

I expected this book to be judged on whether it is informative, entertaining and accurate. I did not expect it to be judged on whether it was “sensitive.” Sensitive? A history book?

I bring this up because of an email I received last week from a publicist at History Press, the publisher. She wrote that a field sales representative for the company visited many of the shops on Main Street in Warrenton but could find none that would carry The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. The book takes place in Warrenton and Fauquier County, but apparently the local angle did not sway the merchants. “Some retailers are hesitant to carry it due the sensitive subject matter,” she wrote.

She also described how the book has been subjected to board review at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton. The museum has a nice gift shop and book section, but again, the book is apparently too sensitive to place on the shelves.

Three of the museum’s board members are reading the book to see if it is appropriate to sell there. “We have 2 out of the necessary 3 approval votes to get it in the shop,” wrote the publicist. “At this point, we just have to wait for the third individual to finish reading and give the “okay” before we move forward.”

The museum is run by the Fauquier Historical Society, a private organization, which is free to sell whatever it wants in its gift shop. But I hope that society members are true to their mission. The society was formed in 1964 to “stimulate interest in Fauquier County and Virginia history by preserving the evidence of our past, connecting it to our present and educating the community about its importance to the future.”

Preserve the past, connect it to the present, and educate the community about its importance.

I see no distinction in this mission statement between history that’s uncomfortable and history that’s ennobling.

I would argue that the tale of a lynching is just as important, just as instructive, to a community’s understanding of itself as the tale of a soldier’s heroism in battle. Perhaps more so.

documentPS: I’ll be at the Manassas Museum, 9101 Prince William St., Manassas, this Sunday, Nov. 13, at 1:30 p.m. to talk about The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia and to sign books. Hope to see you there.

Some feedback about the book is puzzling

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Mt. Welby was the home of the DeButts family at the time of Shedrick Thompson’s death. It is now a bed-and-breakfast.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia has been out three weeks, long enough for me to get some feedback. As expected, the results are mixed.

I’m delighted when I hear that someone enjoyed the book. “You addressed a very difficult and dark subject very well,” said one reader. “Well done,” said another.

I also was pleased to hear from Daniel DeButts, a descendant of two of the men implicated in Shedrick Thompson’s death. DeButts posted on my Facebook page that he had read the book, and added, “My family was surely part of it, as you say. They made sure he was not on Mt. Welby (the family farm) when they strung him up. Just over the fence on someone else’s land.”

And two of Thompson’s descendants, after hearing about the project, wrote to set up an interview. I’ll meet with them later this month.

But I’m puzzled by some of the things I’ve heard. When I could not find the book at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in downtown Warrenton last week, I asked if they would be carrying it. The answer: Because of the “sensitive” nature of the book, board approval was required before it could appear on their shelves.

And a person related to key figures in the story was so upset by publication that she vowed never to read the book or even look at the cover. No good can come from reviving such an unpleasant topic, she said.

I disagree with her. To me, the book is not a revival of the Thompson tale. Rather, given all the efforts, past and present, to hide what happened, it’s a first-time telling.

bhmva_new_logoP.S.: I’ll be in Richmond this Saturday, Oct. 8, at 1 p.m. at the Black History Museum of Virginia. The museum, located at 122 W. Leigh St., calls the event “Literary Saturday.” I’ll be talking about the book and about lynching in Virginia.  Hope to see you there.