Klan story stirs reaction and memory of rally in Caroline

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Klan members at a rally in Port Royal, Va., in 1981. (Photo by Jim Hall)

A friend said she was surprised to read last week’s blog post about the Ku Klux Klan parade and rally in Warrenton. She is in her 50s, grew up in Fauquier County, graduated from high school in Warrenton, and knew of the Benner Farm where the cross-burning took place. Yet she had never heard of the 1926 incident.

Hundreds of Klan members, dressed in robes and hoods and carrying torches, paraded down Main Street, then lit a giant cross at the farm. She had a hard time imagining it, she said. And the Benner property is on a hillside, she said. A cross burned there would be visible for a long way, certainly from the homes of the black families who lived in two nearby neighborhoods, Haiti Street and Fry Town. “It was shocking,” she said.

Reading about the Warrenton rally reminded me of a similar Klan rally I covered in Caroline County in June 1981. The key elements were the same: people in robes, hateful speeches, the induction of new members and the burning of a cross.

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Klan members from Southern Maryland tried to recruit new members at a Caroline County, Va., rally in 1981. (Photo by Jim Hall)

The Caroline rally took place in a secluded farm field near Port Royal. A group from Southern Maryland sponsored the event, saying that they hoped to attract new members. I remember how Caroline Sheriff O.J. Moore went door-to-door that night through the black neighborhood near the rally, telling families that he and his men were on duty and that nothing would happen to them. Nothing did happen.

The speakers were uninspiring, and few recruits stepped forward. I remember how the Klan leaders seemed comfortably middle class, yet somehow threatened by blacks, Jews and Catholics. They reminded me of someone who had gorged himself at an all-you-can-eat buffet and then complained about the food.

 

Making room for a late arrival

This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton.
This Klan robe is part of the collection at the Old Jail Museum in Warrenton. (Photo by Shawn Nicholls)

One of the great things about writing for a newspaper is that you can make changes to your story right up to the last minute. That’s not to say that the editors will be happy when you do. But you can, and I did many times.

Writing a book is very different, as I learned last week. In fact, I may not be able to add new material, even if the book goes into an additional printing. The phrase “carved in stone” comes to mind.

In this case, the new material comes courtesy of Shawn Nicholls and involves a long-ago Ku Klux Klan rally in Fauquier County. Shawn is Tom Davenport’s assistant. Tom, Shawn and Shawn’s son, Dylan, are working on a documentary film about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson, the subject of this book. I have worked with them for more than two years, sharing research and doing interviews together. (I have written about their efforts here and here.) Last week Shawn found newspaper coverage of a 1926 Klan parade and cross-burning in downtown Warrenton. In addition, one of the staff members at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail in Warrenton pulled from storage a Klan robe that someone had given them.

This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.
This ad appeared in the Fauquier Democrat on Nov. 17, 1926.

More than 200 Klan members, wearing robes and hoods and carrying torches, marched on Main Street to the Courthouse, then on Alexandria Pike to the Benner Farm, according to Shawn’s research. There they made speeches, inducted new members and burned a 100-foot cross. “They made a very striking appearance,” said the Fauquier Democrat of the marchers.

It was a stunning discovery. A public display like that, even in 1926, was evidence of widespread, deeply ingrained racism. And it gave weight to my contention that Thompson died at the hands of his neighbors.

I knew it was too late to include the new information in the book. Publication is less than five weeks away. But I thought I would be able to add it to any future printings. Probably not, I learned later.

History Press has a reprint correction form that authors use after publication to correct errors. “No additions or enhancements to the book are permitted,” the form says. My editor was a little more lenient. He said they probably could add the Klan incident as long as it didn’t “re-page” the whole book. In other words, find a spot at the end of a chapter and make it fit.

Another possibility, as Tom suggested, was to add it to my author blog. Good idea.

 

Preparing to launch

Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.
Some of the business cards supplied by History Press.

A sales specialist from History Press sent me an email yesterday titled “Getting your book into the market.” It’s the type of correspondence that I’ve been receiving from the company lately and an indication that it’s time to resume posting here about my book. Publication of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is still scheduled for Sept. 12, and judging by my mail, I’d be surprised if it was delayed.

Today’s email described how a regional sales team will be working to place the book in the national chains, such as Barnes & Noble, and in local stores. There are no bookstores in Warrenton or Fauquier County, Va., the setting for my story, so I have given History Press the names of local museums, visitor centers and gift shops, such as The Town Duck and Sherrie’s Stuff. I’d like to think a sales person would actually go from store to store on Main Street, trying to place my book. If that’s the case, God bless ‘em. More likely, they’ll use email and phone to make the contacts.

History Press also sent me a supply of business cards and “meet the author” posters, all bearing the book’s cover. Their representatives have asked me to list local reporters who might want to interview me, and any “author events” that I can attend. Finally, a marketing person asked me, “Have you thought about where you’d like to have your book launch?” He described the launch as “the initial large event to announce your book.” My friend Howard Owen had a book launch at a downtown wine bar. Maybe I will do that. Everybody talked and drank while Howard signed books. It was very nice.

 

I stand in praise of copy editors

The Washington Nationals host the Philadelphia Phillies in the first game of a four-game series at RFK Stadium in Washington DC on September 20, 2007. (Mike Morones/The Free Lance-Star)
The author with Laura Moyer at a Washington Nationals game in 2007.

One of History Press’ copy editors reviewed this manuscript and pronounced it fit. Well, mostly fit.

The book is “very well written,” he said, but it contains errors of “grammar, style, spelling and consistency.” He made about 40 blue-type changes in the document. Most were violations of the publisher’s house style.

That means, in my case, that Shedrick Thompson served in the “army,” not the “Army,” that Warrenton was a “colonial-era” town, not a “Colonial-era” one, and that Harry F. Byrd’s title was “former governor,” not “former Gov.”

I also learned that you don’t abbreviate South Carolina, that my former employer is “the Free Lance-Star,” despite what it says on the newspaper’s flag, and that Thompson was not “6 feet, 190 and labor-strong.” He was “six feet, 190 pounds and labor-strong.”

History Press generally follows the Chicago Manual of Style, but like all publishers it ignores the style book when it chooses. For example, the Chicago Manual recommends the use of the serial comma, the one that precedes the final item in a series. I dutifully placed these commas throughout, but that was for naught. History Press doesn’t like serial commas and removed them.

I confess to being a little defensive about these changes. I try to be a careful writer, as in full of care. I look things up, rewrite and submit what I believe is error-free copy. I am similar to the airline executive who insists on clean flip-down trays so passengers will trust the engines. I want clean copy so readers will trust my conclusions.

Even so, I believe in copy editors. They have made my writing better. Heck, I’m engaged to a professional copy editor. Laura Moyer read several versions of this book and offered countless valuable suggestions. When she finished, it had the feel of a fine oak dresser, worn by the touch of much good use.

What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Edenhurst, once the Baxley home, in Fauquier County, Va.
Edenhurst, once the Baxley home, in Fauquier County, Va.

It’s done. It’s gone. I sent my manuscript to the History Press on Friday.

With that delivery, I met the second of two February deadlines.  The first was for the photographs. This one was for the book itself. Actually the book is still just an email attachment, a Word document of 51 pages, 32,000 words, done in 10-point, Times New Roman type, single-spaced. With luck, it will be a real book this summer.

Today I think back to December 2001, when I sent an email to Henry Baxley Jr. of Warrenton. Baxley and his parents were key characters in the story I wanted to tell, and I asked if he would talk with me. He agreed, and we met in a restaurant in Marshall. Later we drove to Africa Mountain and then to Edenhurst in Markham, where he lived as a baby. It was at Edenhurst that a farmhand employed by his family snuck into the house in the middle of the night and attacked his parents. Henry Jr. was not harmed and has no memory of the event. The current owner of the house, Dorothy Showers, was kind enough to show us the upstairs bedroom where the attack occurred. Showers also told us a story that Henry’s grandfather told her, how the attacker left behind a pistol on the landing.

That visit was the beginning of my work on this book, and the attack became its opening scene. The story has been my companion for more than 14 years. So now what do I do? Or as Merle Haggard sings, “I can smoke and I can drink. I’ll probably be alright ’till morning. But what am I going to do with the rest of my life?”

Gather, write, rewrite

The cover of Roy Flannagan's "Whipping"
The cover of Roy Flannagan’s “Whipping”

Writing this book or a writing a newspaper article is the result of a three-step process: gathering, writing and rewriting. I loop back and forth from one step to the other as long as time allows. So even though my deadline to submit the manuscript for The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia is a month away, I want to keep working on the story by looking closer at the career of Roy Flannagan.

Flannagan plays a part in the story, as a reporter who visited Fauquier County to cover Thompson’s death and as an aide to former Gov. Harry F. Byrd. He also was a successful novelist. Two of his novels, set in small-town Virginia in the early years of the 20th century, seemed like they might contain material that would give depth to my story. Flannagan wrote one of them, The Whipping, in 1930, two years before Thompson’s death. It couldn’t reflect his thoughts about Fauquier or the Thompson case, but it had a provocative cover, with a beautiful young woman cowering before a group of hooded Ku Klux Klan figures. Would the novel focus on race relations in rural Virginia, a key part of my story?

Flannagan wrote the second novel, County Court, in 1937 so that one seemed more promising. It was about the trial of a woman accused of murdering her husband. I wondered if it contained a disguised description of the things he saw and the people he met in Warrenton. The librarians at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library helped me obtain copies of both books on inter-library loans. I skim-read them, but only County Court had material that seemed relevant. I enjoyed Flannagan’s description of the courthouse and courthouse area in his fictional town of Juliaville. It reminded me of Warrenton, and I will quote from it in my story. And so the process continues: gathering, writing and rewriting.