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.
Shedrick Thompson’s attack on the Baxleys and the discovery of his body hanging from an apple tree were big news in Fauquier County in 1932. TheFauquierDemocrat, the county weekly, followed the case closely, as did daily newspapers in nearby Strasburg, Winchester, Front Royal and throughout Virginia. I found 29 stories about the Thompson case in 16 newspapers while researching this book. Nineteen of those stories were on the front page.
I counted the number of stories published, but I also noted the words that the reporters used when writing them. What I found was that coverage of Thompson’s lynching was typical of the time.
I did my master’s thesis on lynching in Virginia, specifically on how Virginia newspapers covered lynching. At the turn of the 20th century, the state’s newspapers reflected their communities, in that they regarded blacks as second-class citizens and supported their harsh treatment. In the lynch stories, lynchers were justified in what they did, even heroic. Victims were guilty and described as brutes, savages or fiends. As a longtime newspaper reporter, I was surprised and embarrassed to read it.
But after about 1920, papers changed their coverage, again reflecting their communities. Stories and editorials were more critical of lynchers and less hostile toward the victims. Even so, reporters, as in the Thompson case, never tried to find out who the lynchers were. They made sure that readers knew that the accused was a Negro or “colored.” And they often assumed the victim’s guilt, as when they described Thompson as the “attacker.” One story said he “brutally assaulted” the Baxleys, even though he was never convicted of the crime or even charged. The worst of the old race tags were gone by this time, replaced by more neutral language. However, TheWinchester Evening Star was the exception. In its stories, Thompson was not the accused or even the assailant. He was a “desperado.”