Last month I predicted in this blog that the Virginia General Assembly would reject a proposed lynching resolution. Today I’m trying to decide on the best way to cook crow.
Members of the state Senate passed the resolution on Wednesday, and those in the House passed it yesterday. Both votes were unanimous.
I was also wrong in describing the resolution as “moderate.” It is not. The resolution is written with the frankness of someone who is finally able to say how he or she really feels. It traces the history of racism in Virginia from slavery, through lynching, to disenfranchisement, forced segregation, and denied civil rights. It concludes that this legacy “has yet to be uprooted in Virginia.”
Much of the credit for the document goes to Zann Nelson, a researcher, writer and Culpeper activist. Nelson explained this week that she was drawn to the topic while researching the lynching of Allie Thompson in Culpeper in 1918. She thought there must be some way of apologizing to Thompson’s descendants and to the descendants of Virginia’s other lynching victims. “It’s long overdue to put this topic on the table,” she said.
Nelson found allies in the General Assembly, including Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) and the state’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission. The result of this partnership was a document modeled after the Assembly’s 2007 resolution that apologized for the state’s role in slavery.
The lynching resolution “acknowledges with profound regret the existence and acceptance” of lynching in Virginia. It calls on the King Commission to compile a database of the state’s lynch victims, and it asks the Department of Historic Resources to identify sites where markers can be erected.
The first of these markers is scheduled to be placed in Charles City County this spring. It recalls the death of Isaac Brandon in 1892. Brandon was accused of the assault of a white woman. A mob of masked men abducted him from the county jail and hanged him from a tree in the courthouse yard.
There are many other cases like Brandon’s that await public notice. By one count, there’s at least 109 of them.
PS: Please join me on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 9:30 a.m. I’ll be at Germanna Community College (Fredericksburg Area Campus, 10000 Germanna Point Drive) to talk about my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, and about lynching in Virginia.
I applaud the efforts of Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan and others to pass a lynching resolution in this year’s General Assembly, but I’m not optimistic about their chances.
McClellan, a Democrat, represents portions of the Richmond area in the Virginia Senate. She is also chair of the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and the driving force behind HJR655, a resolution now before the General Assembly.
The measure says that the General Assembly “acknowledge with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching” in Virginia. It also calls for the King Commission to make a complete record of all the people killed during the lynch era, and for the commission and the Department of Historic Resources to identify sites for historic markers where lynchings occurred. Finally it asks that state educators, from kindergarten through college, be informed of the Assembly’s action, as a not-so-subtle encouragement to include lynching in their history curricula. The resolution has been referred to committee.
The resolution is moderate and much-needed. However, as a lifelong observer of Virginia politics, I despair that Assembly members will be willing to stir such a painful pot. I can see them objecting to the costs, and I can hear them saying that this is a first step on the slippery slope to reparations.
Virginia has much to answer for—from slavery, introduced 400 years ago this year in Jamestown, to lynching, segregation, disenfranchisement and denied civil rights. It’s time to acknowledge this past and to apologize.
Gianluca De Fazio, an assistant professor at James Madison University, lists 109 Virginia lynchings on his online database. Sixty-three Virginia localities had at least one lynching and 27 of these had more than one. This means that for more than 50 years, mob rule went almost unchecked throughout Virginia, and black residents paid for it with their lives.
Since publication of my book about a Fauquier County lynching, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, I have traveled throughout central and northern Virginia to talk about the book and about lynching. Invariably an audience member will approach me after a talk to say, “I had no idea.”
McClellan’s resolution lifts the silence that has shielded the practice of lynching for many years. I hope I am wrong about the resistance I suspect she will encounter.
Speaking of talks, I will be on the road again soon. I will be the guest of the Middle Potomac History Research Group on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 4 p.m. The group meets at the Josephine School Community Museum and Clarke County African-American Cultural Center in Berryville.
On Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 9:30 a.m. I’ll be talking at the Fredericksburg campus of Germanna Community College as part of their Black History Month observance. Please join me.
Finally, I’m proud to say that Professor De Fazio at James Madison has published another of my essays on his website. This essay is about eyewitness accounts of lynching, how rare they are and how powerful. One example I cite is the lynching of Archer Cook in Farmville in 1888, which was described by eyewitness Richard Sanderson.
I was saddened to learn last week of the passing of Henry Baxley Jr. Mr. Baxley died at his home in the Marshall area of Fauquier County. He was 88. His funeral will be held this afternoon. His obituary, posted at Fauquier Now, is here.
I will always be grateful to Henry for the help he provided while I was working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. I first contacted him in 2011. He did not know me, yet he agreed to meet and talk. We ended up meeting several times, as he shared his memories, his knowledge of Fauquier and his family’s history. He had endless patience as he answered my many questions.
I remember traveling with him in his pickup throughout Fauquier to visit some of the sites critical to the story. He knew everyone, and was universally admired, so an introduction from him was invaluable. We drove to Little Africa Mountain, Rattlesnake Mountain and the Cove, his mother’s family home. One time we drove up unannounced at Edenhurst, his onetime family home and the site of Shedrick Thompson’s attack on his parents. The current owner, Dorothy Showers, acted as if she had been expecting us. She gave us a tour of the upstairs bedrooms where the Baxleys were attacked.
“Did you know that (Thompson) dropped his gun here on the landing?” she asked Henry.
“No, I never heard that,” he replied.
“Your father told me that,” she said.
I called Henry again in 2015 to tell him that I had completed a draft of the story. I asked if I could meet with him again and double-check my facts. The call-back was a standard technique I used as a reporter because it often uncovered the small but important errors that could spoil a manuscript, things like a misspelled name or incorrect date.
Henry returned my call to say, no, he did not want to meet again. He said he was confident the book would be fine. He just didn’t want to deal with it, or with me, anymore. Yes, he added, I had his permission to use his family photos.
I was disappointed but understood. I had pestered him for a long time. I will be forever grateful for the kindnesses Henry showed me. I can’t begin to tell you how much better the book is because of him.
I was delighted to learn recently that an essay I wrote has been published on a website I’ve long admired.
The website, Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927, is the creation of Gianluca DeFazio, an assistant professor in the Justice Studies Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg. The site is a comprehensive, easy-to-use database, dedicated to the 104 people who were lynched in Virginia. Each victim, from Charlotte Harris (1877) to Leonard Woods (1927), is remembered with a recounting of what happened and supporting newspaper articles from the time. It’s a must-stop for anyone doing research on lynching in Virginia or just interested in the topic.
In July, DeFazio invited me and others to write essays for the site. In his invitation, he said he hoped the essays would provide “in-depth analyses for particular cases/periods/regions of Virginia.” I took him up on the offer and wrote about the 1932 lynching of Shedrick Thompson. DeFazio described my submission as “exactly the type of contribution I was hoping for” and posted it last week.
I contacted DeFazio earlier this year when his website went live. I was disappointed that Thompson was not included. I recommended my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, as a way of arguing that Thompson belonged on his site. DeFazio was always cordial and open to my arguments, but Thompson never made it to the master list of victims. For me, Thompson’s absence was an example of how his hanging in Fauquier County is often unrecognized for what it was—a murder.
But that appears to be changing. DeFazio said last week that he will update his list of victims this spring, He said he will devote a page to the Thompson lynching and include supporting newspaper stories. Again, I was delighted. His decision reminded me of the decision earlier this year by the Equal Justice Initiative to include Thompson in its new national memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery, Ala.
Thompson was no doubt guilty of multiple felonies when he attacked Henry and Mamie Baxley, but his death was not a suicide as county officials said at the time. It was a lynching, and increasingly, it is being recognized as such.
I’ll be on the road again soon with book talks in Loudoun, Fauquier and Fairfax counties. Please join me.
The first stop will be this Sunday, Aug. 12, at 2 p.m., when I’ll be the guest of the Lovettsville Historical Society for its monthly history lecture series. The talk will be at St. James United Church of Christ, 10 East Broad Way, Lovettsville.
In their website preview of my talk, the society says, “Virginians have long thought of themselves as above (lynching), but the story of the Commonwealth–and Loudoun—shows a different story. While two-thirds of Virginia cities and counties had no lynchings, some like Loudoun and Fauquier had more than one.” In fact, Loudoun had three lynchings, and I’ll talk about them as part of my presentation.
On Thursday, Aug. 23, at 6:30 p.m., I’ll return to Warrenton and the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail. When Erin Clark, executive director, invited me to a book-signing there in April, I wrote about how much it meant to me. I feel the same way this time, and I have already started revising my talk to include some of the latest developments. These include the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., and the inscriptions for two Fauquier lynching victims—Shedrick Thompson and Arthur Jordan—at that memorial. In addition, thanks to Fauquier residents Shawn Nicholls and Kirk Goolsby, I have learned a lot more about Jordan, and I hope to share some of that information on Aug. 23. It is interesting that my talk that night will be in the museum’s courtyard, the place where Jordan was abducted in 1880.
Finally, I am proud to be a part of the Honors College Colloquium at George Mason University in Fairfax. I will be there on Friday, Sept. 14, at 1:30 p.m. John Woolsey, one of the organizers, said the audience will include 200 to 300 freshmen who probably don’t know much about lynching in Virginia. I find that to be common experience, that audiences are surprised when they learn about lynching in Virginia. As the Lovettsville Historical Society said, it was more frequent than usually assumed and “one of the cruelest parts of Southern history.”
Wanda Foust was looking at titles on Amazon.com when she found my book, The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia. “I had never heard about this case, so it certainly sparked my interest,” she wrote in an email. Soon she was reading this blog and saw the appeal I made for photos from the new lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala.
A resident of Montgomery, Foust wrote to say that she would take the requested pictures. She had already visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon after its opening and returned on May 5 to take the pictures you see here. Thank you, Wanda.
Her photos include one of a suspended, coffin-like steel monument, inscribed to Fauquier County, Virginia. On the monument are the names of Arthur Jordan, who was lynched in Warrenton in 1880, and Shadrack (Shedrick) Thompson, who was lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in northern Fauquier in 1932. (I played a small part in the inclusion of Thompson’s name at the memorial. In 2015, I asked the Equal Justice Initiative, the sponsors of the memorial, if he was in their database. They replied that he was not, and they asked for supporting information. They studied the material I sent and decided to include him in their list of lynching victims and to place his name on their memorial.)
There are 800 of these monuments at the memorial, one for each locality in the U.S. where a black person was lynched. More than 4,000 names are inscribed on the monuments, representing the nation’s black lynch victims.
Foust said that the monuments are made of corten steel, which changes color as it is exposed to the weather. “Some are darker, some lighter, and even some of them appear bloodstained due to the rust dripping and pattern,” she wrote.
To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of the memorial is its six-acre field containing 800 duplicate monuments. Organizers have invited localities such as Fauquier to claim the duplicate monument and display it at home. “Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not,” according to organizers.
I asked Foust to describe herself, and she replied:
I am originally from Vietnam, born to a Vietnamese woman and a black Air Force member. We lived in Vietnam until I was three, and then we were stationed in the Philippines for a year before being stationed at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery. My parents separated about a year or so later. My mom, being from Vietnam, didn’t know the first thing about the U.S. other than what she’d seen or heard from TV and papers. And she definitely knew nothing of the south. Because of this, she couldn’t teach me about black history or culture, so I was raised in Vietnamese culture and traditions. I did eventually start learning about black history once I graduated from high school. Today I consider myself a black Vietnamese woman living in Montgomery.
I told Foust that her pictures were important to me, and I suspect, to members of Thompson’s family. They are confirmation of what I have long believed, that Thompson did not commit suicide on Rattlesnake Mountain, as officials said. Instead, he was murdered, a victim of racial terror.
When a friend learned that I had been invited to appear at the Fauquier History Museum at the Old Jail, he wrote to say, “That is long overdue!”
I appreciated his email and shared in his frustration. But my reaction to the invitation was more complicated.
I was grateful, for sure. I’m happy to travel and share the Shedrick Thompson story, especially in Warrenton where many of the events took place. But, more importantly for me, the invitation was evidence of a change in thinking at the museum, and perhaps in Fauquier County. As I told Erin Clark, the executive director and the person who invited me, “There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I felt my book and the Thompson story were not welcome at the museum.” Now they are.
Seventeen months ago, when History Press published The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, downtown Warrenton was indifferent to the book, if not hostile. A company salesmen went store-to-store on Main Street, but merchants said a book about a local lynching was too sensitive and declined to carry it. At the same time, a company publicist tried to place the book in the gift shop at the History Museum but found similar resistance. “Three of the museum’s board members are reading the book to see if it is appropriate to sell there,” wrote the publicist. “We have 2 out of the necessary 3 approval votes. At this point, we just have to wait for the third individual to finish reading and give the ‘okay’ before we move forward.”
That okay did not come, at least for many months. At the time, I reminded myself that respect is earned not demanded, that the Fauquier Historical Society, which owns and operates the museum, owed me nothing and was free to sell whatever it wanted in its gift shop. But I was also discouraged. As I saw it, one of Fauquier’s most important institutions was refusing to acknowledge an embarrassing chapter in the county’s history. To me, that was not good leadership.
But opinions changed sometime last summer when the gift shop began carrying the book. I am not privy to the discussions, if any, within the board of the Historical Society. Clark, who has been director for five months, said she was not sure what led to the reversal. But she added, “Our museum exhibits all aspects of Fauquier County history, even the ones that are difficult to talk about.”
In that spirit, I’ll be at the museum on Saturday, May 5, from noon to 2 p.m. for a book signing. Please join me.
The caller on Sunday night said that I should turn on the TV and watch 60 Minutes. “Their second segment is about lynching,” she said.
The caller was Martha Powers, who in February invited me to speak to her group in Fairfax County, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University. I told Martha later that I was glad she called. The segment (here) was excellent.
Oprah Winfrey was the correspondent, and her report focused on Bryan Stevenson and his civil rights law firm, Equal Justice Initiative. The organization has used private donations to build a memorial to the nation’s 4,000 black lynch victims. Winfrey interviewed Stevenson and toured the memorial, which is located in Montgomery, Alabama, and opens April 26.
I contacted EJI three years ago after publication of their landmark study, Lynching in America. I wanted to know if they had included Shedrick Thompson, the subject of The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia, in their tally. John Dalton, staff attorney, said the group did not know about the Thompson case and invited me to send information. Later Dalton wrote, “We do plan on adding Mr. Thompson to our list for Virginia. Thank you again for letting us know about this case so that our list could be more complete.”
Dalton confirmed yesterday that Thompson’s name is inscribed at the memorial. Thompson was lynched on Rattlesnake Mountain in 1932. He is one of two black lynch victims from Fauquier County included in the display. The other is Arthur Jordan, a young farm worker who ran away with his employer’s daughter in 1880. A private posse trailed the couple, caught them in Maryland, brought him back to Fauquier, and hanged him near the county courthouse in Warrenton.
Now, short of a road trip to Alabama, I need to figure out how to get a picture of Thompson’s name at the memorial. Anyone going to Montgomery or know someone who lives there?
In his email to me, The Rev. Peter Getz said that his great-grandfather had witnessed a lynching in Farmville, Va. But later, when he wrote about the incident, he did not date the entry or provide many details. Getz asked if I could help.
“I would like to share the account with you in hopes that you might be able to put a name and date on the lynching,” Getz wrote.
Getz lives in Texas and found me on the internet. His great-grandfather, R.P.C. Sanderson, lived in Roanoke in the 1880s and traveled throughout Virginia for the Norfolk & Western Railway. Sanderson was at the window of his room at the Prince Edward Hotel on Main Street in downtown Farmville when he saw riders gallop into town and heard banging and gunfire. The next day a man was hanging from a tree at the edge of town.
I thought I could help Getz, and I was excited to read what Sanderson had written. In my experience, eyewitness accounts of the type Sanderson wrote are rare.
Newspaper stories about lynchings were usually written after the incidents. As a former reporter and editor, I can imagine how a reporter working in Farmville or Roanoke or Charlottesville during the worst of the lynch era might arrive for work to learn that a lynching had occurred overnight. I can see the reporter interviewing people, visiting the scene, doing as much as he could, as fast as he could, to write a story on deadline. At least that’s how most of the stories read today: workmanlike accounts with little more than the obligatory who, what, when, where and why.
However, a handful of stories were written by reporters who witnessed the mob’s murders. Take the account of Joseph McCoy’s death in Alexandria in 1887. A reporter for the Alexandria Gazette witnessed the attack on the city jail, where McCoy was being held on an assault charge.
McCoy had become terribly frightened and had climbed up on the door and was secreted near the ceiling. The mob supposed they were in the wrong cell, and were about to leave for another when one of McCoy’s legs was discovered. He was pulled down with a yell and dragged to the pavement and the mob surged toward Cameron Street with him.
Similarly, a reporter for the Richmond Dispatch painted a vivid picture of the lynching of accused murderer Walter Cotton in Emporia in 1900:
Just in front of the courthouse was an old sycamore tree which had a branch growing from its trunk at right angles about 20 feet from the ground. To this the negro, numb from the effect of his shackles, was dragged, and two young men started to climb the tree to adjust the rope over the limb. One fell back, however, and the other being boosted by those on the ground soon reached the limb.
It was but the work of a moment for him to toss the rope over the limb, and then someone cried, ‘Everybody catch hold of the rope.’ In a second Cotton was drawn up to the limb of the tree, his forehead being badly gashed by a protruding limb.
Sanderson, too, was a careful observer that night in Farmville.
I heard horses come clattering along the street. Mounted men came along two by two, dropping a guard at each cross street intersection, the main body went on to the courthouse. There was some banging and battering, then the procession returned in like manner, and all was quiet till I heard a rattle of shots.
Even though Virginia had more than 100 lynchings during the lynch era, 1878-1932, Farmville had only one. So I told Getz that his great-grandfather had witnessed the August 1888 lynching of Archer Cook, at least what he could see and hear from his hotel window. Newspaper stories published the next day supplied the missing details:
Cook, 22, was black and in jail, accused of rape, though his relationship with a young white woman may have been consensual. Cook’s trial was postponed several times when the young woman said she was too sick to testify. Tired of waiting, local residents decided to act.
At the courthouse that night, they broke through the brick walls of the jail, removed Cook and rode away. The men hurried Cook to the nearest woods and hanged him from an oak tree. They fired 25 shots at him, then galloped off, “leaving a terribly mangled corpse,” according to one news report. Sanderson wrote that he recognized one of the riders as a railroad employee and spoke to him later about the incident. Even so, no one was ever charged with killing Cook or vandalizing the jail.
What distinguishes Sanderson’s account and the other eyewitness stories are the details, almost cinematic in their power. We can see McCoy hiding on top of his cell door, Cotton’s gashed forehead in Emporia, and the riders peeling away to guard the cross streets in Farmville. These details allow readers, then and now, to better understand the horror of what happened. With lynching stories, the devil truly is in the details.
Please join me for my next book talk. It is scheduled for Sunday, March 18, 2018, at 2 p.m. I will be the guest of the Mosby Heritage Area Association at The Hill School, 130 South Madison St., Middleburg, Va.
Thanks to John Owens, a librarian at Lord Fairfax Community College in Warrenton, for filming my presentation there. Actually it was Jeremy Owens, John’s brother, who manned the camera for the Feb. 24 talk. So thanks to both.
I wanted a recording of one of my talks, but I wanted something more than what you’d get by imposing on a friend with a cell phone camera. Now I have it. Jeremy, armed with a camera and tripod, recorded the entire presentation, including querstions.
One of the benefits of a recording is the chance to critique one’s performance. Like a pitcher watching film to see if he is tipping his pitches, I can now count my “umms” and “ahhs” and identify inaccuracies.
John divided the film into three parts and posted the segments on YouTube. And immediately, without watching, I identified a problem. When I added the running times for the three segments–29 minutes, 28 minutes and 18 minutes–I realized that at 75 minutes the talk was too long. I’ll study it now to see where it can be trimmed. My goal will be for it to last an hour or less, including questions. After an hour, I run the risk of audience members looking over their shoulders for the exits.
Please join me later this month in Loudoun County for the new and improved (shorter) version of my book talk. It is scheduled for Sunday, March 18, at 2 p.m. I will be the guest of the Mosby Heritage Area Association at The Hill School, 130 South Madison St., Middleburg, Va.