Virginia in a Regional Context
In his analysis of lynching in Virginia and Georgia, historian Fitzhugh Brundage concluded that Virginia experienced fewer lynchings between 1880 and 1930 because the state's diverse economy did not depend on the more coercive labor-control methods found in the deep South, where single-crop farming dominated. Virginia landlords could afford to extend a small degree of independence to black workers; in addition, the most disgruntled blacks had an easier time migrating north merely as a result of geographical proximity. Furthermore, elites in Virginia opposed lynching as a disruption of social order in the same way they objected to labor unrest. Consequently, most whites who ultimately supported an antilynching statute emphasized a need for law and order, not a respect for the rights of African Americans.
Lynching in the 1920s
The failure of local officials, yet again, to respond to an especially gruesome lynching in the Sussex County town of Waverly in March 1925 prompted Jaffé to begin to embrace the power of state government as an effective weapon in ending mob law. (In this instance, a mob lynched a black man from a tree near the railroad depot, riddling his body with bullets and then setting it on fire, in plain view of an arriving train and its passengers.) In particular Jaffé urged officials in Virginia to emulate the actions of North Carolina's governor, Angus McLean, who had called out the state militia to protect a black prisoner. The August 1926 lynching of Raymond Bird in Wythe County, however, first led Jaffé to raise the possibility of passing legislation that would make lynching a state crime.
Bird's lynching appeared to set a new precedent for savagery and barbarity in the state, surpassing even that of the Waverly lynching the previous year. Jaffé asked Governor Byrd to recognize that such savagery constituted a "matter of direct State concern." Byrd ignored Jaffé's recommendation, but did pressure local authorities to bring charges against known mob members. Despite clear evidence pointing to the guilt of participants, a local jury refused to convict the one individual against whom charges were filed.
In a private letter to Byrd, Jaffé pleaded with him to "find the means of forcing a showdown on this outrage." Byrd replied that he would like to discuss the matter with Jaffé, but expressed reservations about such a law's compatibility with the state constitution. Sensing reluctance on the part of the governor, Jaffé used his editorial page to condemn the inaction of local authorities and to urge publicly that Byrd take action. Jaffé argued that "lynching goes unpunished in Virginia because, deny it as one will, it commands a certain social sanction." Jaffé explained that the eradication of mob violence mandated laws that punished not only the principal participants, but also all persons who "advise, encourage or promote" lynching. The Norfolk editor urged the commonwealth to strip mob members of the right to vote and hold office, and argued for strict fines and punishments in addition to those for murder. "In short," concluded Jaffé, "lynching must be recognized as a State cancer, requiring direct State action. It must be rid of its social cachet and stamped with the State's curse."
On February 3, state senators James Barron of Norfolk and Cecil Connor of Leesburg introduced an antilynching measure. Two weeks later, the state senate passed the bill by a vote of 32 to 0 with eight abstentions. Although grateful that the Senate had taken a step toward "outlawing this crowning infamy of the century," the Richmond Planet, a black newspaper, lamented that the legislature had "extracted the teeth" from Byrd's original proposal by removing the monetary penalty provision. On March 1, the House of Delegates concurred with the Senate's version by a margin of 74 to 5; a noticeable twenty-one delegates abstained. On March 14, 1928, Byrd signed into law the nation's strictest antilynching measure and the first that directly termed lynching a state crime. No white person was ever convicted under the statute for committing crimes against an African American. Instead, Virginia's landmark antilynching law was used only to punish whites for crimes against other whites.
Several months after the passage of Virginia's antilynching law, a mob in Houston, Texas, lynched a black man just before that city was to host the 1928 Democratic National Convention. The following day, Jaffé authored an editorial entitled "An Unspeakable Act of Savagery," in which he concluded that "we have not yet arrived at that social abhorrence of this crime that must precede its practical extinction. … The rise and fall of the lynching curve is governed by racial passions that remain still to be brought under civilized control." That editorial won Jaffé a Pulitzer Prize.
Between 1880 and 1930 - Mobs in Virginia, while less active than elsewhere in the South, lynch approximately seventy African Americans.
October 13, 1923 - A white mob lynches Horace Carter in King and Queen County. Louis Jaffé denounces the mob's actions in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the strongest terms yet to appear in a white newspaper in the state.
March 1925 - A lynching occurs in Waverly; the failure of local officials to respond prompts Louis Jaffé to embrace the power of state government as an effective weapon in ending mob law.
August 15, 1926 - A mob of fifty masked individuals forcibly removes S. Raymond Bird, a black man who has been charged with an offense against two white women, from the Wythe County jail and lynches him. The act leads Louis I. Jaffé to first raise the possibility of passing legislation to make lynching a state crime in Virginia.
November 30, 1927 - A Wise County mob, estimated at 300 to 400 people, lynches Leonard Woods on a platform straddling the Virginia-Kentucky border, after which Louis I. Jaffé publicly condemns the inaction of the state. Though Governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. condemns the act, he states that "Virginia has no legal jurisdiction" in the case.
January 16, 1928 - Succumbing to pressure from public sentiment and Louis Isaac Jaffé's scathing editorials, Governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. asks the General Assembly to declare lynching "a specific State offense."
February 3, 1928 - State senators James Barron of Norfolk and Cecil Connor of Leesburg introduce an antilynching measure to the state senate. The bill passes by a vote of 32 to 0 with eight abstentions.
March 1, 1928 - Virginia's House of Delegates affirms the Senate's version of the antilynching law by a margin of 74 to 5; a noticeable twenty-one delegates abstain.
March 14, 1928 - Governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. signs into law the nation's strictest antilynching measure and the first that directly terms lynching a state crime.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Smith, D. Anti-Lynching Law of 1928. (2019, August 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Antilynching_Law_of_1928.
- MLA Citation:
Smith, Douglas. "Anti-Lynching Law of 1928." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Aug. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: August 5, 2019
Contributed by Douglas Smith, an adjunct assistant professor of history and American studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. This entry is excerpted from chapter six of his book, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).