Colonial and Revolutionary Periods
In the meantime, several factors during the colonial and Revolutionary periods helped lead to lynching as it came to be understood late in the nineteenth century. The most important of these were the weakness of law enforcement and the pervasive, violent influence of slavery. In colonial Virginia, the court system was not fully organized and often weak. By necessity, law enforcement became the responsibility not just of the government but of the entire community. Criminals were identified and often arrested by community members and trials tended to be swift, with sentences carried out soon after conviction. While executions were infrequent, they were widely accepted, discharged in public, and marked by ritualistic features, such as the presence of large crowds, the delivery of speeches, and the opportunity for the convicted to make confessions and ask for forgiveness. Sin and crime were often closely connected, although less so in Virginia than in New England, where Puritan-influenced religion was a much more pervasive part of the culture. Nevertheless, executions were seen as an opportunity to purify a community of its sin.
Antebellum and Civil War Years
This particular violence notwithstanding, most lynchings prior to the Civil War did not result in death. The term itself was new enough in 1835 that the Vicksburg newspaper was forced to define it, and did so without reference to killing. In 1856, a mob raised by Turner Ashby, a future Confederate general from Clarke County, ran the abolitionist John C. Underwood out of the state. In a letter to the New York Times, Underwood described Virginia as "ready to burst" with violence—the result of proslavery mobs whipping up rumors of slave insurrections and creating scapegoats out of abolitionists like himself. "Don't you think we ought to give him a coat of tar?" Ashby wrote to a friend at the time, but in the end Underwood escaped unhurt.
Early in February 1880, Page Wallace, an African American who had escaped from jail in Leesburg, allegedly raped a white woman, and a newspaper headline declared him "A Virginia Negro Who Will Be Lynched If Captured." Indeed, later that month the same paper announced that Wallace had been "Swung Up to the Limb of a Sycamore Tree."
He would not be alone. In 1993 the historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage estimated that 86 people were fatally lynched in Virginia between 1880 and 1930, 71 of them African Americans. The Tuskegee Institute has estimated 4,743 lynchings nationwide between 1882 and 1968, but historians have begun to revise that number for various, often methodological reasons. In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative, of Montgomery, Alabama, counted 3,959 lynchings of African Americans in twelve southern states between 1877 and 1950, including 76 in Virginia. At the same time, historians are often only aware of lynchings that were reported, especially in the press; they assume that unreported lynchings also occurred. In other words, as the historian Michael Ayers Trotti has suggested, any exact number of lynchings ought to be treated with skepticism.
The murder of Wallace, meanwhile, was emblematic of many lynchings in Virginia at the end of the nineteenth century. The mob that kidnapped him numbered about 150 masked men and in its large size resembled about 40 percent of all lynch mobs in Virginia between 1880 and 1930. And like nearly all recorded mobs in Virginia, this one took its victim from legal custody, boarding a train to do it. Like many lynchings, it was conducted at a symbolic spot: the site where the alleged crime had occurred. There, according to the newspaper report, after Wallace had been hung, the alleged victim "was accorded the privilege of firing the first shot at his swinging and almost lifeless body. This she did with a good aim." His body was then left to hang "and was viewed by hundreds of people before night set in."
While some lynching victims may have been guilty of crimes, it's clear that many were not. On October 30, 1889, in Loudoun County, Orion (sometimes Owen) Anderson put a sack on his head and scared a fifteen-year-old white girl on her way to school. According to the Richmond Dispatch, the "negro scoundrel," probably also a teenager, was later taken from jail by a mob and hanged. In February 1892, the Roanoke Times reported that a white girl had been assaulted and described the suspect only as a black man with a light gray suit and rubber boots. The next day, amidst criticism of the police for not acting quickly enough, a suspect was publicly named, only to have still another African American man, Will Lavender, lynched the day after that. Without mentioning the first suspect, the Roanoke Times described how Lavender, with a noose around his neck, uttered "an almost incoherent jumble of denial" until a half-hanging brought on "a rambling confession." His body was viewed by 1,000 people, the paper reported, and pieces of rope collected as relics.
As was the case with Page Wallace, white-owned newspapers often cheered on lynchings. When Joseph McCoy was accused of raping a white girl in Alexandria and lynched, the Alexandria Gazette implausibly suggested that no members of a mob of 500 could be identified, then justified the murder and subsequent mutilation by arguing that McCoy's actions "naturally aroused the righteous indignation of the community, and while all believe in law and order, the general sentiment has been that the fiend has met his just reward."
According to the paper, "The fact that no one was seriously hurt save McCoy was fortunate." This newspaper perspective echoes much of the larger law enforcement response to lynchings. Local police played several common roles in lynchings, from passively allowing mobs to take victims from custody and attack them, to active participation by officials themselves. State officials sometimes sent troops to protect prisoners in high-profile cases that were known lynching risks. Local officials faced several conflicts of interest as members of the communities themselves, often having personal relationships with people in the mobs, and sometimes facing retaliation for sending a mob away. "Thus local authorities often felt the tug of competing forces both to stifle mob violence and to ignore, or even aid, lynch mobs," Brundage explains, indicating that local law enforcement limited mobs when they received pressure from the state. In those circumstances, local authorities often quelled a lynching by publicly promising the mob that the prisoner would receive a quick trial and hanging.
After a lynching, members of lynch mobs were seldom investigated by local or state officials and they were not prosecuted.
Race and Lynching
Although by early in the twentieth century lynching was popularly understood as a white supremacist tool for suppressing African Americans, there were rare instances in which blacks lynched whites. On November 1, 1893, a mob that lynched Abe Redmond, a white farmer in Charlotte County, included some blacks. And on March 24, 1900, after a mob lynched Walter Cotton, an African American accused of murder, a black mob formed and lynched his white partner, Brandt O'Grady. "That some blacks participated in or condoned mob violence," the historian Brundage has written, "suggests that under certain conditions, however rare, some did not view lynchings as an inherent expression of racial repression."
Southern whites often used the fact that lynchings had roots in communal justice in the western frontier, and the fact that some whites were lynched, too, to defend lynching and mob violence against blacks. They pointed to the awfulness of certain alleged crimes and inadequacies in the justice system as reasons for taking the law into their own hands. According to Brundage, efforts by Progressive reformers to highlight problems with law enforcement only served to encourage and justify lynchers.
At the same time, most historians have come to understand lynching, especially as it was practiced after the Civil War, as a form of racial terrorism against African Americans. As a form of "justice," lynching was an excuse to murder blacks and as a public ritual it was used to instill fear into the black community, restrict social movement, and send reminders about what their "place" was in the South. Many lynchings, then, were provoked by specific alleged crimes but were only superficially about punishing the accused. And as the selling of relics suggests, they were also a form of entertainment, although instances elsewhere in the South of community leaders planning and advertising lynchings, almost as if they were county fairs, were largely unknown in Virginia.
Lynching Events across Virginia
Fewer lynchings occurred in Virginia than in any southern state. Compared with the approximately 86 lynchings in the Old Dominion between 1880 and 1930, there were, according to Brundage, 460 in Georgia. (The Equal Justice Initiative numbers, for the years 1877–1950, count 586 lynchings in Georgia and 576 in Mississippi.) White Virginians accounted for the disparity by claiming an advanced tradition of law and order and African Americans of "better character." A more persuasive explanation, according to Brundage, has to do with the fact that white Virginians felt less threatened by racial upheaval than other white southerners. Many white landowners moved away from tobacco to crops that were easier to farm, allowing them to rely less on sharecroppers and tenants than their counterparts in the Deep South. They also afforded a small degree of independence to black workers, many of whom owned their own land, and did not interact as much with the family lives of African Americans. "Lynchings were less likely to occur in Virginia than in Georgia," Brundage has written, "for the simple reason that white Virginians believed that racial boundaries could be maintained without the need to resort to persistent violence."
Within Virginia, most lynchings—fifty-five of the eighty-six between 1880 and 1930—occurred in the Piedmont, Tidewater, and Southside regions, and more than two-thirds of these events involved mobs of fifty people or fewer. Small mobs, according to Brundage, tend to suggest that the lynching reflected a relatively narrow set of concerns about an individual and his perceived crime. Such concerns, while often tied to race, were not always focused on reinforcing communitywide standards.
The Shenandoah Valley region had the fewest lynchings during that time period (two), while Southwest Virginia had the most (twenty-eight). Historians have generally pointed to that region's drastic changes late in the nineteenth century as a reason behind its violence. The coal mining industry led to new railroads and huge population growth, including an increase in the number of African Americans. In Wise County, between 1880 and 1890, for instance, the black population grew from 101 to 1,965; in Alleghany County, from 1,132 to 4,013.
According to Brundage, lynchings tended to occur in the region's cities, such as Clifton Forge and Roanoke, where black populations were larger and the effects of change more immediately felt. Lynchings, he has written, were "a tool to define boundaries in a region where traditional racial lines were either vague or nonexistent." Fifty-seven percent of the lynchings in Southwest Virginia were carried out by mobs of more than fifty people, suggesting that these events were intended as messages from the majority white community to African Americans.
Perhaps the most infamous lynching in Southwest Virginia, however, occurred in Roanoke in September 1893. After an African American man, Thomas Smith, was arrested and charged with beating and robbing a white woman, Mayor Henry S. Trout ordered the entire police force and members of the local militia to protect the jail. A mob formed and was initially rebuffed. During a second attack on the jail, however, the authorities opened fire, killing eight and injuring a few dozen others, including the mayor, who was shot in the foot. The mob, which numbered between 1,500 and 4,000, still managed to capture its man (with some historians suggesting local police complicity), lynching Smith and affixing to him a sign that read, "Mayor Trout's Friend." The mob later clambered for pieces of Smith's clothing or the tree on which he died, and ultimately burned his body. According to a newspaper report, "Smith's sister, a girl 15 years of age, stood by and witnessed the terrible fate of her brother's remains."
Responses to Lynching
Lynchings of black people were not prosecuted. Still, the lynching of Smith and, even more so, the deaths of several white mob members, created an outcry and provided an opening for the mostly African American critics of lynching in Virginia. Governor Philip W. McKinney responded to the pressure by addressing lynching for the first and only time of his term in his final message to the General Assembly on December 6, 1893. Suggesting that after their emancipation from slavery the state's African Americans had been "ignorant and reckless," the governor excused lynching as a temporary remedy whose time had passed, largely because it no longer worked as a deterrent. Only "a trial and the solemnities of the death sentence," McKinney said, could properly prevent crimes like the one committed in Roanoke.
Black communities, terrorized by lynchings, often resisted by arming themselves, fighting back, and hiding or secreting away potential victims. They continued to be political activists, participating as much as possible in local politics even after Reconstruction protections vanished and their voting rights eroded. Black churches provided leadership and encouragement to their communities, and they were supported by national leaders such as Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, and the NAACP, who all condoned fighting back, armed, against a legal system that had yet to protect them. With numbers greatly against them, the black community throughout the South also responded to lynchings by leaving. The Great Migration saw hundreds of thousands of African American people leave the southern states between 1915 and 1930.
It was relatively easy for the white political elite to ignore the responses of the black press and the larger black community, however. While Governor McKinney's successor, Charles T. O'Ferrall, was more active in the antilynching cause, his motives were to restore a sense of order and uphold an elite reputation in Virginia. O'Ferrall often sent state troops to protect potential lynching victims, but he did not question white supremacy. With law and order his supreme goal, he helped usher in the use of courts to replace lynch mobs. Preserving Virginia's national reputation as an orderly state, the Virginia courts more readily convicted and executed African Americans. Significantly, the only legislation relevant to lynching passed in the 1890s regarded rape. It increased the penalty for a black man convicted of raping a white woman to execution, further solidifying the connection between white suspicions of black sexuality, and black punishment.
Only after another lynching the next year, after which Governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. claimed the state had "no legal jurisdiction" in the matter, was the General Assembly moved to act. On March 14, 1928, Byrd signed into law the Barron-Connor Act, named after its sponsors, state senators James S. Barron, of Norfolk, and Cecil Connor, of Leesburg. Although embodying the nation's strictest antilynching measure by making lynching a state crime and authorizing the governor to appoint a special prosecutor in lynching cases, many argue that the law was motivated by the desire to avoid federal involvement. If the General Assembly could pass its own law regarding lynch mobs, it could protect state sovereignty and avoid Reconstruction-like government intervention. Brundage writes that the antilynching law was a "victory" for "social order" but not for "racial enlightenment."
Likely due to the state focus on law and order and the courts' ability to reinforce an acceptable racial hierarchy, lynchings already had largely stopped in Virginia. (A spate of violence in the 1920s served as a short-term exception.) "On balance, then, the virtual demise of lynching in the state by 1904 did not mark a new era of racial harmony and tolerance," Brundage argues. "After all, the criminal justice system continued to punish blacks harshly, executing them with frightful regularity." The political elite's relatively outsized concern with law and order, combined with the fact that lynching never took root as deeply in Virginia as elsewhere, allowed more room for opposition and change. And by emphasizing issues of law and order, politicians in Virginia could sidestep the often thorny issues of race that lay at the root of lynching.
The federal government, meanwhile, never approved an antilynching law, with the House of Representatives passing three measures that eventually were voted down in the Senate. In 2005, U.S. senators Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, and George Allen, a Republican from Virginia, co-sponsored a resolution apologizing for that fact.
Lynching caused widespread terror in African American communities across the South. It likely contributed to the Great Migration, and those who stayed, meanwhile, were left to an environment of random violence and social estrangement. As the historian Edward L. Ayers has written, "For generations, young black men learned early in their lives that they could at any time be grabbed by a white mob—whether for murder, looking at a white woman the wrong way, or merely being 'smart'—and dragged into the woods or a public street to be tortured, burned, mutilated."
1669 - The General Assembly passes "An act about the casuall killing of slaves." It states that masters who kill their slaves in the act of punishing them are not responsible of murder.
1706–1784 - As many as 555 slaves are executed in Virginia.
August 1, 1780 - Thomas Jefferson advises Charles Lynch to continue his extralegal work of trying and sentencing Loyalists in central Virginia.
July 6, 1835 - Five white gamblers are lynched by a mob in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
April 28, 1836 - Francis McIntosh, a free black man, is burned to death in Saint Louis by a mob after he kills a white police officer.
January 27, 1838 - In a speech delivered in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln criticizes mob justice and two recent lynchings.
1856 - Turner Ashby leads a vigilante mob against John C. Underwood, of Clarke County, who has spoken out against slavery at the Republican Party's convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Underwood is attacked in several major national newspapers.
April 2, 1863 - Denied a meeting with Governor John Letcher, a group of Richmond women begin looting shops downtown to protest insufficient food, initiating what came to be known as the Bread Riot. One account claims Letcher calls out the Home Guard and threatens to have the women shot unless they disperse.
October 21, 1864 - Two enslaved African Americans, Ben and William, are executed for burglary in Richmond.
1880–1955 - About 106 people are lynched in Virginia, eighty-nine of them African Americans.
February 1880 - Page Wallace, an African American accused of raping a white woman, is lynched in Leesburg.
October 2, 1882 - Jim Rhodes, a white man accused of killing an elderly couple, is lynched in Albemarle County.
November 3, 1883 - Racial and political tensions erupt in an election-eve street fight in Danville that leaves at least one white and four black men dead.
November 8, 1889 - Orion (sometimes Owen) Anderson is lynched in Loudoun County for a scaring a white girl.
October 17, 1891 - Several African American miners are lynched in Clifton Forge after resisting arrest and killing a white posse member.
1892 - Ida B. Wells publishes her pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
February 12, 1892 - Will Lavender, an African American man accused of assaulting a white girl, is lynched in Roanoke.
February 1, 1893 - Five African American miners accused of murder are lynched in Tazewell County.
September 21, 1893 - Thomas Smith, an African American man accused of assault and robbery, is lynched in Roanoke.
November 1, 1893 - A mob lynches Abe Redmond, a white farmer in Charlotte County accused of assault.
December 6, 1893 - In his final address to the General Assembly, Governor Philip W. McKinney speaks out against lynching.
April 23, 1897 - Joseph McCoy, an African American man accused of raping a white girl, is lynched in Alexandria.
July 1, 1899 - Six white men are convicted of second degree murder in Patrick County for lynching another white man.
March 24, 1900 - A white mob in Greensville County lynches Walter Cotton, an African American accused of murder, and a black mob lynches his white partner, Brandt O'Grady.
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.
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.
June 13, 2005 - U.S. senators Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana, and George Allen, of Virginia, co-sponsor a resolution apologizing for the Senate's past refusal to pass antilynching legislation.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Wolfe, B., & Baker, L. K. Lynching in Virginia. (2016, November 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Lynching_in_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Wolfe, Brendan and Laura K. Baker. "Lynching in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Nov. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 3, 2016 | Last modified: November 7, 2016
Contributed by Brendan Wolfe and Laura K. Baker. Brendan Wolfe is managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. Laura K. Baker is a writer and editor, with a PhD in American literature.