WHEN CITY Sgt. J. Conway Chichester heard that a mob planned to storm the jail and hang his prisoner, he stayed late to keep watch.
By 1 a.m., all was quiet in Fredericksburg, however, and Chichester decided to go home.
But the leaders of the lynch mob were watching, and as soon as Chichester left, they marched on the jail. Armed with crowbars, a sledgehammer and a rope, they were after Charles H. Blandford, a black man from Belmont in Spotsylvania County.
The year was 1904, and today it is not clear what led to Blandford's arrest or sparked the mob's anger. In its report at the time, the Fredericksburg Daily Star said only that the charge against him was "very serious."
One of the deputies alerted Chichester--by then at his home--and the lawman quickly returned to the jail. In the alley, he noticed that someone had turned off the gas lamp on the street. Forty to 50 people stood in the darkness.
Chichester fired shots into the air, and the crowd dispersed, leaving their tools behind. Blandford was spared to stand trial.
Chichester's actions were unusual for turn-of-the-century Virginia. Most local sheriffs did not oppose lynch mobs, preferring instead to surrender their prisoners without a fight. As a result, 71 blacks were lynched in Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These incidents illustrate a little-known chapter in Virginia's past. The state has much in its history of which it is proud, but for blacks, from the 1880s to the 1930s, it could be a hostile, even dangerous, place.
Take the case of George Henderson. A 26-year-old resident of North Carolina, Henderson was traveling through Virginia in 1903 when he got off a train in Ingham, near Luray. A crowd of men immediately started chasing him. Henderson tried to cross the Shenandoah River on top of a mill dam, but he was swept away by the current and drowned.
The men who chased him were "attempting to carry out an unwritten law of the community which forbids Negroes from passing through or stopping in that section," reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Lynching occurred in all parts of the United States during its early history. But no time or place matched the ferocity of the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, in their study "A Festival of Violence," list 2,018 black lynch victims in 10 Southern states during the period 1882-1930. Some parts of the South averaged a lynching a week.
VIRGINIA WAS not spared this mania, though only two Southern states--North Carolina and West Virginia--had fewer lynch deaths.
Virginia averaged a lynching every nine months, enough to make it seem almost routine.
When Allie Thompson was seized from the jail and hanged in Culpeper in 1918, the Culpeper Exponent said: "There was no struggle or scuffling. The whole proceeding was remarkably quiet and devoid of any exciting circumstances or noise."
Historians define lynching as a type of "frontier justice." Usually, it was the summary execution of an accused criminal at the hands of a mob. About 85 percent of lynch victims in Virginia were black.
The deaths were usually by hanging, but also could be by shooting, burning, beating or, in Henderson's case, drowning.
Lynching reflected the hostility that many whites felt toward blacks. In 1892, Virginia Gov. Philip W. McKinney wrote a letter to a Norfolk judge, asking why the sponsors of a boxing match there had not been prosecuted for violating the state law against prize fights.
McKinney wrote no letters that year to officials in Roanoke, Charles City, Louisa, Scottsville or Pittsylvania County, when mobs in those localities lynched blacks.
The words used in newspaper stories--another measure of community sentiment--also reflected whites' feelings toward blacks. Stories described black lynch victims as "brutes" and "demons," who were "thick-lipped" and "repulsive."
Lynching was an acceptable way of dealing with these menacing "ruffians," editorials said, because it was certain, speedy and terrible.
This attitude was apparent in the death of Thomas Smith in Roanoke in 1893.
Smith was alleged to have attacked a white woman, and after his arrest a mob stormed the jail and lynched him.
Afterward, mob members cut down the body, loaded it on a coal cart and headed for the river. There they built a funeral pyre with planks, dry cedar boughs and several gallons of kerosene.
Soon flames enveloped Smith's body. When the fire burned low, more planks were added. When a portion of the body fell from the fire, someone pushed it back with a pole.
"This performance was kept up until all that remained of Thomas Smith was a small pile of ashes," reported the Richmond Times.
SCHOLARS OFFER a number of rea-
sons for lynching. Whites used it to
punish blacks accused of crimes, to
intimidate other blacks and to main-
tain their dominance following the Civil War. Lynching also eliminated black competition for jobs and land.
Mob members were rarely if ever arrested or convicted, despite the fact that some historians, such as Arthur Raper, believe that up to one-third of all lynch victims were falsely accused.
The lynchers usually hid their identities behind masks and worked at night. But they chose public locations for their executions.
They were done beside busy roads, at street corners or, in the 1884 lynching of Peter Bland in King William, at the county courthouse.
In 1893 outside Winchester, a mob seized William Shorter from the sheriff on a crowded train and lynched him beside the track in view of all the passengers.
In this and other cases, the lynchers sent a clear message of intimidation: Whites could kill blacks without fear of arrest or disapproval from their neighbors.
Community support for lynching also could be seen in the size of lynch mobs and in the elaborate planning. Lynchings were a form of community entertainment, what some have called a ritual of sacrifice.
More than 3,000 people took part in the hanging of Benjamin Thomas in downtown Alexandria in 1899. When five blacks were lynched in Buchanan County in 1893, the crowd of men, women and children was so large--at least 500 people--that they had to climb onto rooftops to see.
More than 2,000 farmers took to the streets near Petersburg in 1921 to lynch Lem Johnson. A mob of more than 500 people lynched James Jordan outside Waverly in 1925, and more than 300 took part in the lynching of Leonard Woods in Wise County in 1927.
Advance notice was required to attract crowds of this size. The lynchers of James Black in 1880 in Dinwiddie County "came from different directions and from different portions of the county, as though in accordance with a preconcerted arrangement," according to the Petersburg Index-Appeal.
Stories in two Norfolk papers in 1885 predicted the lynching of suspected child-murderer Noah Cherry. Even with these warnings, authorities did not stop the seizure of Cherry, and a follow-up story the next day said, "As we predicted in our last issue, the murderer paid the penalty of his crime Sunday night at the hands of Judge Lynch."
Many mob members sought mementos of the lynching and proudly displayed them. Residents of Norfolk visited the scene of Cherry's hanging and brought back pieces of the tree. In addition, the rope was cut into pieces and given to all who wanted them. "One man secured the hat and shoes of the fiend and they can now be seen at his place of business on Market square," the Norfolk Landmark reported.
Hundreds of Charlottesville-area residents plucked relics from the tree on which John Henry James was lynched in 1898. And residents of Roanoke stripped branches from the tree and clothing from the body of Thomas Smith after his lynching there.
These incidents occurred against a backdrop of ever-worsening race relations. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Virginia blacks experienced organized campaigns of segregation, discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Blacks were excluded from or segregated in hotels, restaurants, bars, theaters and hospitals. Virginia laws in 1900 required separate seating on railroads, followed by similar legislation in 1906 for streetcars.
State legislation in 1894 began the process of excluding blacks from voting, and a change to the state constitution in 1902 completed the task. With these legislative changes, said historian Charles E. Wynes, Virginia blacks lost most of what they had gained since the Civil War, except their legal freedom and the right to a minimum public education.
BLACKS PROTESTED their treat-
ment, and sometimes their
protest spilled into the streets.
Troops were sent to Clifton
Forge, Norfolk and other towns after lynchings, when blacks were said to be upset. In Alexandria in 1899, blacks marched downtown when Benjamin Thomas was arrested, but they dispersed and could not prevent his lynching the next night.
Black leaders, such as John Mitchell, editor of the Richmond Planet, a black weekly, argued that lynching was an embarrassment to Virginia and drove prosperity from the door.
In addition, lynching violated state and federal laws, Mitchell said. It was premeditated murder, and when state and local officials refused to prosecute it, when they "passively submitted," he said, they became accessories to the crimes.
Mitchell also invoked the teachings of the Bible and the protections of the U.S. Constitution. Blacks were the "civil and political" equals of whites, he said. Blacks accused of crimes should be assumed innocent and guaranteed the opportunity to confront their accusers, to examine the evidence against them and to plead their cases before a jury of peers.
They also were "human souls," made in God's image, with a sacred right to life, he said.
These arguments eventually won the day. The number of lynchings in Virginia began to decline after the turn of the century, and historians trace this trend to two incidents.
The first was the Roanoke lynching of Smith in 1893.
Roanoke Mayor Henry S. Trout called out the Roanoke Light Infantry Blues to protect Smith from the lynch mob. The troops were posted in front of the jail as the mob approached. No one knows who fired first, but when the shooting was over, eight mob members were killed and 30 were wounded. Despite the shootings, the mob seized Smith and killed him.
The incident, according to historian Ann Field Alexander, showed that whites as well as blacks were threatened by lynching.
Another lynching, which occurred almost a decade later, had a similar effect. In 1904, a mob in Emporia lynched two men, Walter Cotton and Brandt O'Grady. Just prior to their deaths, the local sheriff and judge requested troops to protect the prisoners.
Troops arrived within hours, sent by Gov. J. Hoge Tyler, but they departed the next day, when local authorities changed their minds and asked them to leave. Tyler ordered the militia commander to comply with the wishes of the local authorities, despite the commander's protests that a lynching would surely result.
Within hours of the troops' departure, the commander was proved correct. Cotton and O'Grady were lynched.
Criticism was heaped on the governor for withdrawing the troops. The Richmond Times carried front-page stories on five consecutive days, blasting Tyler with headlines such as "The Governor is Condemned" and "A Lame Defense."
A national publication, The Independent, added: "The blame we put on the Governor of Virginia. He was supposed, from his official position, to rise above local passion and protect the people."
After that incident, governors never again refused the use of troops to protect prisoners.
W.FITZHUGH BRUNDAGE, in his history of lynching in Virginia, said that the controversy over the events in Emporia demonstrated that mob violence posed a serious threat to social order, and that governors had to assume responsibility for the prevention of lynching.
Across the South, whites eventually came to agree with blacks, that lynching was a threat to the region. The NAACP, founded in 1909, made this argument in a relentless campaign.
Walter White, one of the NAACP's early leaders, also believed that the migration of blacks from the South contributed to the decline of lynching. More than 2 million blacks moved from the South beginning in 1916, in effect protesting their treatment with their feet.
"Mobbing Negroes was not the best method of retaining Negro labor," White said.
Another factor in the decline of lynching was the introduction of state and federal anti-lynching legislation. Virginia passed a bill in 1928 which made lynching a state offense to be prosecuted by the attorney general. No longer would prosecution of the crime be left to local officials.
In introducing the legislation, Gov. Harry F. Byrd said: "Virginia is the last state in the Union where lynching should be tolerated, for Virginia contributed to America the leaders who taught that this was a government by laws."
But lynching was never as firmly rooted in Virginia as it was in other Southern states. The practice offended one of the basic tenets of the Virginia character, what Brundage described as its "elitist and temperamentally conservative" nature.
Virginians revered "law and order," he said, and lynching was anything but that. Lynching was anarchy.
Arthur Jordan, Fauquier
Page Wallace, Loudoun
James Black, Dinwiddie
William Allen, Warwick
Peter Bland, King William
Alvy Jackson, Bland
(now Virginia Beach)
Henry Mason, Campbell
John Wilson, Patrick
Kellis Moorman, Henry
Reuben Cole, Surry
William Henry Smith,
Bruce Younger, Halifax
Martin Rollins, Russell
Scott Bailey, Halifax
John Forbes, Nottoway
Samuel Garner, Tazewell
Owen Anderson, Loudoun
Scott Bishop, Nottoway
Tom Pannell, Pittsylvania
Charles Miller, Alleghany
John Scott, Alleghany
Robert Burton, Alleghany
George Towler, Pittsylvania
William Lavender, Roanoke
Issac Brandon, Charles City
Joe William Anderson,
Phillip Young, Scottsville
Jerry Brown, Graham
Spencer Branch, Graham
John Johnson, Graham
Sam Ellerson, Graham
Sam Blow, Graham
Abner Anthony, Bath
Arthur Morgan, Tazewell
George Halsey, Smythe
William Shorter, Frederick
Jesse Mitchell, Amelia
Thomas Smith, Roanoke
Samuel Wood, Scott
Joseph McCoy, Alexandria
John Henry James,
Walter Cotton, Emporia
Pinkney Murphy, Nelson
Dan Long, Wythe
Herbert Wailer, Halifax
James Carter, Amherst
Wiley Gwynn, Wise
Charles Craven, Loudoun
George Henderson, Luray
Andrew Dudley, Afton
George Blount, Berkley
Mack Neal, Warren
William Page, Heathsville
Walter Clark, Pittsylvania
Allie Thompson, Culpeper
Dave Hunt, Wise
Lem Johnson, Brunswick
Horace Carter, King William
James Jordan, Waverly
Raymond Bird, Wytheville
Leonard Woods, Wise
Source: "Lynching in the New South,"
by W. Fitzhugh Brundage
Staff writer Jim Hall researched newspaper coverage of Virginia lynchings as part of his recently completed master's degree program at Virginia Commonwealth University.