Three days after Isaac Brandon, a 43-year-old father of eight, was seized by a mob of masked men from the Charles City County courthouse jail and hanged from a nearby tree in 1892, the Richmond Dispatch newspaper recorded his lynching as the “merited fate of Isaac Brandon, the Charles-City Negro Fiend.”
On Sunday, 127 years after that night, a crowd of more than 80 people—about the same size of the mob more than a century before—gathered at the same courthouse for the unveiling of a historical marker commemorating Brandon’s death and those of about 100 other lynching victims in the state. It is the first historical marker to do this in Virginia.
Lynching has been “the chief method to intimidate an entire race of people, without legal representation, without a trial, without a lawyer, without due process, without any regard to your humanity,” said Colita Nichols Fairfax, vice chairwoman of the state Board of Historic Resources, in a speech. “You become a tortured victim because you are black.”
Nichols Fairfax read the headline of the Richmond Dispatch article as a reminder of how lynching and racism were once accepted in Virginia.
“In our exercise of memory today, we have to pledge ourselves to right the wrong,” she said. “This marker reminds us of the violence of lynching. It keeps Mr. Brandon’s memory alive and it pushes us to continue to struggle with the dregs that are at the bottom of history.”
The marker sits along the Virginia Capital Trail, a 52-mile cycling and pedestrian path that stretches from Richmond to Williamsburg. The sign is part of the state Department of Historic Resources’ attempt in recent years to feature a more balanced representation of Virginia’s history through its historical marker program, said Julie Langan, the department’s director.
“Even those [stories] that are painful—even those that some people think have been forgotten, we use our marker program to educate the public,” Langan said.
Brandon, who was accused of attacking a white woman, never received a trial before he was killed on April 6, 1892. No charges were filed against anyone who took part in his killing, the marker states.
In preparing to erect this marker, organizers in Charles City worked to track down Brandon’s descendants and found Tish McDonald, his great-great-granddaughter, through her mother’s obituary. Along with McDonald, more than a dozen other Brandons who may be related to Isaac Brandon attended Sunday’s event.
State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, extended the family condolences for their loss, telling the crowd gathered: “It is very much overdue, but very sincere.”
McClellan, Senate chairwoman of the General Assembly’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, said the state is taking the initiative to commemorate African American history and that its latest project will be to focus on lynching.
The project was inspired by the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization focused on racial inequality, which found more than 4,000 documented lynchings of African Americans in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.
McClellan then read from a resolution passed in February by the General Assembly acknowledging “profound regret for the existence and acceptance of lynching” in the state, a resolution that she said was the first of its kind to be passed by any state.
Culpeper historian Zann Nelson initiated creation of the resolution following years of research about the 1918 lynching in Culpeper of Charles “Allie” Thompson, also accused of assault on a white woman and forcibly removed by a mob from the local jail that still stands.
“This apology, I know, is too little, too late for the Brandon family and the families of over 100 Virginians who were killed through racial terror,” McClellan said. “But it’s a start.”
McDonald learned of her great-great-grandfather’s fate only after being contacted about the historical marker. For her, the realization that her ancestors were victims of lynching—not only in the general sense of being terrorized as a people, but in the specific violence against Brandon—was a reminder of the importance of standing up to hate.
“All it takes is a few to stand up and say, ‘no,’ just like with the women in the #MeToo movement,” McDonald said. “At the core of it, we’re all human and we want the same things: we want to be loved, cherished, be successful, have families and just live—a God-given right.”
After the marker was unveiled, a dozen or so Brandons—some of them meeting each other for the first time—gathered for photos at the sign. Then they chatted and exchanged numbers.
McDonald’s 9- and 10-year-old nephews ran around and played on the grassy hill that separates the marker from the courthouse, not far from where their great-great-great-uncle was hanged.
She hopes that they will grow up knowing their history, both the painful and the faith-filled.