Virginia in a Regional Context
Fewer African Americans were lynched in Virginia than in any other southern state in the twentieth century, a dubious distinction, perhaps, but one that nevertheless reinforced for white Virginians the superiority of their paternalistic system of race relations. Though less active than elsewhere in the South, mobs in Virginia summarily executed at least seventy blacks between 1880 and 1930. As was the case throughout the rest of the South, more lynchings occurred in the 1890s than in any other decade, and each succeeding decade saw a drop in the numbers, although often an increase in brutality. In Virginia, no lynchings were officially recorded from 1906 to 1916; mobs took the lives of two men in 1917 and one in 1918.
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.
Mob violence, however, remained essentially a local affair, virtually unexplainable by larger models of behavior. Local mobs responded to perceived causation and local officials usually chose to take no action. State officials refused to intervene. During the 1920s, such local occurrences assumed statewide relevance. While the rest of the South continued to note a decline in mob violence in the 1920s, the frequency of mob deaths in the state increased. Virginians lynched at least six black men in the 1920s, double the number of the previous decade. Each instance of mob violence further undermined the state’s reputation at a time when the press, political leaders, and business elites were working hard to attract industry and manufacturing. Concurrently, groups such as the Commission on Interracial Cooperation attacked mob violence on moral grounds. In this climate, lynching emerged as a state issue that required a state solution.
Lynching in the 1920s
In 1920, 1921, and 1923, mobs in Wise County, Brunswick County, and King and Queen County carried out extralegal killings. More than likely an additional lynching took place in Halifax County in 1920, although that murder was never officially recorded as such. Each lynching elicited a chorus of condemnation from the state’s white press, but more often than not such criticism came with qualifications. Louis Jaffé proved to be the exception. He denounced the October 13, 1923 lynching of Horace Carter in King and Queen County in the strongest terms yet to appear in a white newspaper in the state, and called on local authorities to “make public the names of the men capable, in the name of ‘justice,’ of shooting to death an untried and unconvicted man while he lay on the ground handcuffed and hobbled.” Predictably, local officials took no action.
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 death was given a one-sentence mention in the August 23 issue of Time magazine: “At Wytheville, Va., last week gentry stormed the county jail; shot Raymond Bird, 31, Negro; hanged his black body to a tree.” The reporting glossed over the grisly specifics of the case, however. Bird was being held in jail accused of assaulting the two white daughters of his employer, and while local officials knew a mob had formed, they did little to protect the prisoner. According to an Associated Press report, the mob shot Bird and beat his head “into a pulp.” They then tied a rope around his neck, attached his corpse to a waiting automobile, and dragged his body nine miles to the scene of his alleged assaults. There, they strung his body to a tree and filled it with more bullets.
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.
Byrd evinced no particular proclivity to endorse a state antilynching law in the wake of Raymond Bird’s death. But when a lynch mob struck in Virginia for the third year in a row, Jaffé pushed the hesitant governor to act. In the early morning hours of November 30, 1927, a Wise County mob, estimated at three hundred to four hundred people, lynched Leonard Woods on a platform that straddled the Virginia-Kentucky border. For days and weeks, authorities in both states quibbled over whether to charge the lynching to Kentucky or Virginia. Virginia’s governor condemned the act, but appeared satisfied that “Virginia has no legal jurisdiction.”
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.”
As Jaffé and others had predicted, local authorities in Wise County made no serious efforts to punish those responsible for the murder of Leonard Woods. But by December 1927, such inactivity no longer met the approval of all local leaders or the silence of the rest of the state. Throughout December and early January, Jaffé continuously pushed his call for an antilynching law. Finally, on January 16, 1928, Byrd asked the Virginia General Assembly to declare lynching “a specific State offense” that would allow the state attorney general to prosecute lynchings in addition to local authorities; to force counties or cities in which a lynching occurred to pay $2,500 to the lawful heirs of the person lynched; and to authorize the governor to spend whatever money considered necessary and appropriate to bring to justice members of a mob. Carefully guarding himself against charges of violating local authority, Byrd added that “it should be made clear that declaring lynching as a specific State offense does not take away the constitutional rights of accused citizens for trial in localities where the crime was committed.” The governor’s caveat limited the likelihood that white Virginians would be convicted of lynching; friends and neighbors rarely recognized guilt in such cases.
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.