Colonial and Revolutionary Periods
Lynching existed inand Revolutionary Virginia as a method of punishing crime in the absence of law enforcement. Whites were most often the victims during this period, and lynchings were less lethal than after the Civil War. While there is some dispute, many historians trace the term to the actions of Charles Lynch, of Bedford County. A former member of the who became a colonel of the state militia during the American Revolution, Lynch patrolled central Virginia against Loyalist uprisings. There were few, if any, working courts in Virginia, so when Lynch and his men captured suspected Loyalists, they tried them outside the law. While these trials were conducted with a surprising degree of fairness, most prisoners were convicted, and Lynch often sentenced them to a variety of corporal punishments, including whipping and flogging, but rarely death. It is unclear whether Lynch ordered any executions himself, but Loyalists were occasionally hanged, especially in the summer of 1780, when Virginians worried about a British invasion. In a letter dated August 1 of that year, Governor urged Lynch to take “vigorous, decisive measures” in capturing and trying Loyalists, and after the war the General Assembly immunized him from prosecution for any crimes he may have committed in the process.
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-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.
Executions and torture were less frequent in America than in Great Britain—at least for white people. For enslaved African Americans they were a frequent threat. As many as 555 enslaved people werein Virginia from 1706 to 1784, while non-lethal punishments, such as branding and whipping, were widely practiced. Formal executions aside, much of the violence against African Americans was inflicted not by the state but by private citizens. Enslavers held absolute power over their enslaved people, such that in 1669 the General Assembly ordered that the killing of enslaved people during punishment should not be charged as murder. Non-slaveholding whites were also often obliged to participate in this system of violence toward African Americans, that searched for . According to the historian Manfred Berg, these practices helped lead to latter-day lynching by making African Americans the legitimate targets of violence, by implicating large numbers of whites in that violence, and by legalizing violence outside of the government.
Antebellum and Civil War Years
During the nineteenth century, court-imposed executions became less frequent, reserved only for the most heinous crimes, and were often carried out in private. At the same time, American politics, under the influence of President Andrew Jackson, became more associated with the “common man” and anti-authoritarianism. Mobs, a regular feature of the American Revolution, became more common than ever, often seeking to replace the ritual of public executions. There were 147 mob-related incidents across the country in 1835 alone, resulting in seventy-one deaths. About 40 percent of those mobs were responding to tensions over slavery, which in Virginia heightened after Nat Turner’s revolt in 1831. Just two weeks after the uprising, a man named Robinson was stripped and whipped nearly to death outside Petersburg for saying privately that slavery was wrong. In 1835, an Englishman with a similar name, Robertson, was accused of abolitionism and, perhaps having been confused with the earlier man. Other violence could be traced to the increase in immigration and the resulting disputes over religion.
Historians have pointed to one event in particular as being a turning point in the history of mob violence, in terms of both its death toll and how it seemed to resemble lynchings that would become relatively common sixty years later. In July 1835, after several gamblers disrupted a Fourth of July celebration, a group of citizens in Vicksburg, Mississippi, unilaterally ordered all gamblers to leave town, despite the fact that gambling was legal in the state. When a member of a large mob enforcing the edict was killed, five gamblers were summarily hanged. The local newspaperby complaining that the courts were too weak and suggesting that “society … can sometimes be purified only by a storm.” What marked this event as different from many subsequent lynchings is that all the participants were white. The next year, however, a mob a free Black man in Saint Louis after he killed a white law enforcement officer. In delivered in Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, Abraham Lincoln referenced both events in bemoaning “this mobocratic spirit which all must admit is now abroad in the land.”
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 In a to the New York Times, Underwood described Virginia as “ready to burst” with violence—the result of proslavery mobs whipping up rumors of insurrections by enslaved people and creating scapegoats out of abolitionists like himself., a future Confederate general from Clarke County, ran the abolitionist out of the state. “Don’t you think we ought to give him a coat of tar?” Ashby wrote to a friend at the time, but Underwood escaped unhurt.
Mob justice remained a part of American life during the Civil War and took on an increasingly political role, most notably during the New York City draft riots in July 1863. Earlier in the year, a group of hungry womenin , chanting “Bread or blood!” Only when authorities threatened to fire on the crowd did the women disperse. Violence against African Americans, meanwhile, continued apace. Benjamin Summers, a living in Portsmouth, was kidnapped by Confederate authorities and into service digging ditches. He that when he tried to escape, “I was given 500 lashes and then rubbed down with salt brine.” He showed his interviewer “a fearful looking body where he has been whipped, his hips looking as though large pieces of flesh had been dug out.”
In October 1864, two, Ben and William, were legally executed in Richmond for burglary. A described them as docile and even “cheerful,” showing “respect and reverence for the occasion.” It was precisely this perceived docility and respect that many white Virginians found to be absent after the , when Blacks began to exercise their rights as citizens and to . With less legal authority to control Blacks, whites sought new methods to maintain a racial hierarchy, such as the . White communities throughout the South also increasingly turned to mob violence. Federal intervention provided some control in the years following emancipation, but after in 1870, violence escalated. By the early 1880s, with the rise of the biracial , the white backlash was unfettered by federal protections for African Americans. In Danville, where four African Americans sat on the twelve-member city council, white merchants of “Negro domination.” When whites , killing at least five people, four of them Black, a that the city’s African Americans had been “taught a lesson.”
Lynching, or “lynch law” as it was sometimes called, began in earnest in Virginia in 1880 at a time when white Virginians were attempting to reassert their control over the African American population. Lynchings often involved rituals and torture. They occurred as a result of a crime, a perceived crime, or any racially charged incident in a region. They regularly involved the complicity of local governments, and while they sometimes drew the condemnation of state officials, lynchings were almost never prosecuted.
Early in February 1880, Page Wallace, an African American who had escaped from jail in Leesburg, allegedly raped a white woman. Adeclared him “A Virginia Negro Who Will Be Lynched If Captured.” Indeed, later that month the that Wallace had been “Swung Up to the Limb of a Sycamore Tree.”
Wallace would not be alone. 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 that there were 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, tabulators 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, which 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 so. 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.”
About thirty-four of the eighty-six lynchings Brundage counted between 1880 and 1930 involved, like Wallace’s, accusations of rape or attempted rape against white women, a crime to which whites believed African Americans were particularly prone. Such attitudes were borne from two longstanding white southern traditions—demonizing Blacks and defending white womanly honor—and they often led directly to lynchings. In the post-emancipation South, Black men were often caricatured as subhuman, ruled by their appetites, and disposed to commit violent crime. The definition of rape was broad, with the mere presence of a Black man with a solitary white woman generating an accusation and possible punishment. The repeated suggestion that, given the opportunity, Black men were likely to rape white women has been described, by Michael Ayers Trotti, as a “fixation” and by numerous other historians as a myth, one that dates back to slavery and, in particular, a romanticizing of white womanhood and a paranoid distrust of enslaved African Americans.
The Plantation Negro as a Freeman
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, the “negro scoundrel,” probably also a teenager, was later taken from jail by a mob and hanged. In February 1892, the Roanoke Times 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 , only to have still another African American man, Will Lavender, lynched the day after that. Without mentioning the first suspect, the Roanoke Times 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, , and pieces of rope were 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 Gazettethat 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. Theyto 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 reformers to highlight problems with law enforcement only served to encourage and justify lynchers.
According to Brundage’s numbers, sixteen of the eighty-six men lynched in Virginia between 1880 and 1930 were white (18.6 percent), perhaps the highest percentage of white victims in the South. The lynchings of whites tended to be different from those of Blacks, however. Fewer crimes warranted mob violence against whites, with two-thirds of white lynching victims,, of Albemarle County, being accused of murder. Such mobs also tended to be smaller, suggesting less community involvement and less of a need to send a broad message about community standards. Victims were rarely tortured or mutilated, and the perpetrators were more often the subjects of community condemnation and legal punishment. On July 12, 1898, a mob in Patrick County lynched Lee Puckett, a white man and discharged mental patient accused of rape. Six white men of second-degree murder for their participation in that lynching.
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 and to restrict the social movement of Black people and send reminders about what their “place” was in the South. Many lynchings, then, 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 thebetween 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.
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.”
The Shenandoah Valley region had the fewest lynchings during that time period (two), while Southwest Virginia had the most (twenty-eight). Historians have 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. 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.
Lynchings in Virginia
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 Smith (with some historians suggesting local police complicity), lynching him 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, “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 hison 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.
The African American press, meanwhile, provided the most vocal criticism of lynching. In 1892, Ida B. Wells, a black journalist working in Memphis, Tennessee, published the pamphlet Wm. E. Hatcher lives in Virginia.”. Friends of hers had been lynched and Wells barely escaped the fate herself. In Virginia, John Mitchell Jr., the African American editor of the Richmond Planet, led the state’s antilynching forces. His paper regularly listed and reported on victims of lynching, Black and white, from across the country, and he responded to defenses of lynching with a combination of righteous fury and blistering sarcasm. In 1894, Mitchell of the Baptist minister William E. Hatcher, of Richmond, who claimed, “We do not have many mobs, and when they do occur they are condemned on every side.” Mitchell then listed eighteen recent lynchings in Virginia alone, noting dryly, “we would remark that Rev. Dr.
Mitchell championed the cases of African Americans he believed to have been wrongly accused or unfairly tried and widely publicized the remarkable experience of Isaac Jenkins, an African American in Nansemond County who survived a lynching in 1893 and was eventually acquitted of arson and poisoning horses. In particular, Mitchell called on his fellow African Americans to stand up for themselves. When he was personally threatened with lynching in a letter sent to him from Charlotte County, he publicly toured the county, daring anyone to hurt him. In a, in 1902, Mitchell echoed Wells’ national campaign against lynching that emphasized the African American right to self-defense. Mitchell encouraged his listeners to “Make every cabin in the Southland an arsenal and let the cowardly skulking lyncher know that when he comes to lynch a man, be he black or white, grizzled or gray, he might as well bring along a lumber wagon with his coffin in it.”
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. 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 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.
Ku Klux Klan in Virginia
Only after another lynching the next year, after which Governorclaimed 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, afrom Virginia, co-sponsored a .
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 in 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.”