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April 17, 2017

Lynchings, WWI & the Church

Last Monday I enjoyably lunched in Warrenton, Virginia with IRD’s board member Paul Marshall, a distinguished religious liberty scholar. Afterwards I strolled the historic downtown and visited the over 200 year old jail, now museum, where I bought a new book on what was likely Virginia’s last lynching, which was outside Warrenton.

The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia┬áby journalist Jim Hall recounts events surrounding the 1932 hanging of Shedrick Thompson, a black farm laborer who assaulted the married white couple for whom he worked and raped the wife. A nearly two month search for the fugitive ended when his decomposing body was founded hanging from a remote apple tree. Upon discovery, a crowd quickly assembled, including reportedly attendees at a local Pentecostal revival. The hanging body was set afire, and a sheriff’s deputy was prevented from dousing the flames. Only the skull survived, and members of the crowd took teeth as souvenirs.

Thompson’s hanging was ruled a suicide by the county coroner and a local jury. Hall’s book judges he was actually lynched by vigilantes and their crime obscured to avoid controversy. Officially Virginia’s last lynching predated the state’s 1928 anti-lynching law supported by then Governor Harry Byrd, who lived only 30 miles away from Thompson’s hanging and was personal friends with Thompson’s victims, Mamie Baxley and her husband Henry.

Byrd in 1932 was running for president and didn’t want a new Virginia lynching to mar his legacy. He lost the nomination to FDR but went on to become a legendary senator of several decades, presiding over a political machine that ruled Virginia until the 1960s. Byrd, a defender of segregation, also facilitated the rise of his younger colleague LBJ, whose later civil rights legislation as president he opposed. Such was Byrd’s influence that he even persuaded the NAACP in 1932 to delist Thompson as a lynch victim.

Local authorities in Warrenton were likely happy to label Thompson’s death as a suicide, having little desire to investigate the lynching perpetrators, whom Hall identifies as probably including two local brothers named DeButts. Their great nephew told the author his grandmother, their sister, had told him of the lynching. He also echoes others in saying Thompson was tortured and mutilated, although the official report had denied it for the benefit of the suicide story. The nephew admits to reluctance about airing his family’s involvement but thinks the story should be told.

The Warrenton newspaper in 1932 reported Thompson’s death congratulatorily and unquestioningly. Newspapers in Washington, DC and elsewhere dismissed the official suicide story as unbelievable and demanded further investigation, but Warrenton authorities were impervious.

Hall interviewed several elderly Warrenton area persons, black and white, who could recall those events of 1932. One, a black retired preacher, recalls in those days white people did as they wanted with black people. The Baxleys’ son, who was age two when Thompson knocked his father unconscious and dragged his mother into the woods, recalls he learned of the crime as a teenager but his mother didn’t mention it to him until in her nineties. She died in 1997, age 100, having never returned to the farm house whence she was abducted.

Some recall that Thompson was violent before the rape and abused his wife, even once outside her Baptist church in front of the congregation. The wife may have had a legal restraining order against her husband, who possibly faulted the Baxleys for siding with his wife. Mamie Baxley, when she emerged from unconsciousness the night of her attack, first found refuge in the home of black neighbors. The Baxleys, who were upper middle class landowners and Episcopalians, were liked by local whites and blacks. One black man recalls from his boyhood that Henry Baxley, decades after the 1932 events, would drive him 20 miles to school if he missed his school bus.

Baxley, Thompson and the DeButts brothers served in World War I, the topic of a PBS series called The Great War that aired starting last Monday, the day of my Warrenton visit. The series includes cultural history from the era, including pervasive racial animosities against black soldiers who saw military service as a pathway towards racial equality. In 1919, after the war, two dozen American cities suffered racial riots, killing hundreds of people, in which black people, some of them military veterans, were the chief victims, often undefended by legal authorities.

Outrages against returned WWII black soldiers led directly to civil rights advocacy by the Truman Administration, including army desegregation and the 1948 Democratic Party civil rights platform plank. Tragically, there was not a similar reaction after WWI.

Hall’s book recalls that lynchings of a black person occurred on average weekly in America between 1880 and 1930. Social reformers and church groups, including Methodist women, campaigned for anti-lynching laws, but never succeeded on the federal level and only sometimes on the state level.

My visit to Warrenton’s old jail, an hour drive from my home, was a jarring reminder that such events are still within living memory. I recommend Hall’s book as a window into a time that seems like a different universe but is closer than we care to realize.


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