Fluvanna County held a memorial ceremony on Tuesday for William Young, a victim of an 1892 lynching in Palmyra. A similar commemoration is gaining momentum in Charlottesville.
On March 19, Charlottesville’s City Council voted, 4-0, to expedite its plans to memorialize John Henry James, the victim of an 1898 lynching in Albemarle County. Councilor Mike Signer was absent from the meeting.
University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt and Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, were commissioned to oversee the project.
Both Fluvanna and Charlottesville are participating in a project by the Equal Justice Initiative to collect soil from lynching sites. The jars of soil will go to EJI’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where they will help visitors visualize the 4,000-plus racial terror lynchings that happened between 1877 and 1950 in the United States. The museum opens April 26.
“These individuals were never given a proper burial,” said Mozell Booker, a Fluvanna supervisor who attended the ceremony for Young. “When he was hanged, no one tried to find out who did it. There were no consequences to the people who broke the law to lynch him.”
Young was awaiting trial in Fluvanna for the alleged murder of a white man when a mob dragged him out of his jail cell and hanged him.
After James was accused of assaulting a white woman near Charlottesville, a mob intercepted his train to a Staunton jail, hanged him near Ivy Road and shot him repeatedly.
“The proper system during that time was not for African-Americans. As you bring this up, you have to look at what’s happening today [with police-involved shootings],” Booker said. “I don’t see any consequences.”
These renewed memorial efforts in Charlottesville follow a Feb. 27 court order for the city to remove shrouds from its Confederate monuments. The City Council had covered the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson with tarps as a sign of mourning after the white supremacist rally on Aug. 12 left three people dead.
“We need to have something that shows our community — a tangible thing, sooner than later, that shows our community we’re trying to move in the right direction as best we can,” Councilor Wes Bellamy said at the council meeting earlier this month.
The memorial to James was one of the recommendations made by Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Monuments, and Public Spaces in 2016. The commission researched James’ death and suggested that the city collaborate with the Equal Justice Initiative to create a memorial.
The Equal Justice Initiative started a campaign to create local memorials for victims of racial terror lynchings in 2015. The memorials usually involve collecting soil at the site of the lynching.
Schmidt said the Charlottesville memorial likely will include a jar of soil, two markers and an educational exhibit.
The council plans to incorporate the exhibit into the redesign of Justice Park. The city has issued a request for proposals for the redesign. The details of the design might not be finalized until the end of the year.
But the memorial for James, Schmidt argued before the council, could happen sooner.
“This ball got rolling a little more quickly here because a local parent approached Dr. Douglas and I after being dismayed that their child had come home from the public schools with a sort of Lost Cause narrative about the Civil War,” Schmidt said.
The Lost Cause is an interpretation of Civil War history that emphasizes the heroism of Confederate soldiers and generals while minimizing the horrors of slavery. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups helped to mainstream the Lost Cause narrative by rewriting textbooks and erecting monuments like the ones in Charlottesville.
“In this parent’s opinion — and we concur — that indicated a need for a bit more retooling of our teachers, who are fine but have a lot on their plate,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt proposed using the EJI project as a tool for teachers. Schmidt and Douglas hope to organize a teacher training day in May about how to incorporate African-American history into all classes. She emphasized that the project timeline still needs input from teachers, School Board members and other stakeholders.
Schmidt also proposed leading a summer field trip to the Montgomery museum to deliver the jar of soil. Along the way, students, teachers and community members could stop at key historical sites, such as Appomattox and Greensboro, North Carolina.
“This will knit Charlottesville’s own Civil War and civil rights history in with that of the larger South and teach that,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said she hopes the group would arrive in Montgomery near the anniversary of the lynching on July 12. She asked city staff to help contract a tour bus and find lodging but said she expects private donors to cover the costs of the trip.
“It would be great if we could figure out a way to pay for the students to go, but we, as a city, can’t pay for everybody to go,” Councilor Kathy Galvin said.
Schmidt proposed funding parts of the project with money allocated last year within the council’s strategic initiatives for teaching an ethnic studies course.
“[The field trip] could happen every year,” Galvin suggested. “That trip to Montgomery is part of that [ethnic studies] class.”
The Equal Justice Initiative also would sponsor an essay competition for high school students next February. The winners would be announced on March 3, at the city’s third annual Freedom and Liberation Day event.