Albemarle Commonwealth’s attorney will ask a judge to overturn a 125-year-old rape indictment for a Black man lynched outside Charlottesville

A photo of a historical marker with trees and sunshine behind it

On July 12, 1898, an angry mob lynched John Henry James in Albemarle County. James, an ice cream seller and a Black man, was on his way to court: he had been accused of raping a prominent white woman. 

James’ very public killing did not stop the court from indicting him the following day.

But now, exactly 125 years after James’ violent death, Albemarle County Circuit Court will reconsider that indictment on Wednesday, July 12.

A close-up of a jar of soil with inscription "John Henry James Albemarle County, VA July 12, 1898"
John Henry James, an ice cream salesman in Charlottesville, was lynched by a white mob on July 12, 1898. This jar contains soil from the site where he is believed to have died.

The lynching death of John Henry James was not a piece of well-known local history until recently, said Jalane Schmidt, an historian, community activist, and professor of religion at the University of Virginia. Schmidt and other local leaders have worked hard to change that.

Since 2018, James has been remembered in a lynching memorial at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. His name is on a sculpture there, as is a jar of dirt collected from the site where he died. An identical jar of dirt is located at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville. 

In 2019, at the urging of Schmidt and others, Albemarle County installed an historical marker commemorating James’ lynching on the grounds of the Albemarle County Courthouse in 2019. 

That plaque finally tells the story, and in a very public space: On July 11, 1898, James “was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman and arrested. The police transferred Mr. James to Staunton that evening to avoid a potential lynching, but officers escorted him back to Charlottesville the next morning by train. While en route, a mob of 150 white men stopped the train at Wood’s Crossing in Albemarle County [ed. Note: near the entrance to what is now Farmington Country Club], and seized Mr. James. Learning of the mob’s attack, a group of black men tried to stop the lynch mob but were outnumbered and forced to retreat.”

A group stands on a patch of dirt, two with clergy cloths
In 2018, community leaders looked on as Reverends Susan Minasian and Barbara Brown-Grooms, as well as Rabbi Tom Gutherz, lead an interfaith prayer near the site where it is thought John Henry James was lynched in 1898.

The mob not only hung James from a locust tree, they shot his body full of bullets. James’ body hung from the tree for hours, while hundreds more white people streamed by, cutting off pieces of his body, his clothes, and the tree, as souvenirs, as reported by The Richmond Planet, a Black newspaper. No one was held accountable for James’ death. 

The memorials have continued, with Albemarle County declaring July 12 “John Henry James Day” in 2021. But, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley is taking it a step further.

More about the lynching of John Henry James

Hingeley has asked the courts to purge the historical indictment against James. Fixing the record can’t undo the historical wrong done to James, Schmidt said, but does provide contemporary audiences with much to consider about whether the justice system provides “equal protection under the law,” both in the past and in the present. 

“It’s more about the community, articulating what our standards are for today and recognizing that this was wrong,” Schimdt said. “It’s literally the least you can do, to at least wipe that off of the official record.”

The matter returns to Albemarle County Circuit Court on Wednesday, July 12, at 4 p.m., when judge Cheryl Higgins will hear a motion to dismiss the indictment.

Clerk of Court Jon Zug expects the proceedings to be quick, likely less than 10 minutes. It could go longer, though, if the judge opens the floor to comments from Hingeley, Schmidt, and others. 

The hearing is open to the public, and it will be streamed live at this link. 

For those who wish to attend in person, Zug said he “will be shocked if it’s not at capacity.” Fewer than 100 people can fit in the courtroom, he said, depending on how comfortable people are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. No cell phones will be allowed.

In-person attendees should arrive early and park in the city parking garages, Zug advised. There are a few two-hour parking spots near the courthouse, which is located in Court Square in Charlottesville, at 501 East Jefferson Street, but those spots are hard to come by.