Albemarle County is joining local efforts to memorialize John Henry James, who was lynched there in 1898. On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors discussed collecting soil from the lynching site as part of the Equal Justice Initiative memorial project.
According to EJI research, more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings occurred across the South from 1877 to 1950. The nonprofit also has documented approximately 300 lynchings that took place outside the South.
“The lynchings we document were acts of terrorism because these murders were carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often ‘on the courthouse lawn,’” EJI’s 2017 study stated. “They generally took place in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African-Americans.”
This year, EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum to memorialize James and other victims in Montgomery, Alabama. One wall of the museum will include jars of soil from localities that choose to participate in the remembrance project.
“I certainly think it would be wonderful for us to participate,” said Supervisor Diantha McKeel.
Police officers identified James as a suspected assailant when a white woman accused a black man of assaulting her near Pen Park. On James’ way to his trial on July 12, 1898, a mob pulled him off his train and hanged and shot him near Ivy Road. James’ body was left in the tree for approximately two hours.
Historian Jane Smith has determined that the site where James was killed is near Farmington Drive.
McKeel and Board Chairwoman Ann H. Mallek will represent the board in a meeting with Farmington about the soil collection. Also at the meeting will be County Executive Jeff Richardson and Siri Russell, a county executive staff member who has coordinated Albemarle’s involvement thus far.
Efforts to memorialize James began in 2016 when the city of Charlottesville convened the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. In the process, Smith found old newspaper clippings that described the event.
University of Virginia professor Jalane Schmidt and Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, are leading a pilgrimage to the EJI museum in July to place the jars of soil in the museum and pick up a monument to James.
Albemarle may organize events to discuss the experience of the pilgrimage, as well.
“So maybe presentations at our libraries that are scattered all over the county?” Mallek suggested. “There’s lots to think about.”
Supervisors indicated enthusiasm for county involvement in similar opportunities in the future, including the new Charlottesville holiday, Liberation and Freedom Day.
“It’s an important day in the history of Charlottesville-Albemarle. I think we should honor the 240 black men who risked their lives escaping slavery to go north and join the Union army and come back down here,” Supervisor Norman Dill said. “I think this event is part of something larger that’s been going on for quite a while.”
In the meantime, McKeel said supervisors should send their constituents information about the Montgomery trip.
“I would be very interested myself in going down, whether it’s representing you all depends on what you all decide,” McKeel said. “I know the person that was scheduling the bus, and I said to save me a seat.”
Schmidt and Douglas will discuss the project at the Board of Supervisors meeting on July 5.