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Friday, July 14, 2023

One hundred and twenty five years ago this week, John Henry James boarded a train for Charlottesville, in the custody of a police chief and a sheriff.

James looked terrified, a Staunton newspaper wrote at the time, and couldn’t stop shaking.

He was bound for a grand jury, which had convened to determine if he should stand trial for the rape of a local white woman. He did not make it to Charlottesville. A mob of about 150 unmasked white men waited for James’ train at Wood’s Crossing in Albemarle County, just four miles outside of the city — a usual stop for the train.

As reported in the Daily Progress, when the train stopped, members of the mob boarded. They then restrained the lawmen, who later claimed they could not see and therefore could not identify the men who bound them from behind. The mob dragged James off the train, threw a rope around his neck, and led him to a locust tree about 40 yards away, near the blacksmith shop.

“He was asked if he wished time to pray,” the Progress reported. “Before God, I am innocent,” James said. 

Then they hung him.

James’ body was probably still hanging from the tree when a grand jury indicted him for rape. That indictment remained as part of Charlottesville’s official court record for more than a century.

This week, a judge threw it out.

A view of a white courtroom with two people filling the pews. At the front is an attorney, court bailiffs, a judge and clerks.

John Henry James’ story is an important part of local history, but it wasn’t really told until a few years ago, said Jalane Schmidt, an associate professor of religion at the University of Virginia and director of the Memory Project at UVA’s Karsh Institute for Democracy.

Even now, the story isn’t widely known, though historians, lawyers, and community members think it should be. It’s a difficult story to tell, in part because it is horrific and violent, and in part because the historical record offers inconsistent, and in some cases unreliable, reports and accounts.

In honor of James, the mark his violent execution left on our community and the effort made by local people to finally have this indictment thrown out, reporter Erin O’Hare spent this week scouring news reports from the time to tell this story. Like what happened to James, the story is graphic in places, and could be upsetting to some readers.

Two people embrace in front of a large historical marker that reads "Lynching of John Henry James" and tells the story. Only one of their faces is visible, and she has her eyes closed and is smiling.
Credit: Ézé Amos/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Lynching victim John Henry James receives ‘one little drop of justice’ 125 years after his death

The story includes many details about the assault James was accused of, the hunt for the assailant, and how James was killed. What is clear after reading all the accounts is that — even at the time — people doubted James had done it. And that everyone, including James, knew he would be lynched anyway.

It’s entirely unrelated, but the same day James’ indictment was overturned, Charlottesville City Council announced our new city manager. The Council chose to promote Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders.

In a news conference Wednesday, Sanders acknowledged that the city’s top position has been a tumultuous one. He will be the sixth in six years. But, he says, he is ready to take on the challenge.

A man stands at a podium addressing a room of people and news cameras.
Credit: Eileen Goode/Charlottesville Tomorrow

After a closed-door selection process, Charlottesville City Council promotes a deputy city manager to the top job

Want more backstory? Here’s more about Interim City Manager Marc Woolley, who withdrew from the position in Nov. 2021. City Manager Chip Boyles resigned just a month earlier. And Tarron Richardson resigned for personal reasons in 2020.

I hope you all have a restful weekend,

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.