Editor’s note: The story originally appeared in The Washington Post on July 7, 2005.
“ON A LAMP-POST
Negro Lynched in Alexandria Early This Morning
POLICE STATION ATTACKED
Pistols Were Fired and the Mob Was Beyond Restraint.
As soon as the Assault of the Negro Became Known, the Angry Citizens Planned His Death . . . Four Men Arrested for Being a Party in the Lynching, but Immediately Released by the Mayor. The Coroner Notified, but no Investigation of the Affair has been Commenced . . . “
It was April 23, 1897, and Page 1 of The Washington Post announced the latest lynching in the area -- the slaying of Joseph McCoy, 20, who had been accused of assaulting the 9-year-old daughter of his employer.
“They dragged him out of the station house, up Fairfax Street to Cameron, down Cameron to Lee, where they quickly put a rope around his neck. It took but a second to jerk him off his feet. The crowd broke into great cheer as the negro was seen dangling in the air . . . “
According to historical records, McCoy was among 100 Virginians, including at least 11 in Northern Virginia, who were lynched between 1882 and 1968, the years for which Tuskegee University in Alabama has kept archives. The lynchings were among 4,743 reported nationwide during the same period.
Lynching was never a federal offense. The U.S. House of Representatives three times passed measures to federally outlaw mob violence, but each time, the proposals were killed in the Senate by southern lawmakers, the Congressional Record shows.
On June 13, the U.S. Senate approved Resolution 39, co-sponsored by Sens. George Allen (R-Va.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.), apologizing for never having enacted federal anti-lynching legislation -- the first time the body had acknowledged an atrocity committed against African Americans.
The vote came on a day when lawmakers paid tribute to descendants of lynching victims, who had been invited to the Capitol to witness the historic event, and 105 years after a black congressman first proposed such a measure.
“We finally see that the government will do the right thing by acknowledging what happened to our ancestors,” said Doria Johnson, a former Alexandria resident whose great-great-grandfather, Anthony P. Crawford, was lynched in Abbeville, S.C., in 1916. Johnson attended the Capitol ceremony.
In an interview, Allen said he learned how deeply people had been affected by racial hatred during his trips to Georgia and Alabama in recent years to pay homage to the civil rights movement.
During his visits, he met several elderly men and women who told stories about the racist treatment to which they had been subjected.
Allen said he was approached about the apology legislation by civil rights activist Dick Gregory. He quoted from a letter Gregory wrote him: “We realize that life will go on and you would not be affected if you choose to do nothing.”
“That’s what got me,” Allen said. “I have realized over the years, as a governor and now as a senator, that leaders have the responsibility to take stands to make sure hateful behavior is never condoned.”
Allen’s support of the apology might also help him mend fences with black Virginians who, during his governorship, accused him of racial insensitivity for the Confederate flag he once hung in his home and the hangman’s noose that was in his law office. As a member of the House of Delegates, Allen voted against giving the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. his own holiday separate from the day honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. And, while governor, he proclaimed April Confederate History Month.
“LYNCHING AT LEESBURG
A Negro Taken from the Jail by a Mob
Leesburg, Va. -- Nov. 8  -- Orion Anderson, colored, who was confined in the jail here . . . was taken from the prison between 1 and 2 o’clock this morning and hanged . . . The work was done quietly, but effectually. The man was taken from the jail to the R. and D. road and hanged to the new derrick lately erected there . . . “ -- The Washington Post, Nov. 9, 1889
Many Washington area communities had lynching places back then. Prince William County reportedly had a lynching tree, which has since been cut down. The District had a whipping post at Fourth and G streets NW.
In Alexandria, one lynching spot was a lamppost at Cameron and Lee streets, according to historical accounts. Benjamin Thompson, 20, was lynched Aug. 8, 1899, on a lamppost at Fairfax Street near King Street.
History traces the origin of the verb “lynch” to one of two Virginians -- Col. Charles Lynch, a soldier reputed to have tortured Tories and Tory sympathizers during the Revolutionary War, and farmer John Lynch of the same era, the founder of Lynchburg, who allegedly slew outlaws and runaway slaves in the Tidewater’s Dismal Swamp area.
The overwhelming majority of lynching victims in Virginia and elsewhere were black men, but whites, Hispanics, Asian Americans and Native Americans were also killed. Most lynchings occurred in the Deep South -- Mississippi led with 581, according to Tuskegee’s records, and Georgia had 531, Texas 493, Louisiana 391 and Alabama 347. The university’s records include only lynchings that were reported in newspapers and historical accounts. Historians say there were thousands more.
Virginia’s 100 reported lynching victims include 83 African Americans and 17 non-blacks. At least one white man was lynched by whites who came to the defense of a black man. And at least one white man was lynched by a mob that included blacks.
“Lynching is the ultimate form of terrorism, though it assumed a law enforcement function,” said Carroll R. Gibbs, a Washington historian, author and lecturer on black history. “There is an old African American proverb that says that the ax forgets, but the tree remembers. Black folks know this was always terrorism, even though the larger community tried to make it seem like law and order. “
The first recorded lynching in Virginia occurred on March 14, 1889, when Magruder Fletcher was killed in Tasley, on the Eastern Shore. Eight months later, on Nov. 8, Orion Anderson of Leesburg, a black man accused of frightening a child, became Northern Virginia’s first recorded lynching casualty. Three years later, on March 18, 1892, Lee Heflin and Joseph Dye, white convicted murderers, became Northern Virginia’s first recorded double-lynching victims when they were hanged in Fauquier County.
The Tuskegee list puts the last lynching in Virginia at 1955, when H. Bromley was killed in Heathsville. The last recorded lynching in Northern Virginia came on Nov. 24, 1918, when Allie Thompson, a black assault suspect, was lynched on Rixeyville Road in Culpeper County.
As in other areas of the South, blacks in Northern Virginia -- especially men -- lived in fear of being lynched.
“It was something that was always in the back of your mind,” said Louis Hicks, 54, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum. “You were always aware that there was the possibility, if you got caught in the wrong place or did something and it was perceived wrong. You were always aware that there was a line you didn’t cross if you were to maintain your safety.”
Although lynching was never a federal offense, several states, including Virginia and Georgia, had anti-lynching laws. The Virginia law was passed in 1928. But state laws never led to the conviction of a white man for lynching an African American, historians said.
“When a black person was lynched, no one had to answer,” said Lawrence Guyot, a Washington civil rights activist. “Lynching was the way things were done. Nobody spoke against it, and nobody did anything about it.”
Lynchings were often memorialized on postcards. Souvenirs were made of pieces of the ropes that had hanged victims. Ears, fingers, toes and genitalia of the victims were often cut off and sold as prizes.
“Some of those souvenirs are still in the possession of families today,” said Gibbs, the historian.
“Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America,” edited by Atlanta antiques dealer James Allen, helped persuade senators to apologize for lynching. It contains more than 100 postcard images of lynchings and the huge crowds that gathered to witness them. The Senate in 1908 made it a violation of U.S. postal regulations to mail postcards depicting lynched corpses, saying that the cards might incite violence.
“TOOK HIS LIFE FOR THE ACT
Angry Citizens Lynch a Negro at Winchester
NO TIME ALLOWED TO PRAY
The Affair Takes Place Within Two Hours’ Ride of the Nation’s Capital, and Was the First Since the War in that Locality . . . “
Richmond, Va. June 13-[Special]- William Shorter, a seventeen-year-old negro who some weeks ago attempted to commit a criminal assault upon Ms. Clevinger, of Jefferson County, W.Va., was lynched this morning at Kernstown, four miles south of Winchester.” -- The Washington Post, June 14, 1893
Many lynch mobs operated in direct defiance of the law.
An order from Virginia Gov. Philip W. McKinney delaying the executions of Lee Heflin and Joseph Dye, white Prince William County murderers, incited a lynching on March 18, 1892. As word of the stay spread, a mob congregated, leading police to attempt to secretly move the prisoners to safety in Alexandria. The mob chased the escorted jail wagon toward a depot in Gainesville, where the guards planned to put Heflin and Dye on a train. Near Haymarket, the mob overtook the wagon.
“Dye was seized, the noose placed quickly around his neck and 60 willing hands hoisted him up to a red oak tree, where he swung grasping wildly at the air and kicking violently as he slowly strangled . . . Heflin stood by cowering and quaking with fear. He denied he did the murder when someone sang out ‘Up with him!’ and he was soon squirming in the air on a redwood tree next to the red oak. . . . “ -- The Washington Post, March 19, 1892
Guyot said a tendency to defy government was planted in the South during the Civil War. That Virginians would defy court orders and lynch men is not surprising, despite its reputation for being the most genteel southern state, he said.
“Virginia is a confederation of ironies,” he said. “It was the capital of the Confederacy, yet it produced the first black governor since Reconstruction. It closed schools . . . rather than desegregate, but it was also the scene of the first student-led boycott against segregated schools. . . . Virginia is still conflicted about its history.”
“UNDER A MILITARY ESCORT
Negro Murderers Protected by Virginia Militia.
Marable and His Female Accomplices Were Taken at Midnight to Lunenburg to Stand Trial -- Saved from Lynching.
There is great excitement in the county, but it is hoped that the presence of the military will prevent trouble. Had the prisoners been taken up without being guarded, they would certainly have been lynched.” -- The Washington Post, July 12, 1895
Lynchings in Virginia took place against a backdrop of perceived law and order, whereby whites saw themselves as more honorable and fair than counterparts farther south, historians say.
In several instances, white Virginians were enlisted to prevent lynchings. In some communities, white officials sought justice for blacks, as in Leesburg, where blacks were called as witnesses against the whites who lynched black assault suspect Charles Craven in 1902.
Grace Elizabeth Hale, a University of Virginia history professor and author of “Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940,” said lynchings in Virginia were less likely to be spectacles sanctioned by the business and political elite than they were in other southern states. “In Virginia there is a strong sense of, quote unquote, law and order,” she said. “People preferred to let the law take its course. Of course, many times these were trials that lasted only one or two days, and the blacks were basically railroaded . . . But at least it gave the state and local governments the chance to say, ‘We don’t condone lynching.’ “
The reality, historians say, is that lynching was part of a very distinct pattern of institutional racism in Virginia. Of the 44 states where lynching occurred, Virginia ranked 14th in the number of victims.
Racism has continued to be an issue in Virginia long after the lynchings stopped. As recently as 2000, Virginia celebrated April as Confederate History Month. It wasn’t until 1997 that the state song “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was “retired,” with its lyrics referring to an “old darkey,” a derogatory reference to African Americans, who longingly ponders the days he worked for “old massa” in the cornfield.
“The song that the slaves were singing was, ‘White man, starched shirt, sitting in the shade. Laziest man that God ever made,’ “ historian Gibbs said.
Gibbs, whose family hails from Manassas and Roanoke, recalls hearing relatives talk about how members of the Ku Klux Klan came for his uncle, who had been accused of looking at a white woman, one night in the 1920s. The family had whisked him away, after a white judge friend of his grandmother’s, a popular midwife, had called to warn them that a mob was forming.
“There are still people alive who were involved [with lynching], and that clashes with the image of modernity that people would like Virginia to possess,” Gibbs said. “Even in Old Town [Alexandria], that exists. They put down a slave rebellion in 1760 there by cutting black men’s heads off and displaying them on poles downtown. You have to understand what came before lynching. Many people who live [in Virginia] know, and it’s an embarrassment. They are genuinely uncomfortable talking about a subject like lynching.”