The Black teenager hid, either in a fish barrel or a hole. But the mob found him. They threw a rope around his neck and arm and dragged him over rough cobblestones to a lamppost near City Hall.
Pelted with stones, bricks, pieces of iron and shot multiple times by bystanders, Thomas was hanged around midnight, crying out for his mother. He became the second of Alexandria’s two documented lynching victims.
The lynching will be remembered Saturday, its 121st anniversary, as Alexandria seeks to atone — during a summer of Black Lives Matter demonstrations — for an often overlooked portion of its slave-trading past.
The city started planning the remembrance ceremony last year, but the effort took on new resonance after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police in May. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the event will be held online.
“I can’t imagine the terror this young man felt,” said Audrey Davis, director of Alexandria’s Black History Museum. “If you don’t understand Black Lives Matter, you need to look at African American history.”
Thomas’s death is among the 100 documented lynchings that occurred in Virginia between 1882 and 1968, according to research by the Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project, which has built a museum to lynching victims in Montgomery, Ala.
A report by the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project Research Committee compiled over the past year, spells out in 32 detailed pages how the city — then composed of about 14,500 residents, 31 percent of whom were African American — jumped to a deadly and false conclusion based on racial animus and fears.
“This narrative highlights the inconsistencies, biases, sensationalism, and falsehoods in official statements and the white press’ reporting about the lynching. In both Alexandria lynchings, the white authorities were deliberately complicit in their refusal to name and bring to justice members of the white mob,” the report says.
Thomas, the son of a laborer and laundress, was arrested on Aug. 7, 1899, after his neighbors at 700 Patrick St. said he snatched their young daughter off the sidewalk and “attempted to take liberties” with her.
The Rev. R.E. Hart, of Israel Christian Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., who investigated the matter a day after the lynching, told Cleveland Gazette, an African American newspaper from Ohio, that it was generally admitted that Thomas was not guilty; even the girl’s mother told him so, adding that she had known him to be “a good boy.”
But that night, a frightened Black population began gathering in the Berg, where the alleged crime occurred, and near City Hall, worried about Thomas’s fate.
Two years earlier, another Black teenager, Joseph McCoy, had also been accused of molesting a White girl. A White mob broke into the jail, dragged him with a rope around his neck and then hanged him on the corner of Cameron and Lee Streets, three blocks from where Thomas would be murdered.
The report says that while a group of Black men offered to protect the jail from White mobs that were threatening to lynch Thomas, police ordered them to disperse. A dozen were arrested for “insolence,” disorderly conduct, inciting a riot and other charges. All were fined as much as $20 (equivalent to $617.82 in 2020) or 30 days on a chain gang. The mayor later blamed the Black community for “agitating” Whites when they came to Thomas’s defense.
Thomas’s hearing the next morning before the mayor’s court consisted solely of the testimony of the eight-year-old girl, who said Thomas grabbed her and drew her toward him but committed no assault.
By midnight, between 500 and 2,000 White people converged on the jail. The mayor spoke to them in an attempt to disperse the mob, to no avail.
Thomas’s mother “could not bear to look upon her boy . . . and would have nothing to do with his funeral,” according to the Washington Evening Star. The Thomas family left their home and moved blocks away the day after their son’s lynching.
No White people were ever held accountable for Thomas’s death.
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the name of the Equal Justice Initiative.