The lynching of John Henry James in Albemarle in 1898 for allegedly assaulting a white woman was both horrific—and all too common in the era of Jim Crow.
More than 4,400 black men and women were the victims of domestic racial terrorism between 1877 and 1950, according to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened a memorial to the victims of the nation’s dark history April 26.
Local scholars are organizing a pilgrimage to Montgomery in July to add soil from the site of James’ hanging to the EJI’s community remembrance project and to bring home a memorial “about the size of a coffin,” says UVA religious studies professor Jalane Schmidt.
After a judge ordered the tarps removed from the two statues of Confederate generals, Schmidt asked City Council to expedite the recontextualization of the former Lee and Jackson parks to “challenge the uncontested narrative of the statues,” a Lost Cause narrative that glorifies the Confederacy while minimizing the role of slavery.
At its March 19 meeting, City Council asked Schmidt and Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, to proceed with plans to memorialize James’ July 12, 1898, lynching, when a mob estimated at 150 pulled him from a train stopped at Wood’s Crossing, west of town near the current Farmington subdivision. The attackers hanged James from a locust tree, then riddled his body with 75 bullets, according to the Shenandoah Herald.
The hanging “wasn’t enough to satisfy the blood lust of the crowd,” says Schmidt. “They shot him dozens of times.” News accounts say the attackers didn’t bother to cover their faces. After the murder, “the crowd cut off parts of his clothing and body parts—that was common at the time,” she says. So, too, were picnicking at the grisly events and sending postcards to “underscore white supremacy.”
The idea of memorializing the lynching came from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Places in 2016. UVA’s Frank Dukes brought it up to the commission, but credits Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, with the idea.
For Dukes, the omission of this part of the area’s history is tied to other aspects of Jim Crow brutality that intimidated and drove away African-Americans, who were 52 percent of the population during the Civil War. “Lynching was the tip of the iceberg of injustice,” he says, and its legacy is seen today in racial disparities in incarceration, education and housing.
“I heard Scottsville was a sundown town,” he says, referring to places where an African-American was expected to be gone before dark. “In our own community there was intimidation and violence.”
“It’s important to be able to create a full and inclusive Charlottesville history,” says Douglas, one that includes black people. “Charlottesville didn’t become integrated because white people said it was the right thing to do.”
The pilgrimage is part of a process of discovering that history, she says. “One of the things I hear constantly from both whites and blacks is, ‘I didn’t know.’” Two buses traveling to Montgomery with more than 100 people will provide an “experience grounded in truth and fact.”
City Councilor Kathy Galvin is a supporter. “It’s very important for Charlottesville to understand its own legacy of brutality and racism against African-Americans,” she says. “I think it’s about time 120 years later that we acknowledge [James’] brutal murder.”
Galvin calls the pilgrimage a “sacred act” of recovering the soil where James was lynched and elevating the public’s understanding of what took place. By bringing the memorial back, “It’s a way to make sure we never forget.”
City Council set aside $1 million for the redesign of the parks and $500,000 to support the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations, she says. It also has a discretionary fund to draw from, and at its May 21 meeting, council will decide how much of the six-day journey’s estimated $125,000 cost it will fund.
Albemarle, where the lynching actually occurred, will be discussing its involvement in June, says Board of Supervisors Chair Diantha McKeel. “I’m very supportive but I can’t speak for the board.”
“In 1898 our boundaries were really blurry,” says Galvin. “Our whole region is complicit in this.”
The Road to Montgomery
Organizers Andrea Douglas and Jalane Schmidt are seeking grants and donors to contribute through the nonprofit Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to the estimated $125,000 cost of the July 8 to 13 journey to Montgomery.
Two buses will be rented, and about 33 seats will be reserved for CHS students and teachers, and another group of seats will be available for low-income residents, who will be eligible for scholarships. City Councilor Kathy Galvin says she doesn’t want cost to be an obstacle, particularly for high school students.
Before boarding buses, participants and dignitaries will take part in a soil collection ceremony July 7 at the site of John Henry James’ 1898 murder.
The buses leave July 8, the anniversary of the KKK demonstration here last summer, and will pass through Pelham, North Carolina, headquarters of the white supremacist Loyal White Knights. Also on the agenda for the first day are Lost Cause landmarks Appomattox, where General Robert E. Lee surrendered, and Danville, where the rebel government fled and where the Confederate battle flag still flies along U.S. 29.
The pilgrimage continues to museums and civil rights landmarks in Greensboro and Charlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, arriving at the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum and National Memorial to Peace and Justice in Montgomery July 12, the 120th anniversary of James’ lynching.
“The sites we’ll visit will open new eyes,” says Schmidt. “This is a very conscious way of taking the bull by the horns and creating our own narrative.”