Confronting a shameful past: Search for 1898 lynching site narrows

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Historic researcher Jane Smith believes the 1898 lynching of John Henry James, which took place at a place identified as Wood's Crossing, is located on a strip of land currently owned by Farmington Country Club. A 1919 plat shows the blacksmith shop near where the hanging-by-mob  took place. Information courtesy Jane Smith/Google maps Historic researcher Jane Smith believes the 1898 lynching of John Henry James, which took place at a place identified as Wood’s Crossing, is located on a strip of land currently owned by Farmington Country Club. A 1919 plat shows the blacksmith shop near where the hanging-by-mob took place. Information courtesy Jane Smith/Google maps

As big a role as history plays in Charlottesville’s identity, some events, like an 1898 lynching, were pretty much buried or forgotten until Jane Smith was doing historical research and going through old issues of the Daily Progress in 2013.

She happened upon this July 12, 1898, headline: “He paid the awful penalty: John Henry James hanged by a mob today.”

James, who was black, was accused of sexually assaulting a young white woman near Pen Park, and had been taken to Staunton to avoid a vengeance-minded mob. When he was headed back to Charlottesville to face a grand jury, a crowd awaited at Wood’s Crossing four miles west of town, hauled him off the train and took him to a small locust tree about 40 yards away near a blacksmith shop, according to the Progress. There he was hanged and his body riddled with bullets for good measure. Sightseers took his clothes—and body parts—as mementos.

Historic researcher Jane Smith is homing in on the site where John Henry James was lynched. Photo by Eze Amos

Smith, who served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, says UVA professor Frank Dukes first brought up the idea of participating in the Equal Justice Initiative, which opened a memorial to victims of lynching in April in Montgomery, Alabama.

The initiative has documented at least 4,000 lynchings in the southern United States, and its Community Remembrance Project is an effort to recognize victims by collecting soil from lynching sites and erecting historical markers.

Charlottesville City Council asked Andrea Douglas, Jefferson School African American Heritage Center executive director, and Jalane Schmidt, UVA religious studies professor, to bring back the memorial for James. They’re arranging a pilgrimage to Montgomery in July to take soil from the lynching site and bring home the coffin-sized memorial to reside in Charlottesville outside the Albemarle courthouse at Justice Park.

The problem was, nobody knew the location of Wood’s Crossing.

“We’ve been in a vortex trying to sort this out,” says Smith. “I think we’ve probably figured out what happened. The crossing is no longer on the main road [U.S. 250] and the owner changed.”

In 1898, Warner Wood owned land that is now Farmington, which was developed in 1927. Smith says in the late 1920s, Ivy Road, which used to run north of the railroad tracks, was realigned and is now south of the tracks. She’s checked maps, plats and railroad schedules, and is convinced that what was once Wood’s Crossing is at the present day Farmington Drive.

Her initial research put the site on Ivy Road three-tenths of a mile west of Farmington Drive near Charlottesville Oil, based on a British rail enthusiast’s table that listed both a Wood’s and a Farmington station. “That was just wrong,” she says. She now believes the stations are the same and changed names after Farmington Incorporated bought the land from Wood’s heirs.

She also found a 1919 plat that shows the blacksmith shop mentioned in the Progress story on a strip of land now owned by Farmington Country Club.

And she says Warner Wood’s will was the “smoking gun” in pinning down the location of Wood’s Station.

Joe Krenn, COO and general manager of Farmington Country Club, says he had a “very productive conversation” with Smith. In an email, he says he’s confident the pilgrimage project team and the club leadership “can determine the accurate site and how to proceed from there.”

The pilgrimage organizers plan a ceremonial soil gathering July 7 with local dignitaries, community members and travelers present when Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker shovels dirt into the Community Remembrance Project receptacles, which means there’s little more than a month to figure out the lynching site.

Douglas, Smith, Schmidt and a representative from Albemarle County met with Krenn May 25. Schmidt describes the Farmington response as, “We want to help the community.” Krenn will take the matter to the club’s board May 31.

And in further research, Smith found an account that may lead to a still-living person who knew where the locust tree once stood.

The office of Virginia Humanities executive director Matthew Gibson is located near Boar’s Head Inn across from Farmington. “Learning that the site of the John Henry James lynching is across the street from our Charlottesville offices makes this particularly horrific part of our nation’s history feel even more real and tangible,” he says. “As our programming seeks to demonstrate, we can’t move forward together to heal the wounds of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow without an honest acknowledgment of the past that got us here.”

“I think it’s important we get this right,” says Smith. “Something in us makes place very important in the commemoration.”

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery has a wall of clear jars of earth collected from where lynchings took place. “We need to know to join in on that national mourning and commemoration,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to know where it happened.”

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