Next to nothing is known about John Henry James—not his age, his family nor his occupation. All that is certain is that he died on July 12, 1898, at the hands of a Charlottesville lynch mob.
And that murder is what led to around 100 people from Charlottesville to travel four days to Montgomery, Alabama, to add, on the 120th anniversary of his death, soil from his slaying site to the collection at the Equal Justice Initiative, which opened a memorial to the nation’s lynchings earlier this year.
Several local officials, including City Councilor Kathy Galvin and Albemarle supervisors Diantha McKeel and Ned Gallaway, as well as 5th District Democratic candidate Leslie Cockburn, flew in for the ceremonial delivery of the soil to the Equal Justice Initiative.
But the biggest headliner was EJI founder, public interest attorney and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, who, it turns out, had a role in the Charlottesville group ultimately being there.
That stemmed from his visit to the Virginia Festival of the Book in March 2016—three days before then vice-mayor Wes Bellamy called for the removal of statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
After Stevenson spoke to the crowd of pilgrims, Bellamy stood up and said he’d been at that book festival event and had asked Stevenson whether Charlottesville should remove its Confederate monuments.
“If you wouldn’t have said yes, we wouldn’t be here now,” said Bellamy.
Stevenson reminded the pilgrims that what happened in Charlottesville August 12 was part of the country’s legacy of racial bias, starting from its earliest days, which made the new nation founded on notions of equality “comfortable with 200 years of slavery.”
Said Stevenson, “We’ve all been infected and compromised and contaminated by this legacy, this history of racial inequality.”
And changing that narrative of white supremacy got to the heart of the pilgrimage to commemorate a victim of racial terrorism. “You are modeling what that change is about,” said Stevenson.
Within the soil transported to Montgomery are the sweat, blood and tears of those who were forced to exist upon it, said Stevenson. “In the soil there is the possibility of something new we can create.”
The delivery of the soil became the much-belated funeral service for John Henry James, and clergy members who have been part of the pilgrimage carried out a requiem for James. There were tears, sobs and a literal “Kumbaya”—singing moment.
The emotional rollercoaster didn’t stop there. Next up was the EJI’s Legacy Museum, which is on a site that imprisoned enslaved black people before going to market during Montgomery’s human trafficking peak.
For pilgrim Anne Lassere, in a week of hitting every civil rights museum between Charlottesville and Montgomery, the Legacy Museum was the most profound because of “seeing the line so clearly drawn from slavery to mass incarceration.”
She’s also glad it used the word “terrorism” in describing the effects of white supremacy in the subjugation of the black population through lynching and daily Jim Crow humiliations.
And then there was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both a commemoration of the more than 4,400 known people lynched and a hall of shame to those places where the murders occurred. More than 800 coffin-like rectangles hang bearing a county and state’s name, as well as that of the lynched.
The memorial site itself evokes Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial. “It’s just sublime,” said Louis Nelson, UVA vice provost and professor of architectural history. “Its simplicity is its genius.”
The day began with a couple of other notable civil rights landmarks: the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center and Dexter Street Baptist Church, headquarters for the Montgomery bus boycott and congregation of the 26-year-old Martin Luther King.
“What I like about Southern Poverty Law is that they got the story right,” said Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother, who is on the pilgrimage. “She wasn’t a leader. She wasn’t singled out. She was an ordinary citizen.”
At the historic Baptist church with its magnificent acoustics, music inevitably became part of the visit, starting with 15-year-old Dante Walker, son of the mayor, playing the piano as the Charlottesvillians streamed in.
Church tour director Wanda Howard Battle, before instructing the group to hold hands and sing “We Shall Overcome,” said, “I pray that when you leave this place today, you’ll never be the same.”
And that, undoubtedly, was the theme for #CvillePilgrimage.
Read more in next week’s C-Ville Weekly.
Updated July 15.
Day 4 #CvillePilgrimage: Into the belly of ‘Bombingham’
No matter how many civil rights museums one sees, Birmingham and Montgomery always have starring roles as the hearts of segregation darkness. On July 10, the fourth day on the road to commemorate the lynching of John Henry James, the Charlottesville pilgrimage started in Birmingham with that most heart-rending of civil rights landmarks: 16th Street Baptist Church, where a bombing murdered four girls on a Sunday morning in 1963.
“I don’t think anything moved me more than thinking about those four little girls,” said retired pastor and pilgrim David Garth.
The Charlottesville group learned that during the 1950s and ‘60s, Birmingham’s nickname was “Bombingham.” Bombings were quite the terror tool for white supremacists there, and Bethel Baptist Church, led by activist Fred Shuttlesworth, was bombed three times.
“I thought it was one, but it was repeated bombings,” said Garth.
That surprised Myra Anderson, too. “To hear this church got bombed twice and this other church got bombed, I was like, my God,” she said.
For Anderson, 16th Street Baptist was the hardest of all the sites thus far. “Knowing the history of the church and what happened there—it was overwhelming. My heart felt heavy.”
The church is the center of the African American community, said Anderson, making it all the more appalling that hate would invade that sanctity. During a film about 16th Street, she watched the choir continue to sing and the congregation continue to move forward.
“I cried,” she said. “I cried for my mother and for my grandmother. I just sat there and cried.”
At the same time, “I also felt inspired learning about the role young people played.”
Among sites the pilgrimage has visited like Danville and Greensboro, students played key roles in the struggle for civil rights because many adults feared losing their jobs if they protested unjust laws and treatment. Students, who didn’t have mortgages to pay and families to support, were ready to take up the fight.
Armand Bragg was the tour guide at 16th Street Baptist and an activist as a college student. “I was a freshman in college and happy to get out of class,” he joked—more than once. But that wasn’t the only reason.
“”Dr. [Martin Luther] King could make the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” he said.
Birmingham native Dr. Clifton Latting, whom several on the pilgrimage had met during a trip in May to Charlottesville’s sister city in Ghana, agreed that people would “jump in the fire” if King said to do so.
Latting didn’t protest in high school, he said, because he was afraid and thought white people were cruel—and he wanted to go to college. But he understood the anger that fueled others. “I sat in the segregated part of the bus and I had to stand up if a white person wanted a seat,” he said.
“We couldn’t stop to urinate between Birmingham and Montgomery” because the available restrooms were white only. “Students were the driving spirit that changed that.”
Across the street from the church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. For Robert Lewis, pastor at Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church, “That one hit me the hardest of any so far.” That it followed the bombed church probably contributed to that, he acknowledged.
When the exhibit reached the inevitable KKK robe, seeing “such clearly orchestrated brutality on the part of whites, I wanted to go around and apologize to every person of color on the trip,” said Lewis. “It made me angry that the onus of responsibility is passed forward.”
He mentioned Dr. Latting: “His view of white people was that they were brutal, violent people—uncivilized.”
Further commemorating white-perpetrated racial terrorism, across the street from the civil rights institute is Kelly Ingram Park, where Bull Connor sicced dogs and turned fire hoses on protesters. Statues depict those low points in humanity.
In an interview with a CBS42, Tanesha Hudson said she’d always wanted to come to Birmingham.
“We have to continue the fight our ancestors started for us,” she said.
Being in the actual spaces where civil rights struggles took place galvanized those on the pilgrimage, which took an unscheduled detour to Selma to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where peaceful protesters seeking the right to vote were savagely beaten by police on Bloody Sunday—March 7, 1965.
The two-lane roads to Dallas County, which had the lowest percentage of registered black voters in Alabama, made it all-too-easy to imagine civil rights activists being murdered by angry white supremacists.
Driving into Selma, with its many boarded up houses and buildings, Robert King observed from the bus, “So this is what hate did to this town.”.
Walking across the iconic bridge, Rabbi Tom Gutherz reminded, “You’ve got to think of the footsteps.”
A chorus of “Freedom” rang out.
Memorials lined the other side of the bridge. One was to the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, which had sacred objects typical of Western Africa, such as coins, rhythm instruments and cowrie shells, said Jalane Schmidt, a pilgrimage organizer and religious studies professor at UVA. A marker to the multiple victims of lynching had been installed by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, which was the Charlottesville delegation’s ultimate destination.
The pilgrims gathered on a gazebo near the bridge, held hands and were led in prayer by Don Gathers. Some prayed for the sacredness of the place. Another prayer was in “recognition of those upon whose shoulders we stand.’
Tears were dabbed, “Amen” was sung and then, with a chorus of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” the group got on the bus and headed to Montgomery.
Correction: John Henry James and Fred Shuttlesworth were misidentified in the original story.
Day 3 #CvillePilgrimage: Atlanta and the MLK effect
The cart was difficult, but it was the lunch counter that had many in in tears.
The Charlottesville pilgrimage to the Equal Justice Initiative’s lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, to deliver soil from the site of the mob murder of John Henry James began its third day—July 10—in Atlanta, where it’s all Martin Luther King Jr. all the time. And that means at both the King Center and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the travelers got to experience his life and legacy—and his assassination and funeral—twice in one day.
Song is a nonviolent protest tactic, and on at least one of the two pilgrimage buses, song has become part of the journey. As the bus loaded up to leave the hotel, Sojourners’ Reverend Susan Minasian, a member of the pilgrimage’s clergy team, led a round of the South African hymn “Siyahamba”—”We are marching in the light of God”—in both English and Zulu.
At the King Center, Atlanta City Councilor Amir Farokhi, who represents the MLK district, welcomed the Charlottesville delegation.
“I would presume it’s as much about healing as it is about empowerment,” he said of the pilgrimage. “We’re inspired by the work you’re doing. Charlottesville is the tip of the spear.”
Coretta Scott King was responsible for the area where the sprawling center is located becoming designated a historic district, thanks to her friend, President Jimmy Carter. It became a national park this year. She also lobbied to have her husband’s birthday become a national holiday.
In the MLK museum was the wooden cart that carried King’s body through Atlanta drawn by mules for his funeral. Vizena Howard had been to the King Center before, but on this trip, “that cart—that bothered me,” she said.
Elsie Pickett said visiting the King site made her think, “We are still trying to find that dream Martin Luther King preached about in 1963.”
The Charlottesville pilgrims lunched in the Sweet Auburn district, where Coretta Scott King founded the Historic District Development Corporation, a nonprofit community development corporation to preserve and revitalize the MLK Historic District without displacing residents.
“So much of the Charlottesville story has affinity with Atlanta,” said pilgrimage organizer and African American Heritage director Andrea Douglas. “We have that historic fabric. We don’t have that recovery.”
Affordable housing is very much in the mind of Charlottesville—and Atlanta, where the historic district’s redevelopment has had the unintended effect of spawning gentrification.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker noted that when urban renewal claimed the historic black community Vinegar Hill in Charlottesville, the property “was stolen” from its owners.
“We can’t take these trips and kumbaya it” without going back to Charlottesville, having conversations and doing the hard work of coming up with an affordable housing solution, she said.
Some were exhausted by the time the buses reached the National Center for Civil and Human Rights around 4pmm, but that visit turned out to be, for many, the most powerful of the six sites the group had visited so far.
An interactive lunch counter lets visitors experience all too uncomfortably what it was like to be an African American sitting in at a segregated diner. Participants put on headphones, closed their eyes and could feel the hot breath of hate in their ears and menacing kicks to the stools on which they sat.
Most of the pilgrims tried it out and a number left the counter in tears.
“This was a little more emotional to sit down at that table,” said Courtney Maupin. “I ended up crying.”
And the “step-by-step exhibits leading up to the assassination of Dr. King, with him doing his eulogy months before, this one was more intense,” she said.
Her daughter, 13-year-old Jakia Maupin, was more impressed with the K(NO)W Justice K(NO)W Peace exhibit the day before in Charlotte at the Levine Museum of the New South, which assembled photographs of more than 50 people shot by police—with no convictions. “That was my favorite,” she said.
Back on the bus, Dona Wylie, 74, felt “overwhelmed with a sense of grief.” She graduated high school in 1962 and was aware of the civil rights struggles going on at that time. “It made me feel so sad we’re where we are, that things haven’t moved more than they have.”
Some solace was to be found at Sweet Auburn Seafood—besides the killer shrimp and grits and peach cobbler. A DJ had set up as the group readied to leave and an impromptu dance party ensued.
As civil rights activist Joyce Johnson advised at the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, you’ve always got to have a song you can sing.
Or in this case, a dance.
Day 2 #CvillePilgrimage: First sit-in and Greensboro’s August 12
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” July 9, the second day of traveling for Charlottesvillians on a pilgrimage to Montgomery, began with a song from Joyce Johnson, a native Virginian who was present in Greensboro when the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis shot and killed five activists at a black public housing complex in 1979.
Johnson and her husband, Nelson, founded the Beloved Community Center. They were Communist Workers Party activists at the time of the murders, and after two white juries found the KKKers not guilty, they organized a truth and reconciliation commission.
Beloved’s focus these days is training and healing, said Joyce Johnson, a mission that struck a chord with the August 12-scarred pilgrims from Charlottesville.
The story of the Greensboro murders by white supremacists and lack of police intervention seemed to activist Don Gathers an “eerily familiar story” 39 years later. While Charlottesville became international news, city fathers in Greensboro preferred not to dwell on November 3, 1979, a date that’s as notorious with the Johnsons as August 12 is in Charlottesville.
Much like Danville, which the pilgrimage visited the day before and where Bloody Monday occurred in 1963, many on the trip had not heard of the Greensboro KKK murders.
“My two children saw their Auntie Sandy with a bullet between her eyes,” said Nelson Johnson. The story got worse. Johnson was jailed with a bond double that of the accused Klan killers and “demonized,” he said, with police putting out a false narrative that the incident was a shootout.
The only legal satisfaction for the family of one of the victims was a civil suit that found the Klan and Greensboro police liable, the latter for their deliberate absence, said the Johnsons.
The questions from the Charlottesville contingent Joyce Johnson summarized as, “what do you do?” and “how do you do it?” Said Johnson, “I’ve been there.” She recounted being a 17-year-old from Blackwell outside of Richmond and thinking, “We’ll get the country straight in a few years.”
Community is the key to change, she said. Interact with people. “You use all avenues.” And have a song you can sing.
Nelson Johnson once met with a Klan grand dragon who was coming back to Greensboro. “This was an effort to speak to the soul that was there,” he said. “That may not work for everyone.”
And initiatives like the Charlottesville pilgrimage is another path. “What you’re doing today is almost off the radar,” said Johnson.
Many in the pilgrimage were moved by the Nelsons determination in the fight for civil rights over the years. Sitting in the front row, Ashlee Bellamy could see the emotion and the tears in Joyce Johnson’s eyes. “Here in Greensboro, they’re still dealing with that,” said Bellamy.
A few blocks away is the Woolworth’s where four A&T University students staged the first student sit-in at the segregated lunch counter on February 1, 1960, which sparked a wave of resistance around the country. The former five and dime is now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum,
The original lunch counter is still there and the building itself is an artifact, one that was nearly torn down to build a parking garage, according to the tour guide LT.
“Segregation is the sequel to the movie called slavery,” said LT, who traced the beginnings of the civil rights movement and then went back to expose the racism, hatred and hypocrisy woven into the original fabric of the country, citing the words of Charlottesville’s own slave-owning progenitor Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Louis Nelson, UVA professor of architectural history and vice provost for academic outreach, has visited the much larger National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and he said he was impressed with the Greensboro civil rights museum, particularly its depiction of America’s racial terror. Fractured images evoke “the shattered glass of physical violence, and the powerful effect of violence shattering lives and families,” he said.
The decision to exhibit mutilated bodies is one often avoided, he said. “The curators made the decision the season of submitting to delicate sensibilities is over.”
On the road to the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, a gospel sing along began that continued later on as the pilgrimage buses motored to Atlanta.
Updated 9:38am with additional photos
Day 1 #CvillePilgrimage: From Civil War to civil rights
Ninety-six Charlottesvillians boarded buses on the anniversary of the July 8 KKK rally a year ago and headed to Loyal White Knights country—but did not stop in Pelham, North Carolina, on the first day of their six-day pilgrimage to deliver soil from the lynching site of John Henry James to the Equal Justice Initiative memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.
Martin Luther King called Danville the worst segregated city he’d seen in the south. It’s where the Confederate cabinet met for the last time before General Robert E. Lee surrendered in 1865. It’s also the site of Bloody Monday, a 1963 civil rights demonstration where 47 protesters were beaten by police.
Confederate president Jefferson Davis stayed in the Italianate mansion that was the home of William Sutherlin. It’s now the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, and Civil War history and civil rights history coexist there—at times uneasily.
“That started out bad and turned out well,” said Charlottesville artist LeVonne Yountz.
A film about slave-owning tobacco magnate Sutherlin produced by the Daughters of the Confederacy did not sit well with some in the Charlottesville contingent, including City Councilor Wes Bellamy, who denounced being subjected to a “culturally incompetent whitewashing” on the anniversary of the Klan rally.
“You’re being disrespectful,” countered Lorie Strother, who said it was unfair to “come into their house and raise hell.”
The mood calmed after a panel of civil rights activists, who were teenagers in 1963, talked about trying to end segregation with peaceful protests that brought movement leaders, including King, to Danville.
Pastor Thurman Echols was 16 and “one of the first to be arrested.” Police went to his house and arrested his mother and father, he said, which happened when the demonstrators were underage.
Carolyn Wilson was 15 years old and described being taught by Andrew Young “how to curl up in a ball so you wouldn’t get as severely hurt when beaten.” And she assured the survivors of August 12 that just because she followed King’s practice of nonviolence didn’t mean she didn’t want to beat someone. “We were spat on and rocks were thrown on us,” she said.
Dorothy Batson was 17 when she was dragged from Belk—but had someone ready to step in to lead the demonstration after her arrest. “Be organized,” she advised.
She went on to organize against the poll tax and to teach people how to read and write so they could register to vote, because literacy tests were another way to disenfranchise black voters.
“That’s what we went through,” she said. “It hurt my heart that you wanted to walk out because you didn’t like what you heard.”
A Charlottesville teen said she could see going back to fighting for civil rights, which drew chuckles from the panelists, one of whom said the battle had never ended.
The museum was the site of a battle over a Confederate flag that flew outside in 2015. The building is owned by Danville and the city council refused to allow its removal—until the Charleston church massacre.
Another traveler asked what was being done about all the Confederate flags that went up when the museum flag came down, including the largest one in the country on U.S. 29 that cost $30,000 and is on private property, according to Martinsville Vice Mayor Chad Martin.
“No industries want to come to Danville,” said Pastor Echols, who suggested not supporting business owners that fly the flag.
The buses were loaded and had left the museum when they pulled into a parking lot so pilgrims could see the Bloody Monday historical marker in downtown Danville.
Earlier in the day, the pilgrimage stopped at Appomattox, where Lee surrendered and where former 5th District congressman Tom Perriello and his nephew joined the group for a bit. Perriello recalled first visiting the national park as a Boy Scout, and said the historical retelling had gotten more accurate over the years.
Historical interpretation was the topic after leaving Appomattox, where the focus was very much on the military history, with very little on the enslaved people who were there. “I would have liked a little bit more,” said Virginia Humanities’ Kevin McFadden.
And his colleague Justin Reid called it a “missed opportunity” and said Williamsburg is “cutting edge” on the interpretation of African American history while Monticello is incorporating that history throughout the site.
Historical interpretation is likely to remain a theme. Next stop: Greensboro, North Carolina, home of the first lunch counter sit-in.