Journey begins: #cvillepilgrimage commemorates, reclaims local lynching

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CHS student Zyahna Bryant and Mayor Nikuyah Walker dig up soil from where John Henry James is believed to have died. It will be taken in a pilgrimage to Montgomery to join that of other African Americans who died from lynching around the South.
staff photo CHS student Zyahna Bryant and Mayor Nikuyah Walker dig up soil from where John Henry James is believed to have died. It will be taken in a pilgrimage to Montgomery to join that of other African Americans who died from lynching around the South. staff photo

About 50 people gathered in the woods beside the train tracks running west of Charlottesville early July 7. The morning was cool and birds could be heard chirping in the quiet—a scene nothing like the one 120 years ago, when a mob yanked John Henry James off a train there at Wood’s Crossing and strung him up on a locust tree.

“Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world.” The Reverend Brenda Brown-Grooms sang the Mahalia Jackson spiritual as participants contemplated the violence that had taken place on the site.

The occasion was to gather soil from property now owned by Farmington Country Club, the first step of a pilgrimage in which approximately 100 Charlottesville citizens will transport it to the recently opened lynching memorial in Montgomery, Alabama—the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial to Peace and Justice.

“We are embarking on an important journey,” said Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and one of the pilgrimage organizers. “Today we recognize a murder. We, in doing so, are returning humanity to a dehumanizing act.”

The journey is a way to “commemorate, understand and recognize this act and incorporate it into our DNA and bodies as wrong,” said Douglas.

City and county officials were present for the ceremony, including Mayor Nikuyah Walker, Vice Mayor Heather Hill, councilors Wes Bellamy and Kathy Galvin and police Chief RaShall Brackney, as well Albemarle supervisors Diantha McKeel, Ned Gallaway, Norman Dill, Rick Randolph and Chair Ann Mallek.

UVA professor and pilgrimage organizer Jalane Schmidt recounted the details of James’ slaying. He’d been accused of assaulting a white woman, arrested and taken to spend the night in jail in Staunton because of fears of a lynching. On the train ride back, accompanied by the Albemarle sheriff, a group of around 150 unmasked men boarded the train.

After James was hanged, his body was riddled with 75 bullets, according to the Shenandoah Herald. “Hundreds of people visited the scene with many snatching souvenirs, such as pieces of his clothing,” said Schmidt. No arrests were made.

Walker and Charlottesville High student Zyahna Bryant dug up dirt from the site, and Walker asked all the black people there to come closer, to close their eyes and “yell out a name you’d like to share this moment with.”

Said Walker, “There is no explanation for the violence black bodies have endured in this country. There are no amount of sorry that can make up for the amount of turmoil black people and black families have endured in this country.”

She pointed out the volume of the violence inflicted on James with 75 shots into his body. “Somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, maybe somebody’s father.” She said those same injustices and hate happen every day in this country and in Charlottesville.

“We take this journey to gamble on the ancient notion that the truth will set us free,” said the Reverend Susan Minasian, who is one of three clergy going on the pilgrimage.

Schmidt concluded the ceremony by pouring “a libation for the dead”—Virginia distilled whiskey from a flask—onto the ground where James is believed to have perished.

The mood of participants afterward was somber, with some relief.

“It’s rehumanizing,” says April Burns, whose mother, Joan Burton, grew up across the street at Ednam Farm and had played around the “hanging tree.”

“This was for somebody who never had a funeral,” said Burns.

“In my opinion, slavery was this country’s original sin and we can’t get past it,” said Supervisor McKeel. “It’s haunting us to this day.”

Chief Brackney acknowledged being torn between her race and her job as a cop. “I’m saddened my profession is still part of that,” she said. “I’m also feeling hope that we’re standing on rich soil that allows us to plant our findings forward.”

She added, “We start to own and change the narrative.”

“It was very emotional, being able to be in the spot as a black man,” said Bellamy, who has family members who have been lynched. “I was thinking about the mob and what [James’] feelings must have been to feel the train slow down, and the state of shock and fear he must have felt.”

The murderers took 20 minutes for prayer, “making a ritual of hanging and shooting this man,” said Bellamy.

And he thought of two years ago, when he created a firestorm by saying the city’s Confederate statues should come down. “I wonder if [people] knew this story,” he said.

Being at the lynching site couldn’t help but feel very close to home. “I get letters all the time about how they want to hang me on a tree,” said Bellamy. “My daughters—they send letters to my daughters and want to hang them on a tree.”

One thing Bellamy said he’s seen is the “evolution” of white people. “A lot of white people just didn’t understand how painful this was for us.”

He said, “People’s minds are a lot more open from March 2016 until now.”

Following the Farmington ceremony, the heritage center held a community conversation on lynching and screened “An Outrage,” a documentary by Lance Walker and Charlottesville native Hannah Ayers, who didn’t have Charlottesville on her radar when they started work on a film about lynching. Like a lot of people, Ayers was unaware of James’ murder.

But lynching was much more a part of history than “what we’d been taught,” said Walker.

Supervisor Randolph got a standing ovation for his talk on race—”truly America’s disgrace”—and declared July 12, the day of the lynching, John Henry James Day. “Here we repudiate the vile murder of John Henry James.”

Many of the 100 people who will be leaving on the July 8 pilgrimage were present in the historic African American Jefferson School.

Said Douglas, “I believe this is nothing short of monumental. We’re taking hold of history. We’re examining it critically and rewriting the narrative that’s been incomplete.”

 

 

 

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