CHARLOTTESVILLE — The soil came up easily at the lynching site. Scoop after scoop of deep brown earth dug carefully with a trowel and then gently poured into gallon-size glass jars etched with a name — John Henry James — and a date — July 12, 1898.
Sacred ground, once forgotten, now reclaimed.
About 50 people met here early Saturday a few miles from downtown Charlottesville to remember James, to say his name and to ask the city, and the nation, to say it with them.
The ceremony was held in a grove of trees between the railroad tracks and a narrow gravel road on land now owned by a country club. This was where James was pulled from a train 120 years ago, hanged from a locust tree, shot by a mob and then left for hours for everyone to see. He was buried in a cemetery in an unmarked grave. It’s not known if he ever had a funeral.
More than a century after his death, this gathering of activists, clergy, historians, politicians and students would serve as his funeral. And, they hoped, it would make visible a past that had been disappeared.
In this city, still bearing the wounds of the deadly display of modern white supremacy that visited last August, remembering this earlier act of racial violence, organizers said, reminds the nation that the history of hatred is deep in its bones and seeped in its soil. Ignoring it has not made it go away, they say. Only by exhuming it and addressing it can America address its perpetual crisis with race.
The weather was cool for July and a breeze blew through the stand of trees. Birds chirped from above and twigs crunched underfoot, but those were the only sounds until Brenda Brown-Grooms, a local pastor, began to sing. “Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, going home to live with God.”
There were poems read and prayers offered and a generous splash of Virginia whiskey poured onto the ground. Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker called on the black mourners present to come close to the front and say the names of ancestors, friends or relatives they wished had seen this day. “Isabella Gibbons,” one person said. “John West,” said another. “Ricky Griffin.” The names spilled out and out and out and out.
Siri Russell wiped away tears as she emptied a shovelful of dirt into one of the glass jars. A policy analyst for Albemarle County, she helped coordinate the ceremony, which had particular significance for her. The 34-year-old wife and mother of two had a great-great-uncle, Frazier Baker, who was lynched.
“As I turned the soil, that actually put me over the top,” Russell said. “I thought about my grandmother and her mother, and I think that’s what made me cry.”
Three glass jars were filled with soil from the site. Albemarle County and the city of Charlottesville will each receive one. The other will be taken to the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., where it will join collections of soil from lynching sites across the nation. On its journey to Montgomery, that jar will be accompanied by 100 people expected to leave Charlottesville on Sunday by bus for a pilgrimage through the civil rights landmarks of the South.
What happened to John Henry James was forgotten once, said Andrea Douglas, executive director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville and the co-organizer of the pilgrimage with Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia associate professor and Black Lives Matter activist.
“There are people in this community and this country who have been miseducated,” Douglas said. “They don’t know their own history.”
She and Schmidt are determined that James’s story will never be forgotten again.
On the afternoon of July 11, 1898, John Henry James was arrested in Charlottesville on suspicion of sexually assaulting a young white woman from a prominent local family. According to newspaper accounts from the time, she identified James as her assailant and he was taken to the city jail. Other accounts said the woman had clawed at her attacker, but there were no reports that James bore any marks. An angry crowd formed, convinced of James’s guilt, and that evening the police sneaked him out of the jail for his safety and took him by train to Staunton, about 30 miles away.
A county judge formed a grand jury and summoned James to return to face charges the next day. On the morning of the 12th, accompanied by the police chief and a sheriff, James was put on the train for the return to Charlottesville. The trip was uneventful until it reached Woods Crossing, a station about four miles from downtown Charlottesville.
There, a mob of 150 armed and unmasked men stormed the train, shoved the lawmen aside and took James off. The Daily Progress reported: “As soon as James reached the platform a rope was thrown over his head and he was carried about 40 yards to a small locust tree near the blacksmith shop. He was asked if he wished time to pray. He replied, ‘Before God, I am innocent.’ ”
Within minutes, the rope was looped over a branch and James was hoisted by his neck off the ground. The men who had gathered for the lynching drew their weapons and began shooting at James. One newspaper reported that 75 shots were fired. An African American mortician later identified 30 bullet holes in James’s body.
James’s body remained hanging for at least two hours. Several minutes after the shooting, the brother of the woman who alleged the assault showed up and fired his gun into the lifeless form. Hundreds of others would come to look at the body, and many took items from the scene, including pieces of James’s bloodied clothing.
The Daily Progress would later opine that it did not approve of mob violence and thought judges and juries should decide matters of law. And yet, it also shrugged, writing, “But we have long since ceased to be amazed that good men, honest men, law-abiding men and aye, Christian men have been unable to record these violations of the most sacred matters of society with anything like patience.”
No one was ever charged in connection with James’s murder. The coroner’s report concluded that James’s death was caused by hanging and shooting “by unknown parties.”
The paper also objected to the lynching because “the culprit was in the custody of the officers and would have had a speedy trial. The result would have been the same, in all probability, and the fair name of our community would have remained unsullied.”
The newspaper need not have worried that the name of Charlottesville was sullied. The story of the lynching soon faded from public memory. Many longtime residents have never heard about it, said Jane Smith, an amateur historian who conducted extensive research on James’s murder.
Ann Mallek, a member of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, was born in Charlottesville in 1950 and has lived in the area all her life. She had never heard about James until two years ago when a commission began looking into the region’s history of white supremacy and racial violence.
“It shocked me that growing up here and going to school here, I had never heard about this lynching,” said Mallek, who attended Saturday’s memorial. “We must begin a long process of learning and understanding our local history and the events that have been hidden until now.”
Don Gathers, a deacon at First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, was on the front lines with other clergy members protesting last year’s white supremacist rally. The “ninth gate of hell” is how he remembers it. “You saw stuff and experienced stuff that no one should ever see outside of a landing zone in a war,” Gathers said.
On Saturday, Gathers left the memorial for James feeling overwhelmed again.
“You think about what he endured, what he went through — I wasn’t quite prepared for it, honestly,” Gathers said. “And it’s still going on today. All that kept coming to me was, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ”
Many taking part in the pilgrimage witnessed last summer’s violence. Some had friends or family members injured. They draw a thread between the events, America’s history of racial violence and their worries for a country that won’t fully confront and come to terms with its past.
Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer was struck and killed when a car rammed counterprotesters during last year’s white nationalist rally, was on hand for the memorial for James. She plans to join the pilgrimage to bring the soil to Montgomery.
“It’s so easy to say that this guy was in the past, but how close are we to that mentality now?” Bro asked. “That’s what’s frightening. You can’t fix things until you know the truth of what has happened.”