Recently, the New York Times wrote about a new report (found here) from the Equal Justice Initiative, documenting nearly 4,000 racial lynchings of blacks across the southern states between 1877 and 1950. According to a summary of the EJI report, they’ve documented 700 more lynchings of black people in those states than has been previously reported.
The report, EJI says, makes the case that “lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation.” I wouldn’t argue with that. Lynchings were horrific, and I’ve not heard of one in the American South that wasn’t carried out by white people against blacks.
I was pretty young when the movie “Places in the Heart” came out. My parents had a tendency to take me with them to movies they wanted to see, rather than get a babysitter, so I remember seeing grown-up movies of the early 1980’s like “Terms of Endearment,” “Gandhi,” “A Color Purple” and “Passage to India” in the theater when they came out. And so that is how I saw “Places in the Heart” in the theater when I was 8 or 9. The movie, starring Sally Fields, is, on the surface, about how she brings in the cotton crop after her husband is killed. It’s also about racism in a small town. Her husband is killed by accident by a young black man, and the town lynches that man. That was my first introduction to lynching. It was horrible, and it stuck. Over the years, history classes, including a civil rights history class, made the images of that brutality indelible.
The New York Times usually has great graphics and in this case they’ve made a map, with circles varying by size depending on how many lynchings had happened in that locality. That’s how I noticed a surprisingly large circle over my home region of Southwest Virginia.
I say “surprisingly” not because I’m surprised to hear that the kind of racial tension that was part and parcel of lynchings existed in Appalachia or Southwest Virginia. I was just surprised that I’d never heard of any of these murders.
I was frustrated that the NYT map didn’t allow me to zoom in, nor did it have any more information on the deaths associated with each dot on the map. So I turned to Google, and now I’m surprised at how easily I found some information. And I learned a few things. I’m writing about this because it interests me and because I haven’t seen any local newspapers in Southwest Virginia localize the EJI report, and I think it’s worth telling about.
The dot that hovered over Tazewell County, in Southwest Virginia, was big for the area. The EJI report has a summary of lynchings by county, and there I found that Tazewell County had eight lynchings — a large number, it seemed like, especially compared to its neighbors. Buchanan and Dickinson counties weren’t on the list at all. Wise County had three lynchings. Bland County had one. Wythe County had three. Russell one, Scott one, Patrick one, Washington one.
In my googling, I found that five of Tazewell County’s lynchings came in one incident, in Richlands in February of 1893, when five black railroad workers were lynched by a mob. Four of them had apparently spent the night before drinking with two white store owners. Later that night, the two white men were allegedly beaten and robbed by the four black men. The sheriff arrested the black men but a mob seized them (although it doesn’t sound as if the sheriff put up much of a fight).
I found that information in a book (well, a Google version of a book, although I might try to track down a full copy) called “Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930” by a William Fitzhugh Brundage.
Brundage says that the mob was led by a James Hurt, a magistrate and member of the Richlands town council, and a James Crabtree, a prominent local businessman.
They hanged the four black railroad workers from the same tree, then a roaming mob killed a fifth black man. They posted signs warning blacks to leave the county, a warning also given in neighboring Buchanan County.
When I saw the numbers of lynchings in Virginia counties, I was surprised at how many more were in Southwest Virginia. I’d assumed that localities in the eastern parts of the state, with larger black populations, would have more lynchings. But that wasn’t the case — the opposite, in fact.
Brundage has an interesting explanation for that. He argues that the coal mining and industrialization of the late 1880’s in Southwest Virginia created a big social and economic upheaval. Many blacks came into the area to work in those industries (as did many other people).
“As was the case in other areas undergoing rapid economic change, violence in Southwestern Virginia coincided with the period when industrialization was relatively new,” Brundage writes. “Of the 28 lynchings that occurred in the region, 22 took place between 1880 and 1894, nine during 1893 alone. In the subsequent 30 years, only six lynchings occurred.”
Brundage suggests the number of lynchings dropped because “the violent hostility of white residents toward blacks waned when blacks failed to secure a significant role in the region’s changing economy.” Early in the coal boom, Brundage says, black miners gravitated to the coalfields in West Virginia, leaving those in Southwest Virginia much less racially mixed.
He points out that the upheaval in Southwest Virginia had no counterpart in eastern Virginia, where industries (and racial demographics) were much more settled. He says the “flurry of mob violence” Southwest Virginia during that time was “an attempt by whites to define the status of blacks.”
His argument is echoed on this website (apparently developed for a class by a George Mason University professor): http://www.virginiaplaces.org/geology/coalshape.html
“Due to the immigration of different cultural groups and the associated social disruption, more lynchings occurred in Southwest Virginia between the Civil War and World War I than in any other section of Virginia,” the site says. “The number of blacks in Southwest Virginia were much fewer than in Southside, and white Virginians in Tidewater and Southside were no more tolerant than the whites in the Southwest. The high number of lynchings in Southwest Virginia reflected the tension of new immigrants creating new rules of behavior in a new setting, in contrast to the well-understood social boundaries between whites and blacks further east.”
I think this makes sense. It doesn’t seem to me to be in any conflict with the argument in the EJI report, which is that lynchings were terrorism, a brutal attempt to subjugate blacks and, essentially, teach them their place by terrorizing them.
The EJI report also discusses how those lynchings shaped society and economic conditions for blacks through today. I’ll let their report speak for itself, but it’s clear in Southwest Virginia that that racial tension still has ramifications. I’ll use Buchanan County as an example. I have always heard that black people were warned, through the early 20th century, not to be caught in Buchanan after dark, and the excerpt from Brundage’s book seems to bear that out. What I do know for sure is that when a black law professor moved his family to Grundy so he could take a job teaching at the then-new Appalachian School of Law, it was news. As in, a news story in the Bluefield newspaper. In 1998 or 1999, I believe. About the first black family to move to Buchanan County in I don’t know how long.
Racism and terror definitely cast long, long shadows.