Often, to move forward it’s necessary to confront history, with all its warts and smirches, acknowledge it, learn from it and grow.
That’s the message of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Ala., which is working to mark the locations of all known lynchings in the South between the end of Reconstruction and World War II. And in this time of great social change, political divisions and rancor, perhaps it’s a message we ought to heed.
Though mobs in Virginia, from 1880 until 1930, were much less deadly than in other states, about 70 black Virginians were lynched. They happened in cities such as Roanoke and in rural areas such as Wythe and King and Queen counties. And, according to online archives, even in our own backyard: James Carter, a black resident of Amherst, was lynched April 6, 1902, for unknown “crimes.”
Scattered across the commonwealth are many historical markers commemorating battles and leaders of the Civil War. As we approach the 150th anniversary in 2015 of the surrender Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Court House, we should also recognize that the aftermath of the war brought decades of continued injustices on black Americans.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of lynchings took place across the South, many recorded, most not. On one level, their purpose was to cow black Americans into submission, to re-enslave them emotionally if not physically, to re-establish the pre-war social order. On another, more primal level, some people simply wanted to erradicate black Americans.
In the 1920s, several exceptionally horrific lynchings in King and Queen County, Waverly, Wythe County and Wise County led Louis Isaac Jaffe, the editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, to use his editorial pages to press the General Assembly and Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. to pass and sign into law the nation’s strictest anti-lynching law in 1928. It would be another four decades before the Old Dominion was finally on the path to desegregation and integration, prodded by the federal government.
There is a direct link between the Jim Crow era and its signature means of social control — lynchings — to many of the racial tensions still evident insociety today. But the only way to overcome them is to confront the past face to face, admit the historical events that place in our midst and talk about them.
Indeed, we would toss out the suggestion that, in this sesquicentennial of the Civil War, we begin a discussion on depth and breadth of the reach of slavery itself and how that institution’s legacy still reverberates to this day.
Let’s erect historical markers to lynching’s victims, including James Carter in Amherst. Let’s remember and commemorate the sites around Lynchburg where slave brokers regularly gathered to buy and sell their “wares.” These are as much a part of our history in Central Virginia as the war fought to preserve that very institution.
Only when we confront our true past — and not a rose-colored version of it — will we move forward as a society.