The 80-odd men who broke into the Charles City courthouse jail to lynch Isaac Brandon were masked, armed and unburdened by the truth.
As they told the married father of eight to cross his arms behind him, Brandon proclaimed his innocence, a son who’d stayed with him recounted to the Richmond Dispatch for the April 9, 1892, article with the headline HUNG IN THE COURT-HOUSE YARD. The Merited Fate of Isaac Brandon, the Charles-City Negro Fiend.
“Whether he confessed afterwards, of course, is not known,” the reporter wrote, of claims Brandon had assaulted a young white woman. “His body was found hanging the next morning. No person here doubts his guilt.”
No person there doubted his guilt, 29 years after President Abraham Lincoln had declared the enslaved “free” in an America where black people still weren’t.
The people who wore the masks and hanged the men — or those who wrote the news accounts and history books of the era — didn’t dwell on Brandon and the thousands of others slain in similar fashion. But as we near the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown and what would become the U.S., some Virginians are examining those atrocities.
Their conclusion? An apology would be appropriate.
A Senate joint resolution sponsored by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, asks the General Assembly to “acknowledge with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the Commonwealth and call for reconciliation among all Virginians.”
And also — those stories — the ones that didn’t make the history books? They need to be told.
As part of the resolution, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, chaired by McClellan, and the Department of Historic Resources together would pick sites for markers to document lynching, whose victims were primarily African-American. The commission plans to hold several community events where lynching occurred.
In April, Charles City is slated to unveil a state historic marker memorializing the lynching of Brandon 127 years ago on the grounds of the courthouse, which dates to 1730.
Brandon was hanged from a tree near the jail, which is no longer there.
Lending momentum to these efforts was the opening last April of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative. Between 1877 and 1950, there were more than 4,300 documented lynchings of African-Americans, mainly in the South, according to the EJI report “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.”
Perhaps the most infamous act of racial terror — the Aug. 28, 1955, lynching of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi — is widely viewed as the spark that lit a civil rights movement that began in earnest months later with the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by King.
The Charles City marker would be the first in Virginia dealing with lynching, said Julie V. Langan, director of the Department of Historic Resources.
In December, the Board of Historic Resources also approved a design for Equal Justice Initiative markers in Virginia, which would include a national overview of lynching, Langan said.
Gianluca De Fazio, an assistant professor of justice studies at James Madison University, has set up a database that documents 104 lynchings in Virginia from 1877 to 1927 — the year before the General Assembly passed an anti-lynching law. Of those victims who were hanged, beaten, riddled with bullets or a combination thereof, 84 were black and 20 were white. Two were female.
Tazewell County, in southwestern Virginia, has the most reported lynchings: 10 during five separate incidents. The city of Richmond has one reported lynching; Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties, none.
The MLK commission’s community conversations throughout Virginia last year “reinforced my view that if we are ever going to truly heal and have racial reconciliation and achieve Dr. King’s goal of a beloved community, we have to have a conversation about the good, the bad and the ugly of our past,” McClellan said. “These lynchings had a profound impact not just on the people who were murdered, but their families and communities as a whole.”
McClellan, a Petersburg native who grew up in Chesterfield, had read about the Great Migration in college, “but I never fully appreciated or understood that the Great Migration was about more than blacks seeking economic opportunity in the North. It was about black people fleeing racial terror.”
The Charles City marker was sponsored by local historian Judith Ledbetter and the Charles City NAACP.
Ledbetter is director of the county’s Richard M. Bowman Center for Local History, named for the county supervisor who was known as “Mr. History.” It was Bowman, who died in 2014, who told Ledbetter about the Brandon lynching.
She searched for Brandon’s descendants only to learn they had left Charles City. Eventually, family members in Hampton Roads gave their blessing for the marker.
“For Charles City to be the first to recognize the fact that people were lynched with a marker lets everyone know that we can’t forget our history,” said the Rev. Ellsworth Tait, president of the Charles City NAACP. “History forgotten is history repeated.”
Ledbetter, a former Justice Department lawyer, suggests that the historical sign will add context to a courthouse area with the sort of Confederate soldier memorial common in Virginia.
“It’s a way of confessing not everything is something to be proud of,” she said.
Virginia was prodded into gaining a greater understanding of this painful chapter by Zann Nelson, a researcher and former director of the Museum of Culpeper History.
Since 2005, Nelson had been researching the case of 18-year-old Allie Thompson, a black Culpeper resident who was lynched in November 1918.
According to the JMU website, Thompson was arrested “for allegedly attacking a married white woman.” In an elaborate ruse, two men showed up at the Culpeper jail with a man bound in ropes to be incarcerated. When two jailers opened the door, 15 masked men emerged, overpowered them and seized Thompson, whose body was found at sunrise dangling from a tree three miles away.
In January 2006, Nelson co-authored with Culpeper Star-Exponent reporter Allison Brophy Champion a three-part series on the lynching and its effect on multiple families. And last November, she organized an event in memory of Thompson. But her efforts to bring healing to Thompson’s descendants were met with frustration.
A friend suggested that she was failing because she was seeking an answer for just one victim.
“Maybe you should look at the idea of promoting restorative justice for everyone,” she was told.
That’s when Nelson approached McClellan and her own state senator, Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta. Both legislative offices suggested that she draft a resolution to give the lawmakers an idea of what it should look like.
Her relationship with the MLK commission is “a marriage made in heaven for me. Because they could bring to this task so much more than I could myself.”
Kamille Gardner of Washington, a great-great-niece of Allie Thompson, has joined the commission’s history of lynching work group as part of the effort to shepherd the resolution to approval.
Gardner, 27, learned about her great-great-uncle’s lynching when she was in high school.
“I was just horrified that something so heinous could happen to someone so close in my family tree,” she said. “The injustice of it all. And then, to never know everything that happened that day and the events leading up to it. That was definitely frustrating.”
Gardner, who works for an international nonprofit, hopes the commission’s work gets recognition beyond Virginia, “so other states can learn from my family’s experience.”
“I think it’s easy to forget how recent the history of lynching is in the United States,” she said. But with division and racism on the rise, it’s important to discuss “how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.”
Or as Nelson said: “Allie’s life story has given us the courage to bring this forward, to raise our heads and declare that the victims of this shameful history will no longer be forgotten or relegated to a dark corner of obscurity.”
We’ve been laser-focused on international terror but loath to address our legacy of homegrown terror. Recognition and regret are our only paths to reconciliation.
We owe the victims no less.