The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission has generated a resolution for consideration in this year’s General Assembly session expressing “profound regret” for the estimated more than 100 African Americans murdered by lynching in Virginia.
If adopted, it will be the first resolution of its type in all 50 states acknowledging “the extreme racial animus, violence and terror” embodied in the illegal acts.
Historian Zann Nelson, of Reva, initiated the effort as part of a 13-year journey that began with her research of the Nov. 24, 1918 lynching in Culpeper County of 18-year-old Charles “Allie” Thompson.
“I have wanted to try and find a way to bring some restorative justice, some healing, some closure to that story,” she said.
The quest brought her to Richmond where she spoke with various legislators about the idea of a memorial resolution for Thompson, leading her to the King Commission and the suggestion for taking a broader approach encompassing all of the victims lynched in the commonwealth.
“Virginia would be the first state to do such a thing and it makes me very proud to be part of this and to be a Virginia citizen,” Nelson said. “The official recognition and the acknowledgment that these acts of violence occurred is restorative to descendants and the memories of these victims.”
The local historian gained early support for the idea of a resolution from State Senator and King Commission Chairwoman Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, as well as State Senator Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, who represents a portion of Culpeper County.
“I thought this is bigger than just one incident,” McClellan said of the original concept for a memorial resolution for the 100th anniversary of Thompson’s violent death by hanging. “I thought we need some entity that can pull all the research together in one place and expand upon it.”
She agreed it was an appropriate task for the King Commission, created in 1992 by the General Assembly to honor the memory and legacy of the civil rights leader and continue his work. In acknowledging the 150th anniversary five years ago of the Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan added, a common theme at community roundtables hosted around the state was that the history of African-Americans in Virginia, like the country at large, and their fight for equality was not a pristine story.
“If you are ever going to have racial healing, you have to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly – the complete story,” McClellan said.
She is chief patron for the lynching resolution on the Senate side and Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who also serves on the King Commission, will sponsor it on the House side.
The resolution has been referred to the Rules Committee in both chambers. A senior member of the Senate Rules Committee, Hanger said he would support it, acknowledging the work Nelson did to further the concept.
“I indicated to her it seemed appropriate,” he said. “It’s the right time.”
Hanger added the resolution is especially appropriate for 2019, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown, an event for which the state will be hosting other commemorative activities, he said.
Resolutions brought to the Rules Committee in the past have sometimes failed, Hanger said, with some members of the opinion, “When you look back at history that we can’t change, it’s of no impact to make a statement about it.” That is not the case with the lynching resolution, he added.
“It does acknowledge a lot of problems from the past, a history that we obviously can’t be proud of,” Hanger said. “The resolution will at least acknowledge some terrible things were done in the past that we would certainly find abhorrent so I do intend to support it.”
History of Lynching Work Group
The Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017 shows that much is still lacking in terms of achieving a post-racial America, McClellan said.
“Part of why we never had that reconciliation and never really achieved Dr. King’s vision of ‘beloved unity’ is because we haven’t talked about all of our history and tried to work through how this history still impacts communities today,” she said.
The King Commission started the conservation about slavery with a similar resolution in 2007 and the next phase of that conversation should be the reaction after the Civil War to African-Americans getting freedom, including economic and political power, McClellan said.
“There was a backlash, and that’s not really taught in school,” she said. “But you have to talk about it if you’re ever going to fully heal.”
From the idea for a resolution, McClellan created the History of Lynching Work Group, a subcommittee of the King Commission, on which Nelson serves along with various other subject matter experts from James Madison University, Library of Virginia, University of Richmond, Virginia Department of Education and the Jefferson School African-American Heritage Center, among others.
The proposed resolution will be the subcommittee’s first official action and it has been further charged to undergo a long-term research project on lynching in Virginia.
“We are going to compile information on every documented racial terror lynching that occurred in the commonwealth,” McClellan said of a centralized database project that will be housed on the King Commission web site.
From there, the group intends to work with the Department of Historic Resources to identify potential marker locations, she said, as well as the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama to coordinate efforts regarding its ongoing “Community Remembrance Project” to recognize lynching victims. The King Commission further intends to host community conversations in Virginia localities where lynchings occurred to talk about how it impacted the community and still does today, McClellan added.
“It’s important to acknowledge this trauma happened,” she said. “There are people who left communities because of lynchings. Black people didn’t just leave the south because they were looking for work, some also left because they were afraid for their lives. It has had a huge impact on American society and we shouldn’t just pick and choose what part of history we are going to tell – we should tell it all.”
Nelson is thrilled to see the important effort come to fruition.
“It will bring some closure to me for the whole Allie Thompson story,” she said. “And there is a lot going forward that will be restorative not just to him and his family, but to all those who were victims of lynching, and their loved ones.”
“Silence is unacceptable”
Washington, D.C. resident Kamille Gardner said when she was growing up her family talked in whispers about what happened to her great-great uncle Allie Thompson a century ago in Culpeper when he was accused of assaulting a white woman, arrested and then days later forcibly removed from the local jail by a mob and murdered without due process.
“As I got older, eventually I learned exactly what happened and I remember feeling stunned that a story so much like that of well-known Emmett Till could be the same fate one of my very own relatives faced all those years ago,” said 27-year-old Gardner of the 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for offending a white woman.
Invited by Nelson and McClellan to be on the History of Lynching Work Group, she was excited to participate.
“I felt very involved and included in the process,” said Gardner, who works for a global nonprofit that plans and implements educational study tours for members of Congress. “Passage of this type of resolution at the state level is sadly unprecedented and I think it’s critical to raise awareness of our history, even the dark, ugly, painful parts.”
Passage of the resolution by the General Assembly as part of this year’s session will not forgive the atrocities inflicted or the fact that her great-uncle’s life was taken, she added. It will not undo the immense hate and prejudice that drove the mob to kill her ancestor and it will not erase the deep-rooted oppression and racism that is part of American history, Gardner said.
What it will mean, she added, is a recognition that Allie Thompson’s life extends far beyond her family’s memory of the young man, that generations of Virginians will be better informed of the history and impact of lynching, and more children will possibly learn about it in school.
She added that the families of those whose lives were taken by the brutal act of lynching deserve this type of long-term public recognition and retribution.
“Continued silence and ignorance is simply unacceptable,” Gardner said.