Two of Virginia’s strong newspaper editors emerged as staunch foes of lynching in the Commonwealth during a time when mobs, without fear of prosecution or conviction, could terrorize and murder African Americans charged or suspected of crimes.
That was one theme a large crowd heard UVa-Wise historians Tom Costa and Preston Mitchell discuss in a Feb. 4 lecture entitled “Wise County Lynchings and the Equal Justice Initiative” as part of Black History Month Lecture Series.
Lynchings were basically terrorism and a way to enforce racial subordination. The brutal, public events were tolerated and even celebrated.
The historians spoke of the three lynchings that took place in Wise County and touched on others in other Virginia counties. The first recorded in Wise County was Wiley Gwynn who was lynched at Coeburn’s Bondtown community in 1902. The second was at Kent Junction when Dave Hunt was lynched in 1920. The last recorded lynching in Virginia took place near Pound close to the Virginia-Kentucky line in 1927 when Leonard Woods, a coal miner, was brutally murdered in front of a mob of about 1,500. He had been jailed for the shooting death of Herschell Deaton. A mob broke Woods out of the Whitesburg, Kentucky jail and drove him to Pound Gap for the lynching.
It was the aftermath of the last two lynchings that had extraordinary consequences, Costa and Mitchell explained.
The brutal murder of Dave Hunt actually ended in the conviction of A.L. Napier. Napier, a white man, was sentenced to a year in prison and Virginia Gov. E. Lee Trinkle did not grant him a pardon, Professor Costa told the crowd. It was the horrible circumstances surrounding the Woods murder that had the most long ranging circumstances for Virginia.
The hard-hitting editorials played a large role in what would eventually occur in Richmond regarding legislation against lynching.
Mitchell told the story of Bruce Crawford, editor of a newspaper in Norton called the Crawford Weekly.
“Crawford was a tireless advocate for racial justice,” Mitchell said.
It was Crawford who reported the “official” story of the Woods lynching, but the editor also made it clear that “something else might have happened.” There were hints that prostitution was involved.
Crawford penned a scathing editorial and offered a reward for those responsible for Woods’ murder.
Costa told the story of Louis Jaffe, editor of the Virginian Pilot in Norfolk. Jaffe won a Pulitzer for his anti-lynching editorials. Jaffe was also joined by editors of several Black newspapers in Richmond and the Norfolk area in the battle against lynching.
With the pressure and the embarrassment rising across Virginia, Gov. Harry Byrd called for a Jan. 5 meeting in Richmond. Crawford and Jaffe were among the newspaper editors who attended. On Jan. 16, Byrd proposed a comprehensive state anti-lynching law. He signed it into law on March 8.
The law stated that members of lynch mobs would face murder charges, state officials would aid local prosecutors, and victims’ family members could sue for compensation.
The historians also spoke about the Equal Justice Initiative and its work to document lynchings. EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in April 2018 as a memorial that is also dedicated to those who were lynched. The organization is inviting counties across the nation to claim and install monuments in their localities.
The BHM Lecture Series is sponsored by the Office of Compliance and Inclusion and the Department of History and Philosophy. The next lecture is set for Feb. 11 at 1 p.m. in the Rhododendron Room of the Slemp Student Center. Stephanie Rolph, associate professor of history at Mlllsaps College, will speak on White Supremacy in a White Collar: The Citizens’ Council 1954—1989.