Lynching and the Virginia Peninsula

Newport News, Virginia
William Allen 12.05.1881
Fred Tinsley 06.09.1902
Unknown 12.09.1909

So reads the single monument to racial terror lynchings on the lower Virginia Peninsula at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Part of the genius of the memorial is its focus on place. The individuals remembered are organized by state and county. Soil from lynching sites is exhibited in the memorial and in the Legacy Museum. I, like I expect most visitors, was drawn to see how my home figured in this story. For me this meant, in part, Jefferson County, Alabama, where I have lived for nearly 20 years. Even more, however, it meant the cities in which I was born and raised and which I visit several times every year, Hampton and Newport News, Virginia.

The alphabetical arrangements of the memorials place those from Virginia on the inside row of the memorial. Here some hang freely above the memorial square. They are also exposed to the weather. When I visited in October 2018, just six months after the memorial opened, the one for Newport News was already streaked with stains from water flowing off the roof.

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National Memorial for Peace and Justice, October 2018. Photo: David R. Bains

Thankfully, lynchings were less common in Virginia than in Alabama. Unfortunately they still occurred. On the lower Peninsula, no lynchings were recorded in the areas that are now the cities of Hampton, Poquoson, and Williamsburg, nor in the counties of York and James City. Three occurred in what was once Warwick County and is now the independent city of Newport News.

Newport News Lynchings

Professor Gianluca De Fazio and his colleagues at James Madison University have begun to tell the stories of these lynchings at the website Racial Terror: Lynching in Virginia, 1877-1927.  Each lynching was connected to events in the young city of Newport News. A New South success story, Newport News suddenly sprang to life in 1881 when Collis P. Huntington brought the railroad down the Peninsula to create an deep water terminus on the Atlantic for his Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Many flocked to the city and its offer of economic opportunity. In the 1920s, their numbers included all four of my own grandparents. With Newport News’s boom in industry, commerce, and population also came social upheaval and disorder. As the Peninsula’s largest and newest municipality it is not surprising that Newport News was also the site of all its known lynchings.

The first occurred less than two months after the railroad was completed. William Allen, an African American man, was accused of killing a white man by stabbing on December 2, 1881. Placed in the Warwick County jail, he was transferred to the Elizabeth County jail in Hampton on December 6, reportedly “in order that the lynchers might get hold of the prisoner with less trouble.” While he was being transferred a party of men seized him and “hung him by a tree” somewhere in Warwick County. In 1881 the seat of Warwick County was in Denbigh, but the location of the lynching is unknown.

Twenty-two years later, Fred Tinsley’s body was found hanging from a tree on June 9, 1902, on Briarfield Road. He had apparently paid unwanted attention to Mary Gilman, a white woman in Newport News. A coroner determined that he had been strangled with a belt and then hung. Briarfield Road is still a well-used thoroughfare and the home of Heritage High School. At that time it was a country road running south of Newmarket Creek and its wetlands through land distant from the railroad.

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Annotated detail from 1931 printing of 1907 U.S. Geological Survey map. Newport News is located off the bottom edge of this map at the intersection of the railroads. Source: https://ngmdb.usgs.gov/img4/ht_icons/Browse/VA/VA_Hampton_188161_1907_62500.jpg

The third African American victim of lynching in Warwick County was an unidentified man who was lynched in December 1909. The details of this case are less clear. According to the Newport News Daily Press he had attacked a white woman on Briarfield Road and was strung up by his heels by a posse of white men and riddled with bullets on December 19. By contrast, Washington Post reported that he was hanged on December 9. Regardless of the details, it like the other lynchings were acts of terrorism that helped reinforce racial hierarchy.

While the Montgomery memorial includes only African Americans who were victims of racial terror lynchings, the JMU website lists one additional lynching in Warwick County. William Watts, the white son of a Lynchburg police officer, and a newcomer to the Newport News was arrested for criminally assaulting a white woman. He was taken from the Warwick County jail in Newport News on January 5 and shot to death before a crowd of hundreds. As in the other Newport News cases, a criminal investigation was undertaken, but no one was convicted of the lynching.

Lynching and the Peninsula’s Landscape of Memory

In order to help “change the built environment” of places where lynching occurred so that it “more honestly reflect our history,” the designers of the Montgomery memorial prepared duplicate monuments. These will be given to communities to erect in their own places  of those in the memorial to be claimed by communities throughout the country in order to erect them in their own communities. I know that the effort to do this in Jefferson County, Alabama, where I live, is well underway. I have not yet seen notice of such efforts in Newport News. Given that Newport News was the economic engine that drove the entire Peninsula during much of the twentieth-century, this seems to be a task in which the entire region might share, not just one city.

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Newport News in Memorial Park waiting to be claimed. National Memorial for Peace and Justice, October 2018. Photo: David R. Bains

The Peninsula rightly celebrates its contributions to the causes of racial equality, peace, and justice through “Freedom’s Fortress,” the Emancipation Oak, Hampton University, NASA’s “Hidden Figures,” and the contribution of its military bases and shipyard to the defeat of fascism. We also have models for acknowledging the underside of history in Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretation of slavery and in the telling of the story of African American mathematicians at NASA. As I discussed in an earlier post, the memorial in Montgomery seems successful in being a memorial “for peace and justice.” By acknowledging and lamenting the past, it calls for action in the present. How this can be done successfully through the erections of its monuments in localities throughout the country remains to be seen. I hope to see folks on the Peninsula try.

A “Memorial for . . .”

I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice for the first time last week. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, and memorializing victims of racial terror lynchings in the United States, its very name suggests its novel character and moving mission. Its form evokes deep experiences of both remembrance and empowerment.

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National Memorial for Peace and Justice, view from the North, October 18, 2018. Designed by MASS Design Group for the Equal Justice Institute.

“For” not “to”

Generally our memorials bare the names of past events or persons as in the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sometimes they are simply known by their location as in the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The reality they remember is seemingly is too hard to name. Occasionally, the preposition “to” is used. The names of Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe or the Memorial to the Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia suggest that they are in some sense an offering, in these cases an offering of reparation.

When the word “memorial” is connected with a present reality, however, the word “to” can cause problems. Thus was in 1964 when President Johnson suggested at the National Prayer Breakfast that a “memorial to God” be built in Washington, D.C. Johnson intended it as a physical extension of the piety that had brought the phrase “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance a decade earlier and that had enabled Martin Luther King to link God and American freedom in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial six months earlier. But “memorial to God” was a “semantic blunder.” It was wrong, a Methodist editor explained because it “speaks of God in the past tense” (New York Times, March 15, 1964). The idea was quickly abandoned.

Hike (1 of 1)-2While many headlines announcing the Montgomery memorial’s opening in April 2018 referred to it as “a lynching memorial,” Bryan Stevenson and the other developers of the memorial did not choose this name. Many memorials are silent as to the proper response to the events they recall. Their purpose is to remember, sometimes to celebrate. They expose a tragedy or extol a hero, but the response they desire is less clear. One thinks in this respect of the simple list of names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or even the more heroic arches and wreaths of the World War II Memorial. In contrast this is a memorial is unambiguous about its purpose to encourage peace and justice.

A Path to Walk

Visitors encounter it through a clear processional path that leads them both around and through all sides of the square, colonnaded, hilltop temple. While the memorial looks like a place to go it, it is actually a path to walk. In this respect, the memorial is more like an interpretive museum than a static monument. NMPJ-0145Walking south along the memorial’s west side, visitors read signs that explain the development of the story from slavery, through emancipation and reconstruction, to segregation enforced by the racial terror of lynching, to the present day when African Americans are “overrepresented in prisons and jails and underrepresented in decision-making roles in the criminal justice system.” A statuary group by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo vividly depicts the horror of family separation and enslaved person’s defiant humanity.

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Then, instructed that the memorial’s purpose is to “inspire individuals, communities, and this nation to claim our difficulty history and commit to a just a peaceful future,” visitors reverse their steps, to ascend to the memorial itself and walk clockwise with the sun where rust-covered corten steel boxes present the visitor with the names of counties and those lynched in them.

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Many other writers have described how the rows of memorial boxes, each about as tall as a man transition from a forest of columns through which one walks to symbols of hanging corpses above one’s head as one descends the slope on the memorial square’s northern side. It is a moving and overwhelming experience.

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The Comfort of Mountain and Cave

I was struck by the architects’ incorporation of the archetypal experiences of mountain and cave. Ascending the hill, visitors are bathed in the breeze and the sun or the wind and the rain and look down on the valley of the Alabama River and downtown Montgomery. The dome of the State Capitol is just visible between other buildings. But then they descend into the shaded third and fourth sides of the memorial square. There the path proceeds below memorials that loom above and along brief summaries of individual stories, to a memorial wall covered with flowing water.

This cooler, shadowed section provides some comfort, reassurance and shelter from the weather. The flow of the water down the wall only to disappear beneath the floor reminded me of a sinking spring in a cave. In particular I thought of Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace where John Russell Pope’s hilltop temple sheltering the log cabin sits above the steps that descend into the cave with the spring that provided water for the Lincolns.

While the narrative of the memorial is all about the insecurity of victims of racism and the injustice they received, the very form of the memorial arouses the human experience of security. The promontory provides information and advantage on the threats below. The cave with its spring provides shelter and refreshment. The memorial puts visitors in primordial places of power so that they are pushed forward “for peace and justice.”

The Field of Action

With a drinking fountain and an exhortation to love, defiance, and self-respect from Toni Morrison visitors exit the cave and the memorial square into the southern sky over an unshaded field.

Here the struggle for peace and justice resumes. Visitors again reverse themselves to walk counter-clockwise through duplicates of the memorials that hang inside. They are waiting to be reclaimed by counties across the nation that make plans to remember racial terror in their landscape. The future placement of these boxes in locations across the nation will extend the memorial’s presence and help it remake the story told by the built landscape of the south as its planners propose. Earning the right to reclaim the box requires tangible efforts toward peace and justice. Thus immediately upon leaving the memorial square, visitors have something to do.

It will be interesting to see how the absence of some boxes and the presence of others is interpreted by the memorials architects and visitors in the future. For now, with a church wonderfully named the Old Ship of Zion standing outside the fence, the field feels like a graveyard.

To exit the memorial visitors continue counter-clockwise along three sides of the square. Once again they overlook the city with its towers of finance and government and a historic house of worship in the foreground. A statue of individuals sticking their hands up out of a block of concrete provides a final suggestion of the contemporary needs for peace and justice.

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Church of Christ on Catoma Street built as a synagogue for Kahl Montgomery in 1862 and Renasant Bank Tower built in 1907, re-clad in 1978, as viewed from the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

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The spiral from the hillside out into the city for action reminded me of the concluding stanzas of a hymn for social justice written during the height of racial terror.

O Master, from the mountain side,
make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
among these restless throngs abide,
O tread the city’s streets again;

Till all the world shall learn thy love,
and follow where thy feet have trod;
till glorious from thy heaven above,
shall come the city of our God.

Frank Mason North (1905)