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.

Briarfield Road Map
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.