Lynchings: A shameful chapter in Virginia history

Posted at 3:24 PM, May 13, 2016

Raymond Bird, a black man accused of having sex with a white woman, was reportedly asleep in jail in the western Virginia town of Wytheville when the mob arrived.

According to historical accounts, there were at least 25 men – all armed, all masked. On Aug. 15, 1926, they rousted Bird from his cell, shot him, tied him to the back of a truck and dragged him for more than nine miles. When the truck stopped along State Route 699 in Wythe County, the mob left Bird’s lifeless body hanging from a tree.

That grisly murder nearly 90 years ago was the last recorded lynching in Virginia. A recent report has shed light on how common such vigilantism was in the South. Between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, there were 4,075 “racial terror lynchings” in the region, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

Virginia shares a piece of this shameful history. Between 1880 and 1926, more than 90 people were lynched in Virginia, according to the initiative’s data and other documented incidents.

Bird was a native of Speedwell in Wythe County. He was married to Tennessee Hawkins, a black woman, and had three daughters – Edith, Lillian and Hazel. After serving in World War I, Bird worked as a farmhand for Grover Grubb, a white landowner.

According to J. Douglas Smith’s book “Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia,” Bird was accused of raping Grubb’s daughter, Minnie. However, Minnie Grubb vehemently denied she was raped and insisted that the sex was consensual. Even if consensual, sex between blacks and whites was illegal then.

On July 23, 1926, Minnie Grubb gave birth to a biracial daughter, Clara. Bird was immediately imprisoned in the Wytheville jail.

Bird’s lynching three weeks later made headlines across the country in publications such as Time magazine and The New York Times. The national exposure prompted Louis I. Jaffé, editor of The Virginian-Pilot, to prod state officials to approve an anti-lynching law.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit based in Alabama, spent four years researching racially motivated lynchings in 12 Southern states. “Racial terror lynching was much more prevalent than previously reported,” the group reported.

“Some states and counties were particularly terrifying places for African Americans and had dramatically higher rates of lynching than other states and counties we reviewed,” the report added. Moreover, “terror lynching played a key role in the forced migration of millions of black Americans out of the South.”

Mississippi had the most lynchings (614), followed by Georgia (595), Louisiana (559) and Arkansas (491), the data showed. Of the 12 states studied, Virginia had the fewest lynchings – 88 by the initiative’s count.

(In researching this story, Capital News Service found authoritative references to lynchings that were not included in the initiative’s data. The total number of lynchings in Virginia exceeded 90. In addition, in 1927, a Virginia mob seized an African-American man from a Kentucky jail and murdered him on the state line in an apparent attempt to confuse authorities.)

Lynchings occurred in at least 50 localities in Virginia, according to W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s book “Lynching in the New South.” Most of these localities had just one or two lynchings; however, Alleghany County had four, Danville five and Tazewell County 10.

On Feb. 1, 1893, five African-American railroad workers were lynched in Tazewell County. According to the blog “The Homesick Appalachian,” the railroad workers were allegedly drinking with two white store owners the night before the lynching. The Richmond Planet, an African-American-owned newspaper, reported that the workers had allegedly robbed and murdered the store owners. In fact, the supposed victims were alive – just injured.

At the turn of the 20th century, racist whites did not need much of an excuse to kill black citizens.

“Many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens) for bumping into a white person, or wearing their military uniforms after World War I, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person,” the Equal Justice Initiative’s report said. “People who participated in lynchings were celebrated and acted with impunity.”

On Oct. 17, 1891, three adults and a teenager were lynched in Alleghany County. The victims were African-American coal miners: Charles Miller, Robert Burton and the brothers William and John Scott.

That morning, several black miners reportedly were walking leisurely through Clifton Forge. According to Brundage, the miners’ behavior was “foolhardy black bravado in a region where the definition of acceptable conduct by blacks was very circumscribed.”

A police officer accosted the group. The men fled back to the mines but were confronted again by the officer, this time accompanied with a group of whites. A gun battle broke out.

The miners were eventually arrested by the town’s police and thrown into jail. Later that evening, a mob of townspeople broke into the jail and seized the men. Hours later, they were shot and hung.

Such incidents continued with disturbing regularity until Bird’s lynching in 1926. Then Jaffé, a crusading newspaper editor and civil rights activist, wrote a letter to Gov. Harry Flood Byrd Sr. (Coincidentally, the governor and the lynching victim had similar names. Some accounts of the lynching spelled the victim’s name as Raymond Byrd.)

The governor was adamant about attracting businesses to Virginia. That was why, during his term from 1926 to 1930, Byrd paved more than 2,000 miles of roads throughout the state. Jaffé evoked this priority to advocate on behalf of African-Americans: He told Byrd that mob violence only hindered the chances of attracting new industries to Virginia.

Jaffé asked Byrd to support legislation to make lynching a state crime. Byrd initially hesitated, saying such a law might conflict with the Virginia Constitution.

According to Smith’s book, Jaffé sensed Byrd’s reluctance. So he used his editorial pages to call on Byrd and other officials to take action.

“Lynching goes unpunished in Virginia because, deny it as one will, it commands a certain social sanction,” wrote Jaffé, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1929. The Pilot editor suggested that the state strip lynch-mob members of their right to vote and hold public office. In addition, he argued for strict fines and punishments for lynching.

Byrd came around. With the governor’s support, the Virginia General Assembly passed anti-lynching legislation. On March 14, 1928, Byrd signed it into law. Among other provisions, the law gave the state the power to enforce stiff penalties against localities that didn’t report vigilante murders.

The Anti-Lynching Law of 1928 was a breakthrough in curbing violence against African-Americans.

“Lynch mobs were generally a group composed of poor whites,” said Dr. John Kneebone, chair of the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Elites in the South never favored lynching. But because race was involved, the majority chose not to stand up and oppose lynching. Byrd changed that.”

After his term as governor, Byrd served for 30 years in the U.S. Senate and continued to exert a powerful influence in Virginia politics. A staunch segregationist, he opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Byrd and his allies adopted a strategy called Massive Resistance, forcing Virginia schools to close rather than integrate.

As the 90th anniversary of Bird’s lynching approaches, it is Byrd who is back in the news.

The longtime politician died in 1966. Five years later, Henrico County named a middle school after him. This year, students and others petitioned the county to rename Byrd Middle School, arguing that it should not honor a man who stood for racial segregation.

In March, the Henrico County School Board voted unanimously to rename the school. The board has not yet selected a new name.

Civil rights advocates have pushed for honest discussions about race like the one happening in Henrico County. That is one of the goals of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Its report, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” noted that “there is an astonishing absence of any effort to acknowledge, discuss, or address lynching.”

“Many of the communities where lynchings took place have gone to great lengths to erect markers and monuments that memorialize the Civil War, the Confederacy, and historical events during which local power was violently reclaimed by white Southerners. These communities celebrate and honor the architects of racial subordination and political leaders known for their belief in white supremacy,” the report says.

“There are very few monuments or memorials that address the history and legacy of lynching in particular or the struggle for racial equality more generally. Most communities do not actively or visibly recognize how their race relations were shaped by terror lynching.”