Essay

Lynching in Southwest Virginia

By James William Hagy

Some people have expressed surprise at the number of lynchings in Southwest Virginia, defined here as the seventeen counties and three cities west of Roanoke, because that mountainous area had few slaves or free persons of color prior to the Civil War when compared with the Tidewater and Piedmont areas. According to the 1860 census, seven of the fifteen counties at the time (Bland was created in 1861 and Dickenson in 1880) had fewer than 10% of African Americans. Buchanan had the lowest at 1%, while the highest numbers were in Montgomery with 22.3% and Pulaski with 29.5%.

Southwest Virginia

Population of Southwest Virginia, 1860 & 1880 With Percentage of African Americans. (FPC=Free Persons of Color)
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County            Whites FPC     Slaves  All       % Black         Whites Blacks All       % Black
                        1860    1860    1860    1860    1860                1880    1880    1880    1880
——————————————————————————————————
Bland                                                                                            4,750   254      5004    5%
Buchanan       2,762   1          30        2793    1%                      5,661   88        5,749   1.5%
Carroll            7,719   31        262      8012    3.7%                 12,077  340      12,417  2.7%
Floyd               7,745   16        475      8,136   5.9%                 11,981  1,274   13,255  6%
Giles                7,038   67        778     6883    10.9%              7,802   1,100    8,185   13%
Grayson          7,653   49        517      8,222   6.8%               12,071  907      12,978  7%
Lee                   10,195 13         824     11,032  7.6%               14,192  922      15,114   6%
Montgomery  8,251   147      2,219   10,617 22.3%            12,466 4,227    16,693  25%
Pulaski            3,814   13        1,580   5,416   29.5%             6,303   2,452   8,755   28%
Russell             9,130   51      1,099   10,280 11.2%              12,634 1,272   13,906   9%
Scott                11,530 52        490      12,072 4.5%               16,557   676      17,233  4%
Smyth              7,732   183      1,037   8,952   13.6                 10,520 1,640   12,160  13%
Tazewell          8,624   93      1,292   9,920   13.8%             10,947 1,914   12,861   14.9%
Washington   14,096 249   2,547   16,892 16.5%                21,113 4,068   25,181   16%
Wise                4,416   26        96        4,508   2.7%                 7,671   101        7,772   1%
Wythe             9,986   157      2162    12,305 18.8%             11,464 2,850   13,314  21%
 

At least twenty-six lynchings occurred from 1883 to 1927 in the area. The killing of Leonard Woods on the Kentucky-Virginia border is included because the exact place of his execution was uncertain, but all, or almost all, of the lynchers came from Virginia. Only three of the people lynched were white (11.5%). Typically, men were arrested for a suspected offense and taken to a jail where mobs forced the jailers to surrender the prisoners. They were taken out, strung up on the limb of a tree and riddled with bullets. Seventeen of the persons lynched were accused of murder, while eight were accused of assault on a white woman. One lynching victim in Scott County, Samuel Wood, was shot through the door of his house when he refused to open it by “regulators” looking for houses of prostitution which his was not.

Staunton Spectator 08-13-1890 2

Staunton Spectator 08-13-1890

No one bothered to record the names of two people that mobs lynched in Russell County. One of them was a fourteen years old African American boy near Castlewood who was accused of killing a white boy while they were hunting together in June, 1884. While he was being held, a mob broke into the house where he was kept, took him out, and lynched him on a rail that rested on two fence posts which must have resulted in a slow excruciating death. The other unnamed person was accused of “outraging” a white woman at Dickensonville, not far from Castlewood, in the summer of 1890. He was arrested in the morning, had a preliminary hearing in the afternoon, and hanged the same night. According to the Staunton Spectator, “when [his body was] found, he had thirty-six bullets in his body”.

Newspapers reported that several of the men confessed to their alleged crimes; however, that information came from the lynchers and is possibly not true. That way, the mob could justify their actions to others. Five men suffered death in or near Richlands, Tazewell County at the hands of lynchers within twenty-four hours. Some sources suggest two others met the same fate.

List of lynched victims on Southwest Virginia:

Year       Name                     County/City         Race                       Lynched by           Accusation            Method

==================================================================================

1883       Crockett                Wythe                    white                      whites                     murder                   hanged & shot
1883       Smith                     Tazewell                black                      whites                     murder                   shot
1884       Unnamed              Russell                   black                      whites                     murder                   hanged
1885       Jackson                 Bland                     black                      whites                     murder                   hanged &shot
1888       Jones                      Wythe                    black                      whites                     assault                   hanged
1889       Rollins                    Russell                   black                      whites                     murder                   hanged & shot
1890       Unnamed              Russell                   black                      whites                     assault                   hanged & shot
1891       Clark                      Bristol                    black                      whites                     assault                   hanged
1892       Burgess                  Russell                   black                      whites                     murder                   hanged & shot
1892       Lucas                     Russell                   black                      whites                     murder                   hanged & shot
1893       Blow                       Tazewell                black                      whites                    murder                   hanged
1893       Branch                   Tazewell                black                      whites                     murder                   hanged
1893       Brown                    Tazewell                black                      whites                     murder                   hanged
1893       Ellerson                  Tazewell                black                      whites                     murder                   hanged
1893       Halsey                   Smyth                    black                      whites                     assault                   hanged & shot
1893       Johnson                 Tazewell                black                      whites                     murder                   hanged
1893       Morgan                  Tazewell                black                      blacks                    murder                   hanged & shot
1894       Wood                     Scott                       black                      whites                     none                       shot
1898       Howlett                  Carroll                    white                      whites                     murder                   shot
1898       Suits                       Wise                       black                      whites                     murder                   shot
1900       Long                       Wythe                    black                      whites                     assault                   shot
1902       Gwynn                   Wise                       black                      blacks & whites    assault                   shot
1909       Pennington            Buchanan             white                      whites                     murder                   hanged & shot
1920       Hurst (Hunt)         Wise                       black                      whites                     assault                   hanged
1926       Byrd                       Wythe                    black                      whites                     assault                   hanged
1927       Woods                   Buchanan             black                      whites                     murder                   hanged, shot, burned

Fourteen of the lynchings were carried out in the 1890s, the time when the practice reached its greatest height throughout the South. Half of those in the 1890s occurred in the year 1893. After 1900, extra-legal executions became less frequent and trials were held. Only two white men were tried and sentenced to short terms in the penitentiary. That occurred in Wise County after the killing of J. H. Hurst, also known as Dave Hunt, in 1920. The attorney for the Commonwealth, C. Ross McCorkle tried to prevent the lynching by promising that a special term of the circuit court would be held in ten days; however, that did not satisfy the mob. They took the man from the jail to the place where the crime allegedly occurred and hanged him. The members of the mob did not hide their faces and, after a time, fifty of them were indicted, but only two went to trial, and they received sentences of one year each. Since no others were tried for taking part in the lynching, Gov. E. Lee Trinkle, soon pardoned both of them. In several other cases, lynchers were tried and declared innocent while others were reported to be “unknown.”

While the victims of lynching were mostly black males who were summarily executed by white mobs, African American people lynched one black person, Charles Morgan, and participated in the lynching of another.

Not all black people accused of serious crimes were lynched. Police managed to arrest and try several who were in danger of being killed. Some were executed by the state by hanging, while other received prison sentences. One of these was Haney Garrett, a woman, of Russell County who had been accused of arson. In her trial the jury wanted to convict here by a vote of 11 to 1. Fearful of being hanged, she pleaded guilty in her second trial and received a prison sentence.

List of averted lynchings in Southwest Virginia:

=====================================================================
Year       Person                    County                  Race                       Accusation                                       Result
=====================================================================

1891       Garrett                   Russell                  black                      arson                                      prison, 10 years
1891       Nowlin                   Wythe                   black                      shooting/ murder                 hanged
1891       Prince                     Wythe                   black                      shooting                                 prison, 9 years
1891       Shucks                   Wythe                    black                      shooting                                 unknown
1903       Woodard               Tazewell               black                      murder                                   hanged
1908       Grice                      Scott                      black                      murder                                   prison, 14 years
1908       Rippey                   Tazewell               black                      assault                                   hanged
1908       Smith                     Scott                      black                      murder                                   prison, 14 years
1909       Moore                    Washington         black                      murder/larceny                    prison, 10 years
1909       Smith                     Russell                  black                      shooting                                 prison, 5 years
1910       Ross                       Bristol                    black                      letter writing                          saved by police
1915       Unknown              Wise                       black                      assault                                   escaped
1920       Williams               Wise                       black                      murder                                   prison, 18 years
1921       Grasper                  Tazewell                black                      assault                                   prison, 5 years
1922       Harber                   Tazewell                black                      murder                                   prison, life

=====================================================================

Several factors account for the high number of lynchings in Southwest Virginia. For one, the area experienced a great deal of violence. Guns were commonplace and used not only for hunting and protection, but also for feuds and settling scores. Much of Southwest Virginia was thinly settled and some counties contained only a few communities largely isolated from one another by the rugged terrain, especially in the counties that bordered on West Virginia and Kentucky. Sheriffs were often far away and had to travel by horse on roads which mostly were little more than muddy or dusty trails. Thus, people often took matters into their own hands. Furthermore, people who settled in the area were mostly of Scots-Irish, or German heritage who fiercely guarded their independence as is often the case with mountaineers.

Newspapers and court records reveal a considerably high number of intentional shootings, murders, drunken brawls, and accidental killings. Also, the low number of African Americans made them vulnerable, because whites did not have to fear a group action or uprising by the small minority. The greatest reason, however, was the exploitation of the coal resources, beginning in 1893, in Tazewell, Buchanan, Wise, and Russell counties. That attracted black and white workers from the north, especially Pennsylvania, and the south as well as immigrant labor from Austria, Hungary and Italy. Population increased rapidly in the coalfields and ethnic and labor clashes ensued. The most violent of the clashes took place in Pocahontas in Tazewell County, the first mining community in the area where whites and blacks competed for jobs (most notably between African Americans and Italians), especially during the depression years of the 1890s. All told, 65% of the lynchings in Southwest Virginia took place in the Coalfields.

The Coalfields Of Southwest Virginia

The Coalfields of Southwest Virginia

 

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Population Growth by Percent in Buchanan, Dickenson, Tazewell, and Wise Counties, 1870-1920. Dickenson County, the youngest in the state, was created from Buchanan, Russell, and Wise counties in 1890. That explains the increase of only 3.0% for Buchanan County in 1890.

———————————————————————————————————————

Buchanan

1870 – 35.2%
1880 – 50.8%
1890 – 3.0%
1900 – 65.2%
1910 – 27.3%
1920 – 25.2%

Dickenson

1900 – 52.6%
1910 – 18.7%
1920 – 47.1%

Tazewell

1870 – 8.8%
1880 – 19.2%
1890 – 54.7%
1900 – 17.5%
1910 – 6.7%
1920 – 11.6%

Wise

1870 – 6.1%
1880 – 62.4%
1890 – 20.2%
1900 – 110.3%
1910 – 73.8%
1920 – 36.1%

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The lynchings in Southwest Virginia were not isolated events. Adjoining counties in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia witnessed a number of extra-legal killings of black men. Those in North Carolina and Tennessee took place in rural counties, while those in Kentucky and West Virginia occurred in coal mining regions. These include:

Daniel Slaughter, white, Allegheny County, North Carolina, 1909
Toney Cravasso and Brother, white (Italian), Bell County, Kentucky, 1889
Samuel Garner, black, Mercer County, West Virginia, 1889.
Alexander Foote, black, Mercer County, West Virginia, 1897
Cornelius Coffey, black, McDowell County, West Virginia, 1902.
Alex Jones, black, McDowell County, West Virginia, 1897.
Robert Johnson, black,  Mercer County, West Virginia, 1912.
Irwin Roberts, white, Johnson County, Tennessee, 1892.
John Williams, black, Johnson County, Tennessee, 1898

The last two lynchings in Southwest Virginia, those of Raymond Byrd and Leonard Woods, played a central role in prompting the state to pass the Anti-Lynching Law of 1928. While people could be tried for murder prior to that, the law meant that individuals who took part in lynchings could be held responsible. It also provided state authorities with the power to investigate the lynching and punish local authorities who failed to prevent lynching. Louis Isaac Jaffe, the editor of the Norfolk Virginia-Pilot, pressured the Virginia legislature to pass anti-lynching legislation; however, Governor Harry Flood Byrd, who pushed the legislation through the General Assembly, seems to have been more interested in making the state look good for business rather than being motivated by humanitarian concerns.

 

James William Hagy, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia has a PhD in history from the University of Georgia and is a retired professor of history at the College of Charleston. He is the author of ten books including History of Washington County, Virginia to 1865 and about fifty articles in historical journals, mostly about Southwest Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina.

A fuller version of this account can be found in the Bulletin of the Historical Society of Washington County, Virginia, Series II, No. 56, 2019, pages 43-108.

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