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%.
|Population of Southwest Virginia, 1860 & 1880 With Percentage of African Americans. (FPC=Free Persons of Color)|
|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.
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.
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.
1870 – 35.2%
1880 – 50.8%
1890 – 3.0%
1900 – 65.2%
1910 – 27.3%
1920 – 25.2%
1900 – 52.6%
1910 – 18.7%
1920 – 47.1%
1870 – 8.8%
1880 – 19.2%
1890 – 54.7%
1900 – 17.5%
1910 – 6.7%
1920 – 11.6%
1870 – 6.1%
1880 – 62.4%
1890 – 20.2%
1900 – 110.3%
1910 – 73.8%
1920 – 36.1%
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.