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Forum Seeks Input from Community on Lynching Memorials

2019-03-15 Renss Greene

Dozens of people gathered at Douglass School in Leesburg on Thursday night for a collective conversation about plans to create lynching memorials in Loudoun.

The discussion started before the forum, with a proposal by then-Loudoun NAACP President Philip Thompson, during a local debate on the Confederate war memorial at the Loudoun County courthouse, to put up historical markers at the sites of the three documented lynchings of black people in Loudoun County between 1880 and 1902.

Page Wallace, Orion Anderson and Charles Craven were each abducted from county authorities by a mob, hanged, and then shot to death. In no case, according to Thompson, is there any record of anyone being convicted in relation to the lynchings.

“One interesting thing about where we stand, had we been standing here in 1902, we would have witnessed a lynching that occurred right across the street,” Thompson said at the Douglass School on Thursday. Charles Craven was lynched in 1902 at Potter’s Field, near what today is the busy intersection of East Market Street and Catoctin Circle.

The forum was organized by four master’s degree students at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, one of them Thompson’s wife. Tanja Thompson, Jordan Mrvos, Bethany Holland, and Audrey Williams organized and hosted the program, which started with a short panel discussion before turning to group discussions among the people attending.

After brief remarks from the panel, group discussions began, with attendees circulating among the tables and sharing their thoughts. Afterwards, table leaders shared the results of that dialogue.

Jessica Walker said people at her table wanted to make sure the lynching markers had two purposes.

“If we’re going to use it to educate people that don’t know about this history specifically here, that we’re also making sure that there is the grief and community that suffered from this violence, so the opportunity for that isn’t taken away from the community that were directly affected,” Walker said.

The discussion ranged beyond the immediate question of the markers, to making sure they represent a continuing, memorable lesson—and to integrating lessons about lynching into classroom curriculums.

“The language that came out was a moral language, it was a moral narrative,” said Randy Ihara, who led one table. “It wasn’t legalistic or historical even, it was more of the discussion of sin, confession, redemption, and sort of the open question of salvation.”

Another table leader said the literature about lynching provided at the event “removes the romanticism of history, and that is very necessary.”

“The discomfort is necessary, is what one group had said,” she reported. “We must engage with it in order to heal, and by not recognizing what’s gone on in the past, the wound has healed over imperfectly, poorly, and we must tear off the bandage, is what words were used, in order to heal properly.”

Another table contemplated that what Loudoun does may set the example for Fauquier and Frederick counties, which are beginning a similar conversation around lynching.

Panel members included moderator Thompson; Loudoun Freedom Center Founder and current Loudoun NAACP President Pastor Michelle Thomas; Loudoun County government Historical Preservation Planner Heidi Siebentritt; Upperville native and life-long Loudoun resident Shirley Carpenter; Richmond-area state Sen. Jennnifer McClellan (D-9), who represents parts of Henrico and Charles City counties; and Journey Through Hallowed Ground founding president and Northern Virginia Parks Authority Vice President Cathleen Magennis Wyatt.

Thomas, who called herself “the eyes of Loudoun,” said, “The denial of African-American historic identification and markers is to deny the past and continued struggle for freedom and humanity. It is also to deny the resilience of a community, a people group, a strong people group. It is to deny the shared opportunity for shared reconciliation. We will not be denied.”

One suggestion from the panel irked people at the event.

“I keep being asked about the lynching memorial, and my response is, why in the world do we want to memorialize lynching?” Magennis Wyatt said during her panel remarks. “We want to memorialize the life of the young men who were killed.”

“There was a fairly visceral reaction at some of my tables against the panel’s suggestion of the rejection of the word lynching in the memorial,” said one table leader. “We felt that that was sort of softening the history, and that actually a memorial does not have to celebrate an act.”

Another table, led by Israfeel Jaka, suggested changing the name to a memorial for the victims of lynching.

In September 2018, the Leesburg Town Council approved placing a historical marker at the Potter’s Field lynching site, but the town has not dedicated any funding to the project.

Thompson at the time said the NAACP would pay for the marker, which will also include the NAACP logo. He said Thursday the lynching memorial proposal came out of the debate around the Confederate statue, and the argument that it represents a part of history.

“My position is, part of your history is also the horrendous treatment of African Americans in the south, and southerners can’t get away from it,” Thompson said. “It’s everywhere.”

The event was also attended by public officials including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, state Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko (D-10), county Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg), Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk, and Leesburg Town Council members Marty Martinez and Ron Campbell.

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