While the lynchings of African-Americans in Virginia might seem like an uncomfortable subject for many, the topic is rearing its head into modern historical study, revealing there are no recorded lynchings in the Historic Triangle.
But this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen here.
“We know that lynchings were under-reported for several reasons,” said Gianluca De Fazio, a professor at James Madison University. “So it’s possible that some occurred in the area and were never documented through newspapers stories, historians’ main source to identify lynching victims.”
De Fazio is the lead on a project from JMU that tracks recorded lynchings in Virginia based on time and date. For Williamsburg, James City County and York County, so far there are no recorded incidents of lynching.
Karen Sherry, curator of exhibitions at Virginia Museum of History & Culture, said it could be because lynchings were a form of vigilante violence, which could be why the record is incomplete.
But she also be because of demographics of the region.
Sherry said historically eastern Virginia has had large African-American populations with strong African-American communities that provided some protection against lynching and other forms of racist intimidation. But she also said that doesn’t mean racial violence didn’t happen in these regions.
“It’s hard to say that Virginia was unique in its race relations, although there were fewer lynchings and generally less violence than in places like the deep south,” she said. “There were still deep racial tensions that erupted in violence. In addition, black Virginians and their allies were active in the civil rights movement, with marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and other forms of protest.”
During the 20th century, Sherry said the leadership in Virginia prided itself on having relatively friendly race relations. Or at least that’s what the white leadership of the democratic party at the time claimed, even if it wasn’t necessarily true.
But even if there aren’t any recordings of lynchings in the Historic Triangle, the lack of records still tell a story of African-Americans’ struggle for equality in the region.
“Everyday harassment, threats, beatings, rapes and assaults on African-Americans that were perceived to have violated some formal or informal Jim Crow rule were common all over the South, including Virginia,” De Fazio said. “Absence of lynching in a certain area, therefore, does not mean absence of racial violence, let alone that some form of racial harmony was necessarily reached.”
Virginia certainly doesn’t have as many recorded lynchings as other places in the nation, but recorded or not they happened here. It has only been in the last half century that historians have started realizing the significance of studying these specific hate crimes and since then they’ve made eye-opening discoveries across the state.
But in a state so steeped in history, and the reenactment of history, Sherry noted the way places like Colonial Williamsburg has portrayed the African-American story has changed in the past 40 years.
“In general, a lot of museums and historical institutions throughout the state didn’t pay a lot of attention to minority people in the kind of history they presented,” Sherry said. “That interest in telling a more inclusive story and representing diverse stories didn’t really start until the 70s.”
In fact, it wasn’t until 1979 that Colonial Williamsburg Foundation started using their African-American interpreters as more than just anonymous servants. Additionally, in 1994 the foundation even reenacted a slave auction, according to an article from the New York Times.
But by educating and studying subjects of history that might be uncomfortable, such as slave auctions and lynchings, historians agree that important stories are being told.
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done to properly discuss and understand this dark page of American history,” De Fazio said. “We can’t have meaningful and honest discussions about things like the death penalty or police shootings of unarmed African-American men, let alone achieving racial healing, if we don’t fully understand our past, especially the most shameful part.”