I happened upon some story on NPR this week about how we Americans remember—or perhaps choose not to remember—our history of lynching. It first ran in February, and maybe it was rerun in the wake of all our talk lately about flags, slavery, and historical memory.
Anyway, Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, was being interviewed about a report his Alabama-based nonprofit had recently released, Lynching in America: Confronting the Memory of Racial Terror.
There’s nothing marked in Montgomery [Ala.], or in most communities in the South, to this history of lynching, and we want to change that. … We want to erect markers and monuments at lynching sites all over this country. Because I think until we deal with this history, we talk about what it represents, we’re going to continue to be haunted by this legacy of terrorism and violence that will manifest itself in ways that are problematic.
I mention this because, by coincidence, I was just reading about lynchings in Virginia, and in particular the lynching of Joseph McCoy, an African American accused of rape. He was murdered by a mob in Alexandria on April 23, 1897. The description of the event in that evening’s Alexandria Gazette tells of how he was captured from his jail cell and taken “down Cameron street to Lee street on the southeast corner [where they] made rapid preparations to carry out their purpose.” Which is to say, they hanged him from a lamp post.
Given the specificity of that description, how could you not go to Google Maps and find that street corner (see above)? I mean, there’s still even a lamp post there! (Obviously, it’s not the same one.)
This is the heart of Old Town Alexandria, a place steeped in a certain kind of feel-good colonial history. I’m trying to imagine a plaque there that tells the story of how a mob of Virginians, perhaps as many as 500, stole a man from his jail cell, summarily executed him, riddled his body with bullets, and then mutilated his corpse, all the while cheered on by the local press, which noted that despite its size, “strange to say, it was impossible, in the excitement, to identify those who comprised the crowd.”
Strange, indeed! Just as, according to the governor, it was “strange that in a city like Alexandria, with a police force, a military company, &c., such a lynching should have occurred.”
Still, according to the Gazette (emphasis mine), “The fact that no one was seriously hurt save McCoy was fortunate.”
There’s a lot of ugly history, I know, and we don’t need to always rub everyone’s faces in it. But rather than, say, deface or tear down statues of Confederate generals, we would do well to simply remember where we haven’t already. And interpret where our understandings have changed.
Such work has already been done to good effect in downtown Charlottesville. Now I’m trying to imagine it in Alexandria.
IMAGES: Google Street View; Alexandria Gazette, April 23, 1897, page 2; Washington Post, April 24, 1897, page 3