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Charlottesville Leaders Gather Ground For Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Buses departed from Charlottesville's Jefferson School
Buses departed from Charlottesville's Jefferson School African American Heritage Center for the Civil Rights Pilgrimage. (Photo Hawes Spencer)  

Residents of Charlottesville are responding to recent and historic racial terror, with a trip to significant sites throughout the South. The “Civil Rights Pilgrimage” started by paying homage to John Henry James, who was lynched near town, 120 years ago this week. The story you’re about to hear discusses that historic lynching and may not be appropriate for all audiences. Hawes Spencer has more for WCVE:


For over a decade, Ann Mallek has been an elected supervisor-- and for all of her 68 years a lifetime resident of Albemarle County who thought she knew history.

"It was one of those horrible things that happen somewhere else. It's very different to know that it happened right here."

Mallek is referring to the July 12, 1898 lynching of a black man, John Henry James. He was arrested the day before, after “somewhat” fitting the description of a man who had assaulted a white woman.

Officials collected soil from the site
Officials collected soil from the site. (Photo H. Spencer)

University of Virginia religion professor Jalane Schmidt said, “That evening, for fear of a lynch mob, he was moved out of the Charlottesville jail and put on a train to Staunton, about 40 miles to the west."

But the Sheriff and Police Chief could not keep him safe. On the return trip to face trial, a mob of armed and unmasked men stormed the train as it approached Woods Crossing.

“The mob overwhelmed the two lawmen and seized James. When the train pulled into the platform, the mob threw a rope around James's neck, dragged him toward the blacksmith shop, and carried him 40 yards away to a small locust tree."

Today, the blacksmith shop and the station are gone-- but locust trees remain in this little grove tucked between Route 250 and the Farmington Country Club where several people, including Mayor Nikuyah Walker, are scooping up soil and placing it in glass jars.

"We come to this space to memorialize and start recognizing with our bodies, with our minds, with our presence, the injustice that has invaded this country since its inception."

City Councilor Wes Bellamy took a walk along the train tracks.

Bellamy walks near the site of the 1898 lynching
Bellamy walks near the site of the 1898 lynching. (Photo H. Spencer)

"Very emotional. Being in the same spot, I was thinking about the mob that was out there, what his feelings must have been as he felt the train slowing down."

Rabbi Tom Gutherz read a poem.

"Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and what we wear [in Hebrew]. Each of us has a name given by our stature and our smile and what we wear [in English]."

The head of the local African American history center, Andrea Douglas, said John Henry James was buried in an unmarked grave.

"Today, we reclaim his personhood by saying his name: John Henry James."

The following morning, Douglas, Mayor Walker and about 100 others boarded buses to make a new Civil Rights Pilgrimage through the South.

On Monday, Methodist pastor Robert Lewis spoke to WCVE from Greensboro as the group headed for the famed Woolworth’s lunch counter.

"It's an ongoing struggle to recognize the humanity, the commonality, that we all share."

Mayor Walker scooped soil
Mayor Walker scooped soil to be delivered to the  memorial and museum in Montgomery. (Photo H. Spencer)

On Thursday, the group will go to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. They’ll bring back one of the weathered steel, coffin-sized boxes that line the memorial - each one designated to a county where lynchings occured. Engraved on Albemarle’s box is the name John Henry James.

"We need to have a public way of commemorating this murder and really what it represents in terms of centuries of racial violence and terror-- and complicity in communities that have chosen to look the other way and pretend that all is fine. We're beginning to say, 'No, it's not fine; but we're working to make it better."

The new Legacy Museum, less than a mile from the lynching memorial, is collecting soil from the sites where over 4,400 black men and women were lynched between 1877 and 1950.

This week, the memory of John Henry James becomes part of that Museum.