A display case that once housed a statuette of General Robert E. Lee will now be used at Jefferson Madison Regional Library branches to exhibit soil from the site of where John Henry James was lynched.
On Monday at the Crozet Library, representatives from Albemarle County, JMRL and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center announced the traveling exhibition to memorialize James, who was lynched in Albemarle on July, 12 1898.
James was killed after a mob removed him from a train that was taking him from a jail in Staunton, where he had been awaiting trial on charges that he assaulted a white woman near Charlottesville.
The exhibition features soil from the site of the lynching, images from a community civil rights pilgrimage, information from recent community remembrance activities, historical documents and a recommended reading list.
About 100 local residents embarked on the community civil rights pilgrimage in July, a nearly weeklong trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, to deliver soil from the site of James’s slaying.
Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and one of the trip’s organizers, said one purpose of the trip was to publicize the experience.
“This is just one element of that, the fact that we are making this history accessible and available is probably one of the more important things,” she said.
The group visited other historic sites in North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama on the way to Montgomery.
“What we know about this particular lynching, which is information we didn’t have until after we got back from the trip, is that the train was stopped by a white man dressed as a woman who flagged down the train; that the mob included both white and African American people, the African American people hoping to deter ... the lynching,” Douglas said.
The group is working to get two historical markers placed in the community, one near the site of the lynching off of U.S. 250 near Farmington, and one near the courthouse.
“On one side of the marker, we describe the history of the lynching in the community and on the other side of the marker is the description of lynching as it relates to the racial history of America,” Douglas said.
Ultimately, the group will apply to claim a steel monument to James, identical to one hanging at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and install it locally.
“Where that actually is going to go, we are not quite sure yet, but we do know that it’s coming,” Douglas said.
Albemarle Supervisor Ann Mallek said it’s important to understand and reckon with James’s story and to make it more easily accessible for the community.
“We have a great opportunity to build a much stronger community from this and I really appreciate everything that’s going on,” she said.
Supervisors Norman Dill, who went on the pilgrimage, and Diantha McKeel and Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci were at Monday’s announcement. Other community members who went on the pilgrimage were also in attendance.
In August 2017, former library director John Halliday told the library board that he was relocating the statuette of General Robert E. Lee, which had been located on the third floor of Central Library, because of Charlottesville’s decision to shroud the statue itself.
David Plunkett, the current library director, said the statue is now on loan to the Library of Virginia in Richmond.
He said the library staff is thrilled to hold the exhibition at the JMRL branches.
“We don’t get to keep the soil, it’s going to end up with the county where it belongs, but we’re excited to be able to host it and show it to a bunch of people,” he said