One hundred and twenty-one years after John Henry James was lynched, a historic marker telling his story was installed outside of the Albemarle County Circuit Courthouse.
James was lynched on July 12, 1898, at the Wood’s Crossing area of Albemarle, when a mob removed him from a train that was transporting him from a jail in Staunton, where he had been awaiting trial for allegedly assaulting a white woman near Charlottesville.
“If you ever spend some time walking this landscape, placing that marker in this particular landscape does something important,” Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, said Friday at the unveiling. “It creates a tension, it creates attention.”
Last July, about 100 community members took a nearly week-long trip to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, to deliver soil from the Albemarle site where James was murdered. The trip, and many efforts since, have been organized by Douglas and Jalane Schmidt, a local Black Lives Matter activist and University of Virginia professor.
“It wasn’t just about the trip,” Douglas said. “It was about more than the trip. It was about what we did when we came home.”
After the trip, the Albemarle Charlottesville Community Remembrance Project was created, an exhibition with the soil traveled around the area, an essay contest with participation from 175 Charlottesville High School students was held and three public lectures and many other community conversations happened.
“But this is only one step,” she said. “This is just the beginning of the work.”
Gov. Ralph Northam attended the event but did not speak during remarks or take questions from the media.
Kiara Boone, deputy director of community education at EJI, said the organization knows that there is work happening in Charlottesville.
“For so much of our past, we have built memorials and monuments to tell a very one-sided, watered-down version of history,” she said. “By unveiling this marker about telling this truth, we push back on that, we confront that and we say that there is a better way, and there’s a much more holistic way of acknowledging that path of telling that story.”
She said putting the marker at the center of the community and outside the courthouse creates an opportunity to have a fuller conversation about how justice is carried out in Charlottesville, the state and the country.
Time is spent talking about the importance of memorials and monuments, she said, and they are a reflection of a community’s values.
“Today, Charlottesville is saying with its actions, that we are a better community, we are an inclusive community and we are working towards a more honest reflection of our history,” Boone said.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that putting up the marker is a great step.
“But what do modern-day accounts of lynching look like, and are we doing the work to undo those?” she asked.
She asked how a community truly honors someone whose life was taken and if the community has changed since the lynching.
“Can people today truly say that I know if it were possible that that wouldn’t happen today, here or anywhere?” she said. “And we all know as we sit here that that answer is no. It’s no. We’re in a community that’s still broken, that’s still divided.”
Walker said she wanted everyone to think about a community where a man could be lynched with law enforcement present and the fear that that instills in individuals and generations.
“When you are in a position that you can make someone’s world a little bit better, a little bit easier, a lot better, a lot easier, when you can change the total landscape for where children end up even in one of the wealthiest cities in the country, do you do that work with the intention of understanding that there’s a debt that hasn’t been paid?” she asked.
County Supervisor Diantha McKeel referenced Ida B. Wells, an African American journalist and activist, and said that the Albemarle Charlottesville Community Remembrance Project has turned the light of truth on the area’s history.
“The right of Mr. James to an impartial and equitable administration of the law was not overlooked; it was deliberately denied — an example of institutional and governmental complicity and maintaining the hierarchy of human value known as white supremacy,” she said.
Earlier this month, the county’s Board of Supervisors approved the installation of the marker, as well as a proclamation recognizing July 12, 2019, as John Henry James Day.
Prior to unveiling the monument, Schmidt told the detailed story of the lynching.
“We look forward to a future date when Mr. James will not have to share space with monuments to his oppressors,” she said.