HARRISONBURG — James Madison University will be hosting a working group dialogue Monday evening on Harrisonburg’s past of lynching.
The event stems back to an effort that began in 2017 by Steven Thomas and the rest of the Northeast Neighborhood along with Gianluca De Fazio, assistant professor of justice studies at James Madison University, to learn more about the lynching of Charlotte Harris and to memorialize her life.
Harris was a black woman who was abducted from law enforcement from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County jail by a mob and was lynched on March 6, 1878. She was the only documented black woman in the state of Virginia to have been lynched.
The meeting will take place Monday at 6 p.m. in Memorial Hall at JMU, located at 800 S. Main St.
The meeting’s purpose will be to talk about progress the local Community Remembrance Project has made, bring awareness to Harrisonburg and Rockingham County and have a community conversation about the history, according to De Fazio.
“We want to raise awareness about the past here and have people in the community more cognizant about our past, “ he said. “And we want to start up conversations about how we need to respect our past when talking about it, and I hope this is a stepping point for ongoing discussions.”
The local Community Remembrance Project is composed of Thomas from the NENA, City Councilman Sal Romero, Assistant to the City Manager Amy Snider, Rockingham County’s Director for Planning Bradford Dyjak, JMU Professor Susan Zurbrigg and De Fazio.
Members of the History of Lynching in Virginia Work Group will also be in attendance. The group is led by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who will be in attendance, and includes legislative members, educators, historians along with the local leaders.
The History of Lynching in Virginia Work Group was formed in 2018 and is a work group of the Virginia Dr. Martin Luther Kind Jr. Memorial Commission, which aims to shed light on the history of lynching in the state, according to the memorial commission’s website.
In its attempt to bring awareness to the history, the commission has been compiling the names and stories of the lynching victims and outreach to communities throughout Virginia.
Harrisonburg will be the first city to host the meeting. Other localities that will be hosting include Charlottesville, Alexandria and Culpeper among others.
In the beginning of 2019, the Virginia Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to acknowledge the existence and acceptance of lynching in the state and called for reconciliation among every city and county where African-Americans faced discrimination.
The General Assembly also said it would support placement of historical markers in any county or city that can provide documentation of a lynching.
NENA is working toward getting a monument and marker around the county courthouse in remembrance of Harris.
“We are hoping this is where we will be able to acknowledge what happened in our history,” Karen Thomas, the head of NENA said. “In the meeting Monday, and in general, we want people to learn about Charlotte and Virginia’s history with lynching as a whole.”
She said most people don’t know about the lynching of Harris or the amount of lynching that happened in the state and the stories behind it.
“This meeting will help us introduce all of that,” Thomas said. “It will also help the people who have been affected in any way to find healing.”
She said she is hoping to see members of the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors at the meeting as well as the City Council.
Harrisonburg’s Mayor Deanna Reed will be present at the meeting and will give welcoming remarks and say what the history of Harris means to her.
“As an African-American woman, I personally cannot allow for her life to be dismissed. She was someone’s daughter, maybe wife or mother,” Reed said in an interview Friday. “It is an immense honor to be a part of a community that recognizes a part of history that we so often try to ignore, but ignoring does not help us heal.”
She said it’s important to not let what happened to her be erased and tell the story.
“As a community, we must support the Northeast Neighborhood Association as they lead this project,” Reed said. “As a community, we need to own this horrible history, tell the truth and begin the healing process.”