HARRISONBURG — For the more than 100 people who attended Monday’s “The History of Lynching in Virginia,” the conversation is only beginning.
James Madison University hosted the first working group dialogue on Harrisonburg’s past of lynching, paving the way for future meetings set in Charlottesville, Alexandria and Culpeper, among others.
Those facilitating the conversation included Steven Thomas, with the Northeast Neighborhood Association, Gianluca De Fazio, assistant professor of justice studies at JMU, Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, City Councilman Sal Romero, Assistant to the City Manager Amy Snider, Rockingham County’s Director for Planning Bradford Dyjak and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
The event stems back from an effort that began in 2017 by Thomas and the rest of the NENA along with De Fazio to learn more about the lynching of Charlotte Harris, 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, and to memorialize her life.
Harris is the only documented black woman in the state of Virginia to have been lynched.
“The lynching of Harris is not ancient history,” Thomas said. “These lynchings were terrorism and created a fearful environment ... for decades.”
A main talking point for Monday’s discussion talked about progress the local Community Remembrance Project has made and work being done by the History of Lynching in Virginia Work Group.
The local Community Remembrance Project is composed of Thomas from the NENA, Romero, Snider, Dyjak, JMU professor Susan Zurbrigg and De Fazio. The History of Lynching in Virginia Work Group is led by McClellan and includes legislative members, educators, historians, along with the local leaders.
As part of its campaign to recognize lynching victims, the Community Remembrance Project collects soil from the lynching site, places a historical marker and creates a national memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice, according to its website.
When asked the significance of collecting soil, McClellan said it can show the figurative or literal sense of bloodshed collected in the soil during the time of a lynching.
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.
“When a community suffers a trauma, you never heal until you process it,” McClellan said. “Tomorrow, this conversation will continue.”
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.
“The commission noted that many of our stories over the past 400 years has not been told,” McClellan said. “It is important to talk about history, not for history’s sake, but to connect issues today to our origins.”
The General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution this year 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.
“It is an apology that is 100 years too late, but it is a start,” McClellan said.
The General Assembly also said it would support placement of historical markers in any county or city that can provide documentation of a lynching.
To memorialize Harris, Rockingham County and Harrisonburg passed resolutions to show their support to the NENA, which is working toward getting a monument and historical marker around the county courthouse.
“This has been a humbling and sobering experience to see this as a joint community remembrance project,” Dyjak said. “The [historical] marker will be the first step.”
Those who wish to show their support can contact NENA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I am hopeful that we are moving this project forward, but the more support the better,” Thomas said.