WISE — More than 20 people gathered June 4 to continue building a local network that shines light into a dark corner of Virginia history.
Local organizers of the Community Remembrance Project are working to document the area’s history of lynching incidents against African-Americans.
They invited community members to gather at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to discuss next steps. Attendees represented public education, the faith community, local historic preservation efforts and more.
Retired Wise County teacher and coach Preston Mitchell, who also is an Episcopalian minister, explained that early this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution 655. The legislation recognized “with profound regret” the history of lynching in Virginia.
The resolution notes that 2019 is the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving as slaves in what would become the United States. It states that during the period of reconstruction after the Civil War, various people defied the law to take action against African-Americans “in retribution for alleged or invented crimes and faced few or no consequences.”
The Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4,000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, of which more than 80 took place in Virginia, according to the resolution.
Facing and learning from the past enables us to look to a better future, Mitchell said.
UVa-Wise professor Tom Costa explained that three lynching incidents are documented in Wise County:
• In 1902, Wiley Guynn, a resident of Bondtown, was arrested for allegedly attempting to carry off a young girl. Before he could be jailed, a mob captured him, intending to lynch him. Guynn attempted to escape and was shot to death.
• In 1920, a man named David Hunt, or possibly Hurst, was accused of assaulting an elderly white woman. A mob of about 70 men removed him from the county jail and hanged him from a railroad bridge at Kent Junction.
• In 1927, the last documented lynching in Virginia took place. Leonard Woods, an African-American miner, was accused of shooting to death Herschel Deaton, a mine engineer from Coeburn. A large group of white men broke Woods out of the Whitesburg, Ky. jail and took him to Jenkins, then to Pound Gap, where he was hanged, shot and his body burned.
The local historic preservation effort will include interviewing the descendants of victims and people who heard stories in their youth or otherwise had some connection to these incidents, Costa explained.
Lynching incidents were part of the nation’s legacy of slavery, which modern citizens continue to face, he said.
UVa-Wise official Tabitha Smith explained that this fall, a group of students and community members will travel to Alabama to learn more about the history of lynchings. Also, the college library has opened a multicultural center, she noted, and is working toward a November event commemorating 400 years of African-American history. Organizers want the community to be part of that event.
Local organizers are working toward erection of memorials that mark the history of lynching incidents. Also, they are working with Wise County schools to develop educational materials regarding the incidents.
Mitchell said next steps will include working with local town councils and county government to take part in the effort and pass resolutions of support. Norton city government is already looking at how to get involved.
One specific goal is to bring into the mix representatives of the Coeburn and St. Paul areas, especially since there is a Coeburn connection to two of the local incidents.
Anyone who wants to learn more and contribute to the local effort is asked to contact Mitchell at email@example.com.