WISE — After hearing about local involvement in a community remembrance project to memorialize lynchings that terrorized African-Americans, Wise County School Board directed its attorney to draft for consideration a resolution of support and partnership.
Retired Wise County teacher and coach Preston Mitchell, who also is an Episcopalian minister, made the request at the board's May 14 meeting. Mitchell outlined the origins of the Equal Justice Initiative, his role over the course of the past year and the history of lynchings in Wise County.
The last documented lynching in Virginia happened right here in 1927, at Pound Gap, from a platform that had been erected a week earlier to celebrate the opening of the road between Virginia and Kentucky.
A mining engineer from Coeburn, Herschel Deaton, was allegedly shot and killed by a black coal miner, Leonard Woods, near Jenkins, Ky. After his burial, a group of white men, mostly from Coeburn, took 36 cars over the mountain and broke Woods out of the Whitesburg jail and, with some 500 people assembled, hung him, riddled him with bullets and burned his body, Mitchell related to the board.
One aspect of the Community Remembrance Project is to erect historic markers in these spaces.
The very first one, created by the Equal Justice Initiative of Montgomery, Ala., features 805 rusted steel coffins hanging suspended from rafters and one of those represents Wise County's three lynchings. The Montgomery group has documented 4,400 lynchings in the United States.
The first marker in Virginia was established in Charles City last month.
In order to procure a historic marker for victims of mob violence, the application requires five individual sponsors. But Mitchell said they have a consortium of four partners, including the University of Virginia's College at Wise, a group of Wise County Episcopal churches, a group of African-American churches and the Historical Society of The Pound, and want the school board to be the fifth. Representatives from each group were on hand that night.
Mitchell has spoken more than a half-dozen times on the topic over the last year and has encountered sentiments questioning the undertaking, he said, such as "Why are you bringing this up? We know lynching was bad. Why dredge up these memories?"
The answer rests in the General Assembly's joint resolution, he told the school board, reading an excerpt. The "extreme racial animus, violence, and terror embodied in the act of lynching did not die with the criminalization of the act . . .
"The legacy of racism that outlived slavery, enabled the rise and acceptance of lynching, facilitated segregation and disenfranchisement, and denied education and civil rights to African Americans has yet to be uprooted in Virginia, the South, and the nation, and this dark and shameful chapter of American history must be understood, acknowledged, and fully documented and the seemingly irreparable breach mended."
The Equal Justice Initiative created the Community Remembrance Project, Mitchell read from the state resolution, "to create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynchings and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation by working with communities to commemorate and recognize the traumatic era of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites across the country and erecting historical markers and monuments in these spaces."
The initiative in Virginia got bipartisan and unanimous support with one resolution proposed by a Democrat and one by a Republican, Mitchell told the board.
It's not a partisan issue, not a liberal or conservative issue, he said.
Had the General Assembly not passed this unanimously, he said, "I don't know that I would go and open up the wounds." There had been backlash against the effort in Wytheville, he said, and locally they decided to lay groundwork.
The local group has formed to fulfill the promise of the state legislature’s resolution. The group will research and document the three Wise County lynchings, will attempt to identify and talk to surviving descendants of victims, work with the Equal Justice Initiative and the State Department of Historic Resources to erect memorials to the lynchings, and prepare curricular materials for use in local schools.
UVa-Wise has employed interns to do the research on the Wise County lynchings. They have already taken one trip to Montgomery and will take another in the fall.
As a teacher, he said, when you can bring in the community it makes lessons more alive than in a textbook. The lessons will be designed for high school students, he confirmed, noting, "These are uncomfortable things to talk about."
He recalled when he came to Pound to teach and coach, they had no black students in school or the community.
Looking back on it, "my guys" had very little interaction with people of color, he said, and today only a very small percentage of local communities are African-American.
It makes it "that much more important that we address these issues," Mitchell said. "Our students are not going to stay in a cocoon . . . We need to prepare them for the world."