National commemoration of the atrocities inflicted on African Americans during decades of racial terrorism would begin building trust between the survivors of racial terrorism and the governments and legal systems that failed to protect them. - Equal Justice Initiative
If you ask me, there are two basic types of historical markers – “feel good” and “feel bad.”
Feel good is by far the most popular and includes themes of patriotism and national, regional and local honor. Chambers of Commerce and City Halls love these.
There’s nothing wrong with promoting and accenting these themes. Nevertheless, there’s no question that by having a lack of “feel bad” markers, towns and cities are not telling the full story of their history.
The reason I say this and say it now is the work of Bryan Stevenson. He’s the Executive Director of the legal non-profit, "Equal Justice Initiative." One of their most recent projects documents the full scale of lynchings that took place from the 1870s to the 1950s. Others have done similar work, but the EJI research brought the total to almost 4,000.
Reports and discussions and the like are important, but Stevenson realizes the power of historical markers. Right now, there are but a few on the subject of lynching.
This horrible act of terrorism began during Reconstruction and did not end until the 1950s. They were not only brutal, but were often times a public spectacle. Only a few of the vigilantes were ever prosecuted. In some newspaper accounts, the victim was portrayed as the villain. Whether or not the charge of the crime was a real one, was often uncertain. Confessions were sometimes made, but one must wonder how many were given in the face of intimidation and violence. Some sheriffs promised full prosecution but mobs often ignored them. Paradoxically, our Federal government even failed to enact an anti-lynching law.
Lynchings were not as numerous in Virginia, but the ugly horrors did take place even as far north as Alexandria. In April 1897, a mob dragged Joseph McCoy, a young black man, from his cell in the city jail on St. Asaph Street to the corner of Cameron and Lee. An Officer Atkinson tried to protect McCoy, but to no avail. The angry vigilantes hung him from a lamp post. The crowd cheered.
Mayor Simpson and members of the police force tried to stop the gun-toting crowd, but they were too large in number. Officer Atkinson once again showed bravery and tried to hold back the mob (An officer Knight also helped him).
At midnight, the vigilantes hung Thomas on a lamp post at the corner of King and Fairfax. The mob, estimated at 2,000, watched and cheered the lynching.
Some accounts noted that some in the mob were outsiders. But The Washington Post (August 9) reported that the crowd “comprised many of the leading citizens.”
As the body of Thomas hung, a dozen or so shots were fired toward his body. Atkinson tried to intervene but the mob rushed him. Someone “placed his weapon into the breast of the negro, fired a shot which ended his resistance.”
It’s in our nature to avoid confronting the ugly past, especially when the acts of violence are carried out in the ways described above. But by concealing these things, we make it harder to move forward and heal current wounds and mistrust.
Leaders and historians here in Alexandria have done a good job when it comes to recognizing "feel bad" history. Their work includes a handful of State Highway Markers.
On the other hand, it's worth evaluating where the markers are placed. The ones in Alexandria that cover African American history are mostly placed away from the heart of Old Town. This is where the majority of tourists visit and walk so a great opportunity is being missed.
When it comes to street signs and memorials in Alexandria, there are on-going discussions. I understand the desire by some to want to take down street signs such as Jefferson Davis Highway or the Confederate statue. My personal belief is that we should be very spare in this regard. Let most of them remain so that our children can ask us what they mean.
On the other hand, we do need to continue to erect historical signs that cover the struggle for Civil Rights.
In January 1894, that greatest of Americans, Frederick Douglass, gave his last speech. It took place at the AME Church in Washington.
But the favor with which this cowardly proposition of disenfranchisement has been received by public men, white and black, by Republicans as well as Democrats, has shaken my faith in the nobility of the nation. I hope and trust all will come out right in the end, but the immediate future looks dark and troubled. I cannot shut my eyes to the ugly facts before me.”
In the 125 years since that speech, we as a nation have made great progress in the arena of civil rights. Nevertheless, great challenges remain. We cannot shut our eyes by not erecting historical signs that confront the ugly past.
It continues to gnaw on me the way Joseph McCoy and Ben Thomas were murdered and then forgotten. Ask twenty people in Alexandria who they were and I would not be surprised if twenty don’t know.
I, therefore, ask the City of Alexandria to erect an historical marker that documents these horrific crimes and failures of justice. Including the heroism of Officer Atkinson would be appropriate, too.
By doing this, the city will show the kind of leadership that is needed in our trying times. Feeling good about our history means nothing without also feeling the bad.