WAVERLY — James Jordan died March 20, 1925, near the tracks that were Waverly’s link to the outside world.
“A train had just pulled into the station and a part of the lynching episode was visible from windows,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
His body fell to the ground after flames burned through the rope. A coroner’s jury met the next day to view the charred corpse, only to learn it had been stolen overnight and dumped in Windsor, about 25 miles away.
The incident would help lead to the first statewide anti-lynching law in the nation, but not before two other black men were killed by Virginia lynch mobs.
Now, an Alabama-based group is documenting lynching sites across Virginia and the South, with plans to erect historical markers starting next year and to begin an honest conversation about our nation’s history of lynchings.
“The trauma that was created by terrorizing people of color is not something that we’ve talked about. But it’s had a lasting impact on African-Americans and on the South as a region,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder the Equal Justice Initiative. “The mistrust that exists, the conflicts that emerge, and how quickly people are offended and unnerved have a lot to do with the fact that we haven’t talked truthfully.”
Lynching played a key role in a system that discriminated and brutally enforced laws against blacks, as well as economically exploited and disenfranchised them, after the Reconstruction era in the South.
Terror, said University of Virginia history professor Grace Elizabeth Hale, “is really the foundation of the whole system of segregation — without that violence, black people don’t concede their rights. That violence is what makes that happen.”
“Without understanding the role of violence, we cannot understand the full history and humanity of African-Americans who lived through this period,” Hale said.
The effects of segregation echo in Waverly today, but much has changed since 1925, when it was a more provincial community.
Trains still run through town, but U.S. 460 is now Waverly’s major lifeline — an undivided, two-lane highway that runs west to Petersburg and east to Norfolk, straight as an arrow through wetlands, billboard-studded fields, and stands of cut and uncut timber.
The one-stoplight, 2,149-resident town is the largest in Sussex County. The small but once-bustling downtown has several active businesses but also some vacant buildings with rundown storefronts.
Waverly has some well-kept residential areas, but many of the frame homes near downtown appear to be deteriorating. The Norfolk & Western Railway depot, once the town’s nucleus, was torn down long ago.
The old jail is used for police storage. “I can look right out my window and see it,” said Mayor Walter J. Mason, whose office is in the nearby Town Hall.
Mason, 66, a Waverly native and a graduate of segregated public schools, was elected the town’s first black mayor in 2010 and also serves as the town manager.
The lynching was a tragedy, Mason said, but “we have come a long way. I’m proud of my town. I’m proud of the race relations here now.
“I love my town, Waverly, I truly do. I want to see it prosper,” he said.
Waverly was founded in 1879. Its population today is roughly two-thirds black. The 1920 U.S. census did not provide a racial breakdown for towns but recorded that two-thirds of the 12,834 residents of Sussex County were black that year.
Whites, at the time of the lynching and since, are a minority in the area. The county’s population has declined and today the 2,500 inmates at two state prisons account for about one in every five residents.
A history of Waverly published in 1979 and a history on Sussex published in 2012 make no mention of the lynching — an event, like many lynchings, that led to front-page newspaper stories in Virginia and even in other states.
But it was rarely discussed. There are some in Waverly, even among those whose parents grew up there, who have no idea there was a lynching in their town.
“They didn’t talk about it much,” said Mason, who heard about the lynching from his parents. “Nobody talked about it much. It wasn’t a good time back then.”
On March 18, 1925, Waverly was a different community on a different path when, about 3:30 p.m., “a young white married woman” was “attacked” in her home while her husband was away. A distinctive pistol was taken from her by the assailant.
Newspaper accounts did not use the word “rape” or otherwise specify the nature of the attack, though historians say blacks were lynched for far less cause than rape.
The Times-Dispatch said posters bearing a description of the attacker were distributed by police. A foreman at the Gray lumber mill in Waverly told authorities that the description fit Jordan, a recently hired employee.
Police also determined that Jordan had given the pistol to “another negro.” Jordan was arrested at the lumber mill by Sheriff Thomas C. Fannin while he was changing shoes.
He was identified by the victim and taken to the jail around dusk. “Citizens gathered and the streets soon filled when news spread that the negro had been identified,” the newspaper reported.
“According to county officers, the circumstances of the attack had aroused an indignation throughout the county that could not be controlled when it became known this perpetrator of the crime had confessed.”
A Richmond News Leader story reported that Sussex Commonwealth’s Attorney Thomas H. Howerton promised that if the crowd dispersed, he would have a grand jury meet and if guilt was certain, “a trial and conviction could be had within hours.”
Howerton was ignored. “Practically every member of the mob was armed. They stood with shotguns and pistols aimed at the officers who guarded the prison in a bristling phalanx of weapons,” The News Leader reported.
“A double-barrel shotgun was thrust into Sheriff Fannin’s face and held there. The sheriff had eight or ten county officers besides those living in Waverly, at the jail, but they were powerless to hold back the mob.”
The jail door was battered in and the prisoner seized. “Jordan, trembling and begging for mercy, was dragged out into the street. The mob, still unmasked, paraded with him down the principal street.”
He was taken to a vacant lot said to be “a few feet from the railway depot” that current residents believe was across the tracks from the station.
“Jordan was strung up to the tree. Members of the mob fired at him as long as they pleased, and then set the body afire,” The News Leader recounted.
The Richmond newspapers reported that Howerton announced afterward that a grand jury would be summoned to investigate and indict anyone who had participated in the mob.
The next day, Gov. E. Lee Trinkle arrived in Waverly and “addressed an assemblage of citizens … admonished them to preserve order and deplored the fact that a mob had taken a human life in town without due process of law.”
“Virginia’s record has been virtually washed clean of mob actions,” Trinkle claimed in a Times-Dispatch report. “I exhort you that the name of the Commonwealth not be brought again into the limelight of such publicity as she has received from this occurrence,” added the governor.
But on March 27, 1925, The Waverly Dispatch, a weekly newspaper, ran an unapologetic editorial:
“As a result of the lynching, there has been an enormous amount of unfavorable publicity for Sussex County and the town of Waverly in particular, although it is likely that the same thing would have taken place in any other town or county in Virginia under similar provocation and circumstances.”
“Now that the lynching has taken place and cannot be recalled, it should, and perhaps will, serve as an object lesson to the colored men of the ‘black belt.’ ”
W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a University of North Carolina history professor, said there were 86 lynchings in Virginia from 1880 to 1927 — 70 blacks and 16 whites — the lowest toll among Southern states.
Jordan was lynched just 5 miles from Virginia’s current death row and 30 miles from the state’s execution chamber, one of the busiest in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976.
Brundage thinks there were fewer lynchings in Virginia than in other Southern states in part because Virginia moved toward speedy trials and used the state militia to protect suspects.
Virginia installed the South’s first electric chair in 1908, and executions were moved inside the walls of the Virginia State Penitentiary in Richmond instead of public hangings at courthouses around the state.
It was an effort by the state’s white elite to curb mob violence and the gruesome spectacle of public hangings deemed inconsistent with the seemly “Virginia way” that Trinkle and other Virginia elites were so concerned with preserving.
Howerton’s promise of a grand jury investigation notwithstanding, no one was ever prosecuted for the lynching in Waverly.
It was the failure of Waverly and Sussex officials to act that prompted Louis Jaffé, the then-editor of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, to look at state government as a way to end local mob law, said J. Douglas Smith, a former professor at Occidental College and now an independent scholar.
“There were fewer lynchings, but they were becoming increasingly savage and brutal and barbaric in nature,” Smith said. By the 1920s, Virginia was recognizing that lynching was bad for business, he said.
Smith, author of “Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia,” said that after two other brutal lynchings — one in Wytheville and another in Wise County — Jaffé persuaded Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. to consider making it a state crime.
The law, enacted in March 1928, enabled the Virginia attorney general to prosecute lynching participants as well as local authorities. It was never used against whites for lynching a black, but it was the first such law in the country.
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