In Memoriam 2022: Benjamin Thomas August 8, 1899
In Memoriam: Benjamin Thomas August 8, 1899
On August 8, 1899, a lynch mob hunted down, tortured, and killed 16-year-old Benjamin Thomas, an African American boy and native Alexandrian. Thomas was arrested on Monday, August 7, 1899, for allegedly assaulting a white girl, but this was never proven. That night, Black community leaders warned police and the mayor that another lynching might occur, similar to the lynching of Joseph McCoy two years earlier on April 23, 1897. When the authorities refused their entreaties, the African American Alexandrians tried to protect Thomas themselves, standing guard near where he was being held. The police arrested them, and the next morning, they were, tried, fined and sent to the chain gang.
The City of Alexandria invites the community to remember the 1899 lynching of Benjamin Thomas and the heroes who tried to defend him at a ceremony at Market Square.
Monday, August 8, 6 p.m.
Market Square, 301 King Street
During this remembrance program, the community will recognize and offer an opportunity to reflect upon the lynching of an innocent Black youth and the subsequent terrorizing of Alexandria’s African American community. We will pay special tribute to the Black heroes who were willing to sacrifice their lives and livelihoods to protect a boy from a threatened lynching.
In addition to the Remembrance Ceremony, all are invited to:
- Visit Fairfax and King Streets where the Thomas lynching took place. A remembrance marker has been placed there by the Alexandria Community Remembrance Projects.
- Beginning Friday, August 5 through Monday, August 8, City Hall, the George Washington National Masonic Memorial and the lamp post at the corner of Fairfax and King Streets will be illuminated in purple (the color of mourning) at night. This will be done in memory and respect for Benjamin Thomas and the men who stood up for justice and tried to protect him.
- Experience a temporary art piece by Nicole Wandera on Monday, August 8 on Market Square. The work of art is in recognition of the heroes who tried to protect Benjamin Thomas
The story of the night Black Alexandrians protected Benjamin Thomas
On Monday, August 7,1899, the city’s African American community rose up to protect one of their own, Benjamin Thomas, 16, who had been arrested allegedly for attempting to assault a white girl. They were heeding the advice of the Black firebrand Richmond Planet editor John Mitchell, who wrote in May 1897 that “Colored men should see to it that their people are defended. With proper organization at Alexandria, the life of Joseph McCoy could have been saved, and the honor of the City of Alexandria upheld.” Six hours after police officers ripped Thomas from his mother’s arms, at least 15 African Americans were arrested for trying to protect him from a lynch mob.
Learn more in this article . Reprinted from the ACRP Newsletter (July 2022).
Benjamin Thomas Was Innocent
Reverend R. E. Hart of Washington, D.C. investigated the lynching and spoke with the Cleveland Gazette, which reported: “It is now generally admitted that he was not guilty. The mother of the girl told him [Hart]… the young man was not guilty and that she had known him from a youth to be a good boy.”
Learn more in this article . A shortened version of this story ran in the Alexandria Times, Out of the Attic column (July 28, 2022). The spelling of Freeman Murray’s name is corrected in this version.
Benjamin Thomas' Defenders
The following profiles were written after significant investigation and reflect the most accurate historical research to date. In 1899, there were multiple people with the same names living in Alexandria, and official records regarding Black life are conspicuous for their lack of detail and accuracy. We welcome any additional information about the tragic events of August 7 & 8, 1899.
A Poem for Benjamin Thomas
In Memory of Benjamin Thomas, 1883-1899
c) Zeina Azzam, Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria, Virginia, August 2022
A sense of foreboding spread
through Alexandria’s streets
the night before the lynching.
The crescent moon, as it set
in the western sky, illumined
scores of Black men who gathered
to protect Benjamin Thomas
as he languished in his jail cell.
But the mayor and police halted
the community’s heroic efforts
like a raging fire can silence a town.
Alone and vulnerable,
Thomas would later emit a scream
from the depth of his being,
the primal cry to his mother
for succor in his final moments.
Let us honor this voice
and this bright life
beyond his gruesome death,
this once vibrant body full of promise
now tortured and maimed
and hanged until lifeless.
With his lynching a piece of us was killed, too:
We wear the same shroud.
How do we make sense of
Benjamin Thomas’s short life?
If we callously allow simple hemp fibers
to become a noose,
a poplar tree or a lamppost
to become a gallows,
what will we fashion
of our history books?
His life breath, usurped violently,
is like ours, fragile
and full of human spirit,
innocent and vital.
One with our mother breath.
May our grief over his cruel loss
impel us to action.
May his memory nourish our resolve.
The Program on Market Square
Musical Prelude, Shiloh Baptist Church Choir
Welcome, Reverend Professor Quardricos B. Driskell, Beulah Baptist Church
Narrative Read by Alexandria City High School Students
- The Arrest, Amel Mohali, Senior
- The Defense, Naeem Scott, Senior
- Court Appearance, Rodase Demissie, Senior
- The Lynching, Miracle Gross, Senior
- Hands Unknown, Yahney-Marie Sangare, Junior
Remarks, Hon. Sean Casey, Sheriff
“In Memory of Benjamin Thomas, 1883-1899”, Poet Laureate Zeina Azzam
Recognition of Benjamin Thomas & Recognition of the Heroes, Rev. Driskell
Call and Response, led by Rev. Driskell and Alexandria City High School Students: Jenaba Bah, Junior; Reema Gaal, Senior; Amel Mohali, Senior; Andrea Funes Quiñones, Senior; Torenzo Ricks, Junior; Amna Shamseldin, Senior; Chellseigh Waruzi, Senior
A procession from Market Square to the Lynching Site was followed by
- Wreath Laying by the Worshipful Grand Historian McArthur Myers, 31st Masonic District MWPHGLVA
- Reflection and Benediction Reverend Dr. Taft Quincey Heatley of Shiloh Baptist Church
- “This Little Light of Mine” by Shiloh Baptist Church Choir
Chalk Art by Nicole Wandera
The Illumination of City Hall
City Hall, the George Washington National Masonic Memorial and the lamp post at the corner of Fairfax and King Streets were illuminated in purple (the color of mourning) at night. This was done in memory and respect for Benjamin Thomas and the men who stood up for justice and tried to protect him.
Alexandria Community Remembrance Project (ACRP)
ACRP is a city-wide initiative dedicated to helping Alexandria understand its history of racial terror hate crimes. ACRP conducts research, education, programs, and events that remember Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas and explores the long-term impacts upon Alexandria’s African American community. Working with the Equal Justice Initiative Remembrance Project, ACRP will receive a steel pillar that memorializes McCoy and Thomas and with it will create a permanent space for remembrance in Alexandria City. The work of ACRP is an effort to establish a welcoming community bound by equity and inclusion for all people.
Benjamin Thomas and Joseph McCoy are the only two documented Alexandria lynchings so far. McCoy was lynched on April 23, 1897. This year is the 125th anniversary of that event. It was commemorated on that date.