Alexandria Community Remembrance Project
Lynchings in Alexandria
Between 1882 and 1968, 100 Virginians, including at least 11 in Northern Virginia, were lynched. The lynchings were among 4,743 reported nationwide during the same period. Lynching was never a federal offense.
In Alexandria, there is documentation of the lynching of two individuals, Benjamin Thomas and Joseph McCoy.
The City of Alexandria is committed to the accurate dissemination of its history. The lynchings are recognized as a terrible chapter in Alexandria’s past. To fight injustice and to keep the memory of Alexandria’s lynching victims alive, you are invited to participate in the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project.
Commentary: A Man Was Lynched in Alexandria: 120 Years Ago Today
Opinion piece by Audrey Davis, Director, Alexandria Black History Museum
Published in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, August 12, 2019.
The Anniversary of the Lynching of Joseph McCoy
Opinion piece by Audrey Davis, Director, Alexandria Black History Museum
Published in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, April 23-29, 2020, page 6.
Say Their Names: In Remembrance: Benjamin Thomas, August 8, 1899
Opinion piece by Audrey Davis, Director, Alexandria Black History Museum.
Published in the Alexandria Gazette Packet, August 6, 2020, page 6.
Image of lynching from the Alexandria Gazette, April 23, 1897.
City-wide remembrances planned in memory of Benjamin Thomas and Joseph McCoy, on the anniversary of their lynchings, have been moved to In-Memoriam pages. You are invited to learn and share information about their short lives and racially motivated lynchings.
|Benjamin Thomas. In Memoriam |
August 8, 1899. Lynched on a lamppost at Fairfax Street near King Street.
|Joseph H. McCoy. In Memoriam |
April 23, 1897. Lynched on a lamppost at Lee and Cameron Streets
To fully tell the story of Alexandria’s lynching history, the City of Alexandria wants to document not only the incidents but also stories from descendants. If you are related to one of the lynching victims, or if you are a descendant of anyone involved in the Joseph McCoy lynching (April 23, 1897) or Benjamin Thomas lynching (August 8, 1899), we want to hear from you.
Please share your story and contact information with the historians of the Alexandria Community Remembrance Project. If you are a descendant, and feel comfortable sharing your family story, our historians can assist you in being part of the Alexandria project history. Your information will not be shared. Your name will not be made public unless you grant permission and only on your terms. We want document these two lynchings as completely as possible. The goal is to create an unbiased and accurate account of the lynching’s in 1897 and 1899. We believe family histories can aid in a better understanding of race relations in Alexandria and the Commonwealth. Your history help move our community toward a city-wide understanding racial terror and how it impacts communities. Finally, it also hoped this important project will bring all races to together in the spirit of reconciliation and hope.
30-Day Challenge -- Alexandria Social Justice Edition!
Build your social justice muscles this summer! As our nation and city come to terms with their legacies of racial injustice, take the 30-Day Challenge to learn, listen, explore, and act to make positive change. Learn about our city’s important African American history to build your base of knowledge. Listen and explore to understand the struggles, triumphs, and legacies of African Americans across the nation and throughout the centuries. Act to bring equity in America and in Alexandria.
Alexandria in 1969: Police Violence, Race Relations, and a Call for Reform
Read an article, Alexandria in 1969: Police Violence, Race Relations, and a Call for Reform, by Dr. Krystyn Moon, Professor of History and American Studies, University of Mary Washington. The events of 1969 and 1970 were part of a long, complicated process in which Alexandria residents grappled with racial inequalities.
Race and Equity in Alexandria: Reacting to the Death of George Floyd
Peaceful vigils, protests and other events took place in Alexandria during the first week in June, following the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd.
The Equal Justice Initiative
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a private, nonprofit organization that challenges poverty and racial injustice, advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system, and creates hope for marginalized communities. EJI opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama in 2019.
The Equal Justice Initiative published Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror in 2015, documenting thousands of racial terror lynchings in twelve states. Additional research documented lynchings in states outside the Deep South. EJI is "working to memorialize this history by visiting hundreds of lynching sites, collecting soil, and erecting public markers, in an effort to reshape the cultural landscape with monuments and memorials that more truthfully and accurately reflect our history."
EJI's Community Remembrance Project
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice includes over 800 steel monuments, or pillars, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place, with the names of the lynching victims engraved on the pillars. A field of identical monuments is in a park adjacent to the memorial. EJI's Community Remembrance Project invites counties across the country to claim their monuments and install them in the counties they represent. In addition to installing the pillars, EJI encourages participating communities to place a historical marker and to collect soil from the site of the lynchings, to "allow communities to gain perspective and experience that we believe is crucial to managing the monument retrieval process wisely and effectively."
The Alexandria Pillar
One of the six-foot pillars, shown here, records two documented lynchings in Alexandria. The Alexandria Community Remembrance Project is in contact with EJI and is taking the required steps to “claim” Alexandria’s lynching pillar. At this time, EJI has not released pillars to any community.
The process involved in collecting the monument from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice will include:
- Series of public programs related to the Equal Justice Initiative
- Public ceremony to collect soil from the location of the two Alexandria lynchings
- Marker dedication at the site of the lynchings
- Public pilgrimage to the EJI museum to "claim" the Pillar
- Ceremony in Alexandria to install the Pillar
- Public Programs (Postponed until further notice)
- Community Meetings (Postponed until further notice)
- Committees (Virtual Meetings July 22, July 29, August 5; other meetings postponed until further notice)
Frequently Asked Question About Lynching in Virginia
Lynching is the unlawful killing of a person by a large group (a mob). Lynchings were not just a way to express outrage about a particular behavior or crime; they were a way to control and intimidate African Americans. Unlike their white counterparts, the lynchings of African Americans were turned into spectacles, with mobs subjecting the victims to torture and humiliation before and after the executions.
While Virginia has the lowest number of reported lynchings in the South, at 88, more recent evidence suggests the number might exceed 90.
Yes. But while the Virginia Anti-Lynching Law was enacted in 1928, and was the first in the country to name lynching as a state crime, no white person was ever convicted under this law. In December 2018 and again in February 2019, the United States Senate unanimously passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, a bill that would explicitly make lynching a federal hate crime for the first time. As of August 2019, the House of Representatives has yet to pass the bill. Between 1882 and 1968, more than 4,700 people (most of them African American) were lynched. Congress has tried and failed 200 times since 1882 to pass anti-lynching legislation.
No, both white and black people were lynched in Virginia. African American men, women, children and seniors have all been victims of lynching.
The lynchings represented on our EJI pillar are the only documented lynchings in Alexandria. We do not know if there were other lynchings. The work of the Alexandria's Equal Justice Initiative Community Remembrance Project may uncover other instances of this hate crime.
No, we do not know about any relatives of Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas, who may be in the area. The Office of Historic Alexandria and the Alexandria Black History Museum are working to find the families of these men. We hope the public may be able to help with this research. Staff and volunteers want to know any information that may help us uncover relatives of McCoy and Thomas and any of the people involved in their lynchings.
Never. No matter how terrible the crime a lynching victim was accused of, our judicial system demands that the accused have the right to a fair trial in a court of law. The legal system must determine guilt or innocence and not vigilante justice. African Americans were often accused of horrible crimes with no basis in fact in order to encourage mob violence.
No. Offenses that could result in a lynching included things that would be considered trivial, such as a black woman reprimanding a white child; any African American confronting a white person about an injustice; African Americans who socialized or were romantically involved with whites; or an African American confronting a white person for stealing from them. These are all actual reasons people were lynched.
Lynching sometimes took place secretly, but it was primarily a mob action spurred by hate and vengeance. White mobs made lynchings a public activity. Unfortunately, those who supported what was happening often brought their friends and families (including children) to these events, which perpetrated a legacy of hate. Many times, African Americans were forced to witness what was happening. Souvenir photographs of lynchings were sold, and sometimes the mutilated body parts from the victims were sold as well. Lynching was used as a means to intimidate and control African Americans in the South. Lynching is racial terrorism.
It is believed that the lynching of Raymond Bird, on August 15, 1926, was the last recorded in Virginia. He had been accused of having sex with a white woman, and was dragged from jail by a mob in Wytheville, Virginia. They shot him, tied him to the back of a truck, and dragged him for miles. Finally, they left Bird hanging from a tree.
The death by lynching of Michael Donald was the last documented lynching in the United States. In 1981, Ku Klux Klan members beat and killed him in Mobile, Alabama. They then hanged his body from a tree.
Alexandria, like other communities, is at the beginning of the process to claim its pillar from the Equal Justice Institute (EJI). EJI has not released any pillars from their site, but has helped communities place other types of markers in their region. The City of Alexandria, which is working with EJI, will hold an initial community meeting about EJI, its Community Engagement Project, and the retrieval of the pillar on September 21. Kiara Boone, EJI deputy director for community programs, will be a speaker at the meeting, which is open to the public.
Social Justice Reading list
In honor of Joseph McCoy, City of Alexandria Library staff have curated a list of social justice reading for adults and for youth. We hope you will find these selections educational, and moving. These titles - both fiction and nonfiction provide context for discussion of race, class, violence and American society.
- A Very Large Expanse of Sea - Tahereh Mafi
- All American Boys - Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely
- All-American Muslim Girl - Nadine Jolie Courtney
- Anger is a Gift - Mark Oshiro
- Dear Martin - Nic Stone
- Here to Stay - Sara Farizan
- How I Resist - Maureen Johnson
- March Series - John Lewis
- Out of Darkness - Ashley Hope Perez
- Piecing Me Together - Renee Watson
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning - Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
- Slay - Brittney Morris
- The Good Braider - Terry Farish
- The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas
- The Lines We Cross - Randa Abdel-Fattah
- The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights - Steve Sheinkin
- Between the World and Me - Ta'Nehesi Coates
- Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy - Darryl Pinckney
- Ebony & Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities - Craig Wilder
- Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower - Brittney Cooper
- For White Folks Who Teach In the 'Hood…And the Rest of Y'all, Too - Christopher Emdin
- How To Be An Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi
- Men We Reaped - Jessmyn Ward
- Of Poetry & Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin - Philip Cushway
- Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America - Melissa Harris-Perry
- So You Want To Talk About Race - Ijeoma Oluo
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America - Ibram X. Kendi
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness - Michelle Alexander
- We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy - Ta'Nehesi Coates
- When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir Patrisse Khan - Cullors & Asha Bandele
- White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Race Robin - DiAngelo
- A Reading List on Issues of Race. The Harvard Gazette.
- RES (Racial and Ethnic Socialization): Developed by the American Psychological Association, this resource focuses on building and reinforcing positive outcomes in African American children. The resources, directed towards parents, caregivers, and educators of African American children and youth (ages 5-18) may prove helpful in the museum education context.
- Engaging my Child: Towards the bottom of the parent resource page, there is a break-down of discussing race and ethnicity by the age of child.
- EmbraceRace: This non-profit describes itself as “a multiracial community of parents, teachers, experts, and other caring adults who support each other to meet the challenges that race poses to our children, families, and communities.” Scroll the webinars to listen to or read the transcripts of them—don’t miss “How Children Learn about Race” and “How to Address Racial Injustice with Young Children” in this section. Tips and recommendations related to book selection are found throughout the site.
- Teaching for Change: Building Social Justice Starting in the Classroom has a “Teaching Resources” section of its website that includes everything from overarching themes like Anti-Bias Education to specific topics like Civil Rights. The News section is incredibly helpful in keeping up with the latest happening in and adjacent to the field. The thought-piece on “When and How to Talk with Young Children about Enslavement: Discussion Questions for Educators” within News provides good questions for conversation and consideration
- Teaching Tolerance: “Let’s Talk: Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics with Students” is one of Teaching Tolerance’s many helpful resources. The pamphlet focuses on facilitating difficult dialogues with student groups. It includes a self-reflection section, facilitation techniques, and suggestions for adjusting strategies for K-5 students.
- Teaching Tolerance blog post: This blog post on Teaching Tolerance’s website includes a helpful quick reference of do’s and don’ts for teaching slavery to students.
- DC Area Educators 4 Social Justice: As we seek to connect with and meaningfully contribute to what the community is already doing, this is a great network and resource for Alexandria museum educators to be a part of.
- Talk with Children about Slavery: This resource was developed by a mom and activist who wanted to help others talk to their kids about race, social justice, and other crucial issues. Her blog links to a lot of other resources beyond her own.
- Smithsonian Magazine, Indigenous Peoples’ Day: A useful article with links to additional resources as we rethink programming around what was Columbus Day and is now recognized as Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Alexandria.
- Understanding Race: The American Anthropological Association Race Project website features a family guide for discussing race with children.
- Racism and Violence: How to Help Kids Handle the News: From Child Mind Institute, on supporting your children during scary times.
- Talking to Young Children About Race and Racism: From PBS Kids -- Children are never too young to learn about diversity. Includes video of a virtual event.
- Talking to Kids about Racism: Marie Tae McDermott, in the New York Times. A school counselor and a children’s book author offer advice for talking to children about racism and George Floyd.