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:
- April 23, 1897: Joseph McCoy, lynched on a lamppost at Lee and Cameron Streets (illustration from the Alexandria Gazette)
- August 8, 1899: Benjamin Thomas, lynched on a lamppost at Fairfax Street near King Street.
If you are a descendant of one of these men, or have more information about them, please contact the Black History Museum.
Commentary: A Man Was Lynched in Alexandria: 120 Years Ago Today
Op-Ed piece by Audrey Davis, Director, Alexandria Black History Museum
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.”
The EJI 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 Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) is in contact with the EJI and making plans for the City to collect the Alexandria monument in 2019. OHA is working with the City of Alexandria on details as to where and when the monument will be installed.
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
To be a part of the Alexandria community process, contact the Office of Historic Alexandria.
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.