Memorials recognizing Loudouners’ roles and sacrifices in past wars line the county courthouse lawn, but there is a push to bring recognition to some of the county’s lesser-known darker days.
Phillip Thompson, president of the Loudoun County chapter of the NAACP, is spearheading an effort to memorialize three lynchings of black men that occurred in Loudoun County. Thompson said his passion for the project came on the heels of the renewed debate about whether the Confederate soldier statue should be removed from the courthouse square. Then, another set of Ku Klux Klan recruitment fliers was scattered around Loudoun County neighborhoods. Once he saw the “60 Minutes” interview on the lynching memorial in Alabama at the National Museum for Peace and Justice—which documents lynchings in each county throughout the country—he went to see it for himself. He returned inspired to draw Loudouners’ attention to what occurred in their own backyard.
“There’s 1,000 markers out here dealing with something Civil War-related,” he noted. “Why don’t we have historical markers that a lynching occurred here?”
Lynchings were an act of violence—mostly carried out by a hanging—by a group or mob, without any form of legal trial. Sometimes, the acts attracted crowds of onlookers, some even bringing their families and a picnic lunch. While hangings were typically the punishment of choice, often victims during a lynching could be tortured, mutilated, shot, even burned alive.
“If we’re going to talk about the good part of our heritage, let’s also talk about the bad part,” Thompson said. “To understand history, you need to know the whole part of it.”
The three known lynching sites in Loudoun, Thompson said, are by the Point of Rocks bridge; at an area known at potter’s field near the corner of Catoctin and Market streets in Leesburg; and along the W&OD Trail on Harrison Street in Leesburg at the site of the former freight station. The three men known to be lynched in Loudoun County are Page Wallace in 1880; Orion Anderson in 1889; and Charles Craven in 1902. While Thompson would like to have markers at each site, it is the Harrison Street site that is being eyed for a bigger project.
A group that included representatives from both Loudoun County and the Town of Leesburg governments and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, which owns the trailside property along Harrison Street, began meeting this summer to talk about how to memorialize those whose lives were lost to lynchings.
Tom O’Neil, chairman of Leesburg’s Commission on Public Art, was among those invited. He said the initial thoughts for the Harrison Street lynching memorial would be along the lines of a “contemplative space,” similar to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC, but on a smaller scale.
“[It would be] a place to make you think rather than just a statue or something. It would need to be tastefully done; it’s a sensitive subject to say the least,” O’Neil said. “It needs to be put out there in a way that people can learn about it and realize it happened in our own area—to show the warts and all.”
While additional meetings are planned, buy-in from both the town and county government and NVRPA is critical. Presentations before the Leesburg Town Council and Loudoun County Board of Supervisors will be scheduled, O’Neil said.
The final design of both the historical markers at the three sites and a larger memorial along the W&OD Trial have not been finalized, but Thompson said that NVRPA is already ahead of the game with design work. Thompson is also hoping to participate in the National Museum for Peace and Justice project to gather soil at the sites of each lynching in the country, which is then placed in an exhibit at the Alabama lynching memorial.
It’s important to recognize the county’s instances of racial terror, Thompson said. He drew on his own family’s past, with their roots in the south. He recalled stories of his grandfather and father, who served in World War I and World War II, respectively, and were threatened with lynching if they wore their uniforms after returning from battle. His family, like many others, left the south becuase of the threat of racial violence.
Thompson said, “The sharp end of the spear on racial violence was lynching.”