WINCHESTER — Markers and statues dot local roadways and public courtyards to celebrate Confederate veterans, but there is no tribute to the local victims of racial terror such as William Shorter, Frederick County’s only documented lynching victim.
Members of the Winchester area chapter of the NAACP — the nation’s oldest civil rights organization — wants to change that.
They are hoping to break the collective silence over the lynching and mark the site of the lynching with a roadside marker or plaque.
“People need to know how widespread that was and how wrong it was,” said Gwen Walker, president of the Winchester NAACP, which includes Clarke and Frederick counties. “We don’t want history to repeat itself.”
Walker, a 65-year-old lifelong Winchester resident, said she’s unaware of any markers in Virginia memorializing lynching victims. The NAACP plans to seek approval for the marker from the state Department of Historic Resources.
Shorter was pulled from a train by a mob of white men at the former Kernstown train station at the Valley Pike (U.S. 11) and Apple Valley Road intersection and hanged from a nearby tree on June 13, 1893.
“This was a typical way that racism was enforced,” said M. Tyson Gilpin Jr., education committee chairman of the NAACP, as he stood by the scene of the crime recently. “These things were never prosecuted and it sends a message to the black community.”
In addition to a memorial at the site, NAACP member and local historian Larry Yates plans to send soil from the site to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a museum in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to lynching victims. The museum — which opened in April and is run by the Equal Justice Initiative, a civil rights group challenging racial and economic injustice. It supports local tributes to lynching victims.
“They want something to happen here as well as there,” Yates said. “They want a larger community involvement.”
A 2015 report by the Equal Justice Initiative documented the lynchings of 4,084 people in the 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, including 84 in Virginia, which ranked 12th.
The report, which took six years to compile, said it’s critical Americans reckon with our nation’s racist history.
“The South is cluttered with plaques, statues, and monuments that record, celebrate, and lionize generations of American defenders of white supremacy, including countless leaders of the Confederate war effort and white public officials and private citizens who perpetrated violent crimes against black citizens during the era of racial terror,” wrote report author and Initiative Director Bryan Stevenson. “We can address our painful past by acknowledging it and embracing monuments, memorials, and markers that are designed to facilitate important conversations.”
Shorter, 19, had been charged, but never convicted, of the attempted rape of a white woman. It is unclear what the evidence was against Shorter, but for black men in much of the 19th and 20th centuries, just looking at a white woman the wrong way could be a death sentence.
The report said nearly 25 percent of lynchings in the South involved allegations of sexual assault and that whites rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly have sex with a black man.
Besides allegations of sexual assault, other justifications for lynching black men documented in the report include bumping into a white girl while running to catch a train, knocking on the door of a white woman’s home, arguing with a white man, suing a white man, and calling a police officer by his name instead of referring to him as mister. Lynchings frequently involved torture including burning victims alive.
The Shorter lynching
The Winchester Times reported 15 masked men were waiting when the Baltimore & Ohio train carrying Shorter pulled into the station at 10:45 a.m. The train’s engineer and fireman were taken from the train at gunpoint and one of the lynchers fired a shot through the roof of the train car where Shorter was handcuffed to jailer Adam Forney. Forney refused to release Shorter so the lynchers used an ax to chop out the seat.
“One of the lynchers then asked Shorter if he was guilty and he said he was innocent. At this, his questioner struck him in the face with a pistol,” the June, 14, 1893 Times article reported. “When he was first dragged out he was not allowed to walk to the fatal tree, a locust, standing by the side of the road.”
Before being hanged, Shorter was asked if he had anything to say and he asked to pray. The lynchers refused his request.
“When Shorter was drawn up, he grabbed the rope above his head with his manacled hands. The lyncher who was in the tree kicked his hands loose from the rope,” the story said. “The slack end of the rope was tied to the fence and the lynchers on horseback formed a circle around the doomed man. There were a number of shots, probably 50 or 75 shot at him. The subsequent coroner’s inquest disclosed that about 10 had struck him.”
The Times wrote that Shorter was “an exceedingly bad man” who had attempted rape five times. It said residents “generally approve” of the lynching and that the white woman’s “strength and courage” allowed her to defend herself from the “brutal Negro.”
The Times excused lynching, describing it as a brutal but necessary deterrent to keep black men from raping white women.
“It is fair to say that the officers of the law did everything they could to avert this catastrophe, but the people were determined to take the law into their own hands. Their action simply means the white men of Frederick County are determined at any cost to protect the virtue of their women and children,” the article said. “No matter what the Northern newspapers say about this occurrence, the fact remains that this crime is punished by death in every section of our common country.”
Thomas K. Cartmell, author of “Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and Their Descendants,” a book published in 1910 that details the history of Frederick County and Winchester from 1738 to 1908, was also an apologist for lynching.
To Cartmell, Shorter was a “miserable wretch” who attempted to rape “a highly respected white woman” by the Stephenson train station. Meanwhile, the lynch mob was composed of “quiet, but highly resolute men” with no “riotous conduct and no confusion of plan.”
Unsurprisingly for the times, the lynchers were never prosecuted. The report said less than 1 percent of lynchers were prosecuted.
Cartmell, who credits himself for telling black people to get off the street to avoid a race riot after the lynching, implies that the lynching would scare black men out of raping white women.
“The excitement gradually subsided and for some time the community felt that the tragedy would be wholesome to certain classes.
This was the first and only case of the lynch law in the county,” wrote Cartmell who helped get the Confederate statue erected downtown. “The natural conclusion would be that the prompt discovery of the crime and terrible retribution, with all its abhorrent details, was sufficient to appall all evil-doers and deter them from indulging in similar fiendish acts.”
Two years after Shorter’s murder, Cartmell wrote that federal troops were summoned by Virginia’s governor to prevent the lynching of Thornton Walker, a black man accused of assaulting and attempting to rape a white woman in Middletown.
A jury deliberated just 20 minutes before convicting Walker, who was prosecuted by county prosecutor Richard Evelyn Byrd, father of former Gov. Harry Flood Byrd Sr.
Walker was executed days after the verdict in a public hanging.
Yates credits Harry Byrd, Democratic governor from 1925-29 and U.S. senator from 1933-1965, for ending lynchings in Virginia. In 1928, under public pressure after recent high-profile lynchings in the state, Byrd signed an anti-lynching law allowing state, rather than local authorities, to investigate lynchings.
Yates said Byrd, a strong opponent of desegregation, signed the law out of political pragmatism.
“He didn’t like anybody going out and stirring up a fuss that he wasn’t in charge of,” said Yates, 68-year-old resident who was born in North Carolina and moved to Virginia in 1964.
Despite the law, Gilpin said “legal lynchings” continued. He said many executions of black men on questionable evidence were designed to remind black men to stay away from white women. He said there is a connection between the Shorter lynching and the case of Howard Walker, electrocuted in 1944 after being convicted of raping a white woman in Winchester.
Gilpin said it was well known in the community that Walker and the woman were a couple. But interracial sex was taboo in a state where interracial marriage was illegal until the Supreme Court legalized it in 1967.
“It was without question that he was dating this white woman and that was a real affront to the [racial] code,” said Gilpin, a 74-year-old lifelong Winchester resident. “Black people told this story to their kids and about what not to do. Don’t fraternize with white women.”
Gilpin and Yates said the Shorter lynching remains relevant in an atmosphere in which white supremacists march in Charlottesville and the Ku Klux Klan periodically distributes racist leaflets in the area.
Gilpin and Yates said some Southern whites have romanticized the Confederacy and the Jim Crow era. A memorial to Shorter would show the ugly truth.
— Contact Evan Goodenow at firstname.lastname@example.org