WINCHESTER — It’s like finding a needle in a historical haystack, but a Loudoun County historian is trying to document an attempted lynching in Winchester in 1930.
Larry W. Roeder Jr. read about the attempt in a Sept. 25, 1930, article in the Loudoun Times-Mirror while working on the Edwin Washington Project at the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg. The project is named after a black man who at the age of 16 in 1867 was determined to learn how to read and write to better himself in segregated Virginia while working at a hotel in Leesburg.
The project involves sifting through thousands of recently recovered school records concerning black students from 1864-1968, according to the project website. The goal is to document how black children and their parents dealt with a racist system designed to marginalize them.
The article said Frederick County residents Buck Cooper and William McAboy tried to lynch an elderly gas station employee named William Jenkins. Jenkins’ boss told police the men came to the station while Jenkins was there alone and acted in a “disorderly manner.” Jenkins said they put a noose around his neck and took him from the station into northern Winchester.
“Jenkins said he had said nothing to offend the men,” the article said. “In fact, they had seized him before he had even spoken to them.”
Jenkins said he was pushed and dragged along a road for several hundred yards, but the men were unable to find a tree to hang him from so they abandoned him. The article also said that before encountering Jenkins, the men had gone into a tent in a neighborhood where 13-year-old Glen Ryan was sleeping. The story said the men “mistreated” Ryan, but didn’t elaborate.
The article doesn’t say if Jenkins was black, but black people were the most frequent target of lynchings in the century after the Civil War. 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 said typical reasons for lynchings were fear of interracial sex, casual social transgressions, allegations of serious crimes and to set an example by targeting prominent members of the black community who were resisting white supremacy.
Frederick County’s only documented lynching occurred in 1893 when a mob of white men dragged 19-year-old William Shorter from a train in Kernstown and hung him from a nearby tree and repeatedly shot him. Shorter was charged, but never convicted, of attempting to rape a white woman. Shorter’s killers were never prosecuted.
The lynching attempt came two years after segregationist Gov. Harry Flood Byrd Sr., under pressure over high-profile lynchings in Virginia, signed an anti-lynching law. The law, credited with ending lynchings in the state, required state, rather than local authorities, to investigate lynchings.
Roeder said one of the reasons he is researching the incident is to see if there was a Loudoun County angle. He wonders if Jenkins was a Loudoun County resident because the story was reported in a Loudoun County newspaper. He has found no reports on it in Winchester papers.
Roeder, who unsuccessfully searched through court records at the Frederick County Circuit Court Clerk’s office earlier this month, acknowledged it will be extremely difficult to find out what happened, but he wants to try. He said any findings would be turned over to the Handley Library and the Winchester NAACP chapter. Roeder sees himself as a historical detective attempting to do thorough investigations.
“I teach all the students that work for me, don’t presume anything. Just gather the facts and let’s sit down and talk about it with experts and peer review our research,” he said. “Then if someone challenges us, we can say, ‘These were the sources. These are the people we checked it out with. Otherwise, we’re just guessing.”
Besides wondering if there is a Loudoun County connection to the incident, Roeder said he’s also motivated by a desire to be a voice for people persecuted due to their race and religion. The child of diplomats, he was born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1948. As a child, he witnessed the first Lebanese civil war in 1958. Roeder later worked for the U.S. State Department where he traveled to Sudan during the second Sudanese civil war in the 1980s as part of U.S. efforts to broker a ceasefire.
“As a human being who has seen the horror of war and prejudice first hand I have the simple interest of knowing what happened,” he said. “It’s important that people’s history not be forgotten.”