Charlottesville's Pen Park, the site of an alleged sexual assault on July 11, 1898. John Henry James was accused of the crime and lynched the next day.
Brendan Wolf
narrative / place

The Train at Wood's Crossing

Piecing together the story of an 1898 lynching in a community that chose to forget most of the details.
"Did something happen here in history?" my daughter wanted to know as we tromped around Pen Park. "Did it have to do with Pocahontas or George Washington?"

She's eight—well, eight and three-quarters by her own more impatient accounting—and still naïve, in many respects still helpless. She’s mine and I would do anything to protect her.

This strikes me as normal. When you immerse yourself in stories like the ones involving Julia Hotopp or "Little Alice Perry" of Roanoke you can't help but imagine your own daughter. You think that making it personal in this way might help you better understand what happened.

Here's the thing, though. It doesn't.

I searched for images of James and Hotopp and found nothing, but still I yearned to picture them. So I downloaded substitutes—the convict Clifton Roberts and the spinster Elizabeth Henry. It occurred to me that this was not only an offense against history (they had nothing to do with the events of July 11th and 12th); it was also deeply unfair. Whatever crimes Clifton Roberts may have committed, he did not rape Julia Hotopp. Nor was Miss Henry any kind of victim, at least not in this case. Featuring their portraits implies that they were something they were not, no matter what caveats you write into the captions.

And yet another thought occurred to me: in some respects this inaccuracy, this clever bit of conflation is the very point. The play, not the players ... If I really wanted to understand what happened that summer of 1898, then these words must be my guide. Clifton Roberts or John Henry James? What mattered to the (white) people of Charlottesville is that they were black men. Liz Henry or Julia Hotopp? They were young white women. No more, no less.
When Julia Hotopp was attacked by a black man on the morning of July 11, all white women were attacked. By all black men.

According to one scholar's count, about 40 percent of all lynchings in Virginia between 1880 and 1930 involved accusations of rape or attempted rape against white women. Whites believed that African Americans were particularly prone to commit this crime, an attitude borne out of two longstanding white southern traditions—demonizing blacks and defending white womanly honor. In the post-emancipation South, black men were often caricatured as subhuman, ruled by their appetites, and disposed to commit violent crime. The definition of rape was broad, so that the mere presence of a black man with a solitary white woman might generate an accusation and possible punishment. The repeated suggestion that, given the opportunity, black men were likely to rape white women has been described by Michael Ayers Trotti as a "fixation" and by numerous other historians as a myth, one that dated back to slavery and, in particular, a romanticizing of white womanhood and a paranoid distrust of enslaved African Americans.
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