Charlottesville Civil Rights Pilgrimage Brings Painful Past To The Present

Jul 9, 2018

Two tour buses rolled out of Charlottesville Sunday morning, with about 100 people and one jar of soil aboard. They’re on a pilgrimage, of sorts, to commemorate John Henry James, a lynching victim who died in Charlottesville 120 years ago this week.

How do you prepare for a pilgrimage? Jalane Schmidt says bring a water bottle, read your background materials, use the correct hashtags when you Tweet.

Schmidt is one of the co-organizers of a week-long bus ride from Charlottesville to Montgomery, Alabama. And she wants everyone at the prep meeting at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to come ready to learn. "This is not a vacation, this is not tourism. It is a pilgrimage," Schmidt said. "It’s a fairly serious task that we have, which is to deliver this soil."

The soil, about 8 pounds of it, sits in a glass jar behind Dr. Schmidt as she runs through some final notes. It was dug up a few hours earlier from the very spot where a black man named John Henry James was lynched in 1898. Pulled off a train by a mob of white Charlottesville residents, he was strung up in a locust tree and shot 30 times.

Melvin Grady, a middle school teacher, was born and raised in Charlottesville. Like most people at the meeting, he knew nothing about John Henry James until very recently. But now he plans to spend his 50th birthday commemorating him. "He was lynched on July 12th.  I was born July 12th, so it kind of got my interest piqued, and I'm a teacher as well so I want to bring back to my students just some cultural knowledge of what happens in Charlottesville that kind of is unknown," Grady said.

Racial trauma and racial terror is something that affects our everyday lives...

This group of teachers, students, clergy, history buffs and activists will deliver the soil to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama to honor John Henry James. But high schooler Zyahna Bryant, one of about a dozen students on the trip, says it’s about much more than one man. "Racial trauma and racial terror is something that affects our everyday lives and as we see, history continues to repeat itself," Bryant said. "And I argue that as we go on, as time progresses we are not necessarily progressing as people, so it's important that we call these things out, name them, and correct our wrongs."

"We like to pride ourselves on being a progressive Mecca, sensitive to racial issues and diversity" David Toscano noted.  Toscano is  Charlottesville’s representative in the Virginia House of Delegates. "But, you know, it wasn't that long ago that we looked very much like the rest of the country and we need to make sure we don't go back."

Toscano won’t be on the bus, but Wes Bellamy will be. Bellamy, the youngest-ever African American to hold a position on the Charlottesville City Council, got a little emotional thinking about what John Henry James suffered. "I could have been him, right? Like, he could have been me, my grandparents could have been him. I have family members who've been lynched," Bellamy remembered.

I wish that the people who oftentimes say that we're only doing this to cause trouble could truly go so that they can see what this is all about.

Bellamy himself has repeatedly received death threats since a local white supremacist began targeting him back in 2016. "I wish that the people who oftentimes say that we're only doing this to cause trouble could truly go so that they can see what this is all about."

On the way to Montgomery, participants will visit the King Center in Atlanta, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and half a dozen other historically significant places. And when they return, they’re expected to share what they’ve learned.

"Our job is to insert ourselves in history and also to redress the kind of misinformation," said Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School and a co-organizer of the pilgrimage. "We are often told how much people don't know the histories that we tell here at the Jefferson School."

And now Charlottesville history will include a new name: John Henry James.

You can follow the journey on Facebook and Twitter. Just search for #CvillePilgrimage.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.