Lynching in West Virginia

Lynching in West Virginia

Adrienne Beasley

African Americans in West Virginia took a proactive stance regarding the mob violence phenomenon commonly known as lynching. The lynching of black people in the southern and border states became an institutionalized method used by whites to terrorize blacks and maintain white supremacy.1  Lynching is traditionally defined as the putting to death (as by hanging)…or any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person.2   Incorporated into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) definition, an incident must provide evidence someone was killed, the killing must have occurred illegally, three or more persons must have taken part in the killing, and the killers must have claimed to be serving justice or tradition.3

A July 8, 1876 article which appeared in the Wheeling Register, reported the lynching of Marshall Johnson in Huntington for allegedly stealing “a fine horse and buggy” and the subsequent deaths of two lawmen.4  In 1879, also in the Wheeling Register, there appeared an article on the lynching of Mort Lee, also in Huntington.5  During the period from 1890 to 1900, West Virginia reported 10 incidences of lynching.6  The African American population within the state which had grown by the thousands as mass numbers flocked to the northern coalfields of southern West Virginia seeking to escape the horror of lynching rallied together to combat the issue and eradicate lynching in the state.  “If this sort of thing is to go on, West Virginia might as well abolish her criminal courts.”  This quote appears in an April 2, 1898 article in the Wheeling Register entitled Giving the State a Bad Name referencing the inability and/or unwillingness to provide legal repercussions for those who take part in vigilante justice; in particular lynch mobs.7

Ancella R. Bickley in her book Memphis Tennessee Garrison:The Remarkable Story of A Black Appalachian Woman discusses lynching, saying:

It is difficult in today’s society to imagine the terror invoked by lynching.  Today’s terrorists blow up airplanes or buildings, but they do not infiltrate our own communities and single out our fathers or sons for retribution. Nor are today’s terrorists working in complicity with our own government. Yet for several decades black people were subjected to an undercurrent of fear that  walked with them all the time—the fear of lynching.  Lynch mobs, drunken renegades, or the organized Ku Klux Klan—all could murder black people without fear of serious consequence.8

North Carolina Congressman George Henry White, was fighting to protect African Americans against the terrors of lynching.  Congressman White was first elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1881 and served for fifteen years before making his successful bid for the United States House of Representatives in 1896.  He was the only African American serving as a United States Representative at the turn of the 20th century and while he was not a West Virginian, one would be remiss by not incorporating his national struggle against injustice relative to West Virginia’s struggle against lynching.9

Much of Congressman White’s attention was focused on the brutal treatment of African Americans which led him to draft and introduce the first federal anti-lynching bill to Congress on January 20, 1900.10  His proposed legislation would have criminalized lynching as the federal offense of treason and subjected those found guilty to a possible sentence of up to and including capital punishment.  Unfortunately, his legislation was killed in Judiciary Committee and would not be taken up again on the federal level for many years.11

West Virginian’s efforts to engage in the political realm locally are evidenced by articles appearing in The McDowell Times, the preeminent African American weekly news publication of the day.  Specific evidence of this includes an article entitled Negro Elected to the Legislature from McDowell County.  The article avers its position of having stated for many years McDowell County should be represented in the legislature by an African American. Prior to this election, The McDowell Times had in fact predicted a Negro would be elected to represent McDowell County, and the legislative reapportionment giving McDowell County a total of four seats as opposed to the previous two seats made this possible.  The “beloved” Ebenezer Howard Harper, attorney and local businessman is, “the first Negro to achieve this high honor.”12

Another article appearing in the same publication, entitled Negro Lawyer on Board of McDowell County, further reflects political advances being made by African Americans in West Virginia, specifically McDowell County.  The State Department of Military Census and Enrollment announced appoints to Legal Boards of West Virginia counties and announced the seat for McDowell County would be filled by Arthur G. Froe, “able Negro lawyer.”  Mr. Froe’s appointment came directly from President Wilson after his name and achievements were made known to the President by West Virginia Governor John J. Cornwell.  The headline reads, “Governor Cornwell Recommends Honorable A.G. Froe, President Made Appointment.”13

The McDowell Times continuously educated and informed its readers and the public at large on issues which effected the African American population of southern West Virginia until it ceased publication.  While these efforts may not always directly involve the specific issues of lynching and mob violence they do serve to impact an overall betterment and continuous improvement in the public’s awareness of all issues facing West Virginia’s African Americans.

Another important source of constant, unwavering support for the African American cause in the country was the Pioneer Press.  An African American owned national weekly newspaper whose masthead read, “Here shall the press, the people’s rights maintain, unawed by influence and unbrided by gain” was founded in 1882 in Martinsburg by West Virginia native John Robert Clifford.  Clifford, born in 1948 to free parents, Isaac and Mary Kent Clifford near what is today Moorefield, West Virginia received his early education in Chicago, Illinois before returning to join Union troops at the age of fifteen to fight in the Civil War.

After the war, J.R. Clifford graduated from Storer College and went on to become the first African American to pass the West Virginia State Bar examination and be granted admission to the bar by the West Virginia State Supreme Court in 1897.  In 1898 Clifford represented a Tucker County schoolteacher, Carrie Williams in her case against the Tucker County Board of Education.  Williams, whose school year had been reduced from the eight month term mandated for white schools to five months for black schools, sought legal recourse and approached attorney Clifford who advised her to continue teaching for the entire eight months though she would only be paid for five.  On November 16, 1898 the trial of Williams v Board of Education of Tucker County began.  Clifford’s successful bid against the Board of Education of Tucker County resulted in the first ruling in United States history to determine that racial discrimination was illegal and held that African American students in West Virginia were entitled to the same school term as their white counterparts.

Clifford, together with WEB Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement in 1906 which would become the forerunner to the NAACP, however withdrew his participation in the Association because of his adamant opinion that the National Association should not include “Colored People” in its formal name.14  This organization’s sole purpose is improvement in the quality of life of Black Americans. The brainchild of Mary White Ovington, the NAACP was founded in 1909.  As the principal founder, Ovington was responsible for bringing WEB Du Bois, whose name is still synonymous with the organization today, onboard as Director of Publicity and Research as well as Editor of the group’s magazine, Crisis.15

In its efforts to educate the African American citizens of West Virginia, the Charleston branch of the NAACP made available a variety of handbills and pamphlets on numerous subjects as diverse as the changing status of Negro labor; an address delivered by James Weldon Johnson in May 1918, before the National Conference of Social Work in Kansas City, Missouri to the Mobbing of John R. Shillady, Secretary of the NAACP at Austin, Texas on August 22, 1919.

In the October 1919 Bulletin, fifteen separate pamphlets specifically on the subject of lynching and mob violence were offered for as little as 2 cents.16

In addition to the above-referenced efforts, the Charleston branch of the NAACP held monthly meetings “under the auspices of the Grievance Committee in which all citizens were urged to be present and to present all cases of hurtful discrimination and injustice to the race which they knew to exist in Charleston.”  After which, individual cases would be discussed and referred for inclusion in the regular program of the Association for the coming year.  All citizens who were interested in the advancement of the race were urged to attend.17

The 1912 lynching of Robert Johnson in Bluefield led West Virginia Legislator John Coleman of Fayette County to draft his version of a state anti-lynching bill.  Mr. Johnson’s accuser, an unnamed white woman; allegedly nearly raped by a Black man was unable to identify Johnson as her attacker until he was stripped of his clothes and forced into garments resembling those worn by the woman’s attacker.   After which, both the woman and her father claimed he was the attacker, despite protesting his innocence, having an alibi and having “proved every statement he made.”

Governor William E. Glasscock ordered out the militia in attempts to preserve order in and around Bluefield where Johnson was jailed. The militia arrived too late to save Johnson as he was murdered by a mob led by the father of Johnson’s accuser.  Charges were filed against the man and the matter was brought to the attention of the NAACP by an unnamed individual from Bluefield.  Robert Johnson’s innocence was later conclusively established by the NAACP investigator, James Oppenheim.18   At the insistence of the West Virginia State League and with the help of African American community leaders such as Harry J. Capehart, Legislator Coleman introduced his bill and argued for its passage, to no avail.19

A December 11, 1920 NAACP memorandum from the Charleston branch addressed to and entitled To All Lovers of Justice and Liberty, urged attention be given to lynchings and mob violence in the state.  The memorandum further notes during 1919, 77 lynchings occurred in the United States with two of those having taken place in West Virginia.20

West Virginians continued efforts to combat lynching in the state and accomplish its abolishment by continuing to aggressively participate in state and local government and by holding numerous and various other public offices.  It is from and through these efforts African Americans in West Virginia successfully effectuated significant changes in the racial climate within the state during the first quarter of the 20th century.

Most significant among these changes was the enactment of House Bill 270, better known as the 1921 Capeheart Anti-Lynching bill which provided that … the county in which a person is charged with crime, and wherein such person has been taken from a state, county or municipal officer and lynched and put to death, may be subject to a forfeiture of five thousand dollars which may be recovered by appropriate action therefore, in the name of the person representative of the person put to death, for the use of his dependent family or estate, was passed and signed into law by Governor Ephraim Morgan.  The annual report of the Charleston branch of the NAACP of June 1921, calls the measure “one of the strongest of its kind now in effect.”  The minutes further advised the Association’s publication On American Lynching was provided to each member of the state body on voting day and was material to its passage.21

African American attorney, Charleston native, and co-sponsor of the Capehart Anti-Lynching bill, Harry J. Capehart attended law school at Howard University before returning to West Virginia to practice law in Keystone.  In Keystone, Mr. Capehart held various community positions including Assessor and City Councilman.  By 1918, Mr. Capehart successfully ran for a seat in the West Virginia State Legislature.  He was vehemently opposed to racial violence and dedicated himself as a public servant to the complete eradication of it from the state.  Capehart had previously worked with John Coleman on his unsuccessful anti-lynching legislation in 1912. The Capehart Anti-Lynching bill would be called by fellow legislators, “the most progressive piece of legislation that has been enacted on the racial issue.22

Similarly, African American attorney T. Gillis Nutter attended law school at Howard University and relocated to Charleston after having been admitted to the Bar Association in 1903.  Like his counterpart Mr. Capehart, Mr. Nutter also held local public office as he served for six years as Assistant Land Clerk in the office of State Auditor of West Virginia and as a member of the Judiciary Committee in the State Legislature.  He was also dedicated to the improvement of the overall condition of African Americans and sought to use economic growth as a catalyst to enact change by improving the quality of life of African Americans as well as other minorities.  He served not only as President but also as head legal counsel of the Charleston branch of the NAACP. 23

The NAACP branch located in Charleston formally applied for charter on June 4, 1918, was approved for charter by Committee on June 21, 1918 and was granted Executive Authority on July 6, 1918.24  The branch received official charter with such expedience due to the efforts of Pastor Mordecai W. Johnson of the First Baptist Church of Charleston.  From his position within the Charleston branch of the NAACP, Pastor Johnson led a campaign of letter writing and telegrams to President Wilson in an effort to enlist the aid of the highest public office in the land against continued racial violence.  Communications to President Wilson included letters from the Governor of the State of West Virginia, two Justices of the West Virginia State Supreme Court and other influential citizens, both black and white.25

Examples of communications secured by Pastor Johnson relative to the NAACP’s efforts in West Virginia against the continuation of mob violence and lynching include the following:

Honorable Davis Elkins, Senator from WV, US Senate, Washington, D.C.

I heartily endorse resolution now pending in Judiciary Committee for nation-wide Congressional Investigation of lynching and mob violence.  I earnestly urge that you will give all your strength in its support.

Honorable L.S. Echols, Representative 6th WV District, House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.

The time is ripe for Congress to investigate mob violence.  I urge you to support the passage of the resolution proposing this.

Howard Sutherland, Senator from WV, United States Senate, Washington, D.C.

It is most urgently necessary that Senator Curtis’ resolution for a nation-wide Congressional investigation of mob violence shall be purported favorably from the Judiciary Committee and that it pass with the Senate’s approval at the earliest moment.  I respectfully urge that you will give the resolution your hearty support.

Accordingly to an article appearing in the McDowell Times entitled The President Speaks Against Mob Violence, The Handmaid of Lynching, President Wilson’s response to Pastor Johnson and the NAACP’s campaign was favorable as he was quoted as saying,

I would be willing to set that up as the final test of America, that is the meaning of Democracy.  I have been very much distressed, my fellow citizens, by some of the things that have happened  recently. The mob spirit is displaying itself here and there in this country.  I have sympathy with what some men are saying, but I have no sympathy with the men that take their punishment in their own hands, and I want to say to every man that does join such a mob, that I do not recognize him as worthy of the free institutions of the United States.  And so I utter to my earnest protest against any manifestation of the spirit of lawlessness, anywhere or in any cause….

Woodrow Wilson utters words for which Negroes have patiently waited.”26

The last recorded report of lynching in West Virginia occurred subsequent to an incident at a dance in Leslie on November 22, 1931.   Two constables, Joseph Myles and Jack Brown after being sent to quiet the crowd were shot and killed.   Two African Americans, Tom Jackson and George Banks were arrested on suspicion of murder and were taken into custody.  On December 10, 1931 a mob estimated at fifty to sixty men arrived at the jail and removed the two prisoners.   Jackson and Banks were taken to the edge of town and strung up to a telephone pole by their necks and were shot repeatedly by members of the mob.

The lynchings of Johnson and Banks represent both the last recorded lynchings in West Virginia as well as the first instance of the successful prosecution of lynch mob participants.  The perpetrators were convicted in Kanawha County for their part in the lynching with the West Virginia State Supreme Court using the case to uphold Capehart’s 1921 Anti-Lynching legislation.  The estates of both Tom Jackson and George Banks received five thousand dollars each under the provisions provided in Capehart’s bill.27

Capehart and Nutter’s successful efforts to have enacted anti-lynching legislation would prove to be vital on the national stage as well as to West Virginia.  True to its reputation, the NAACP was a major supporter of the quest for passage of federal anti-lynching legislation.  In Congressman Leonidas Carstarphen Dyer, of Missouri, the Association found a powerful ally.  Congressman Dyer first introduced his bill, commonly known as the Dyer Bill, in 1918.  The bill was designed to, “punish state, county and local authorities who failed to prevent lynching and act as a deterrent to end the practice altogether.”28

Congressman Dyer’s Anti-Lynching Bill passed the House of Representatives on January 26, 1922 by a vote of 230 to 119 and received a favorable recommendation by the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.  Despite the apparent forward motion, the Dyer Bill of 1922 failed to pass the Senate and therefore failed to become federal law.  Congressman Dyer’s Bill was reintroduced in 1923 but also failed to become law.29

West Virginia can still be considered ahead of the national sentiment in enacting the landmark Capehart Anti-Lynching legislation of 1921 and in supporting Congressman Dyer’s unsuccessful federal Anti-Lynching Bill of 1922 in which 100 West Virginia Representatives pledged support.30   In 1932, during the Roosevelt administration, the nation and the NAACP, hoped to make a more sweeping gesture regarding its stance on lynching and race relations.  In 1935, Congressmen Robert Wagner and Edward Costigan drafted legislation that would criminalize law enforcement officers who do not protect inmates from lynch mobs.  President Roosevelt refused to support the measure in fear of retribution from southern white voters essentially killing the bill.31

After various incarnations and heated debate over a period spanning more than a century, a federal bill outlawing lynching in the United States of America still does not exist.  On June 13, 2005, Mary Landrieu, Senator from Louisiana, read portion of a formal apology issued on behalf of the United States Senate for its failure to enact federal legislation banning the practice of lynching.  Saying publically, “There may be no other injustice in American history for which the Senate so uniquely bears responsibility…the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the Constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.”32

While West Virginia did not experience the widespread occurrences of lynchings as other areas of the country, she did contribute to this ugly, dark chapter in our nation’s history and must be remembered in the retelling; anything less would be a tremendous disservice to those who came before and to those coming after.  However, it must also be told that African Americans in West Virginia contributed directly and steadfastly in their efforts to stop the spread of lynchings and mob violence within the state’s borders and beyond.

1 Robert A. Gibson, “The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950,” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute (2011).

2 definition of lynching is to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal sanction. definition of lynching is the execution of a person by mob action without due process of law, especially by hanging; or, any act of violence inflicted by a mob upon the body of another person.

3 Papers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Part 12 Selected Branch Files, 1913-1939 Series C, The Midwest (numerous and various pages consulted, specific pages will hereinafter be referred to as “Papers of the NAACP.”

4“The Lynching of Marshall Johnson for the Double Murder of Marshal J.H. Mitchell and C.T. Turner, Wheeling Register,” July 8, 1876.

5 “Lee’s Lynching, Horrible Crime Terribly Avenged,” Wheeling Register, July 10, 1879.

6 Tim Konhaus, “I Thought Things Would Be Different There”: Lynching and the Black Community in Southern West Virginia, 1880-1933, West Virginia History: A Journal of Regional Studies, New Series, Volume 1, Number 2, (Fall 2007): 27.

7 “Giving the State a Bad Name,” Wheeling Register, April 2, 1898.

8 Ancella R. Bickley and Lynda Ann Ewen, Memphis Tennessee Garrison: The Remarkable Story of a Black Appalachian Woman (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2001), 129.

9 Congressional record, House, 56TH Cong., 2nd Sess (29 Jan. 1901) 1638.

10 Dictionary of North Carolina Biography edited by William S. Powell.  Copyright © 1979-1996 by The University of North Carolina Press, publisher“accessed April 11, 2011”).

11 Black Americans in Congress, George Henry White, Representative 1897-1901, Republican from North Carolina, (“accessed April 10, 2011”).

12 “Negro Elected to the Legislature from McDowell County,” The McDowell Times, 1915-1918.

13 “Negro Lawyer on Legal Board of McDowell County,” The McDowell Times, 1915-1918.

15 Lynne Olson, Freedom’s Daughters, The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 (New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2002), 71.

16 Papers of the NAACP, Charleston Branch Bulletin: Publications, October 1919.

17 Papers of the NAACP, The Bulletin, February 14, 1921.

18 James Oppenheim, “The Lynching of Robert Johnson,” The Independent, October 12, 1912.

19 Konhaus, I Thought Things Would Be Different There, 37.

20 Papers of the NAACP, To all Lovers of Justice and Liberty, December 11, 1920.

21 Papers of the NAACP, Report of the Charleston, West Virginia Branch to National Branch, June 1921.

22 Attorney Harry Jheopart Capehart, (“accessed April 12, 2011””.

23 (“accessed April 12, 2011”).

24 Papers of the NAACP, Correspondence from Pastor Mordecai W. Johnson to Walter F. White of the National branch NAACP.

25 Papers of the NAACP, Correspondence from Pastor Mordecai W. Johnson to John R. Shillady National branch secretary NAACP.

26 “The President Speaks Against Mob Violence, The Handmaid of Lynching,” The McDowell Times 1915-1918.

27, December 10, 1931: The State Upholds Its Anti-Lynching Law.

28 “Anti-Lynching Bill,” 1918, Senate Reports (7951), 67th Cong., Sess. 1921-22, Vol. 2, pp. 33-34.

29, (“accessed April 14, 2011”).

30 Papers of the NAACP, Report of the Charleston, West Virginia Branch to National Branch, December 1921.

31 (“accessed April 14, 2011”).

32 -rights.cfm. (“accessed April 14, 2011”).